No Place Like Home

By Robert Hilburn

November 03, 2001

Goodbye, Dolly?

(Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times)

This Week Magazine

When the notoriously driven Barbra Streisand hinted four years ago that she felt ready to begin easing up on her career, there were probably more howls of disbelief than the last time Elizabeth Taylor declared her latest marriage was the one that was going to last forever.

During the making of nearly 20 films and almost three times that many albums, Streisand developed a reputation for being such a control freak (she prefers “perfectionist”) that for many she became a caricature of the career-obsessed Hollywood star.

Even when she married actor James Brolin three years ago, most people probably thought she’d take a few months off, then be back at the storyboards.

But except for “farewell” concerts last year in Los Angeles and New York, she has been fairly silent.

Many Streisand-watchers may see the release of a new Christmas album earlier this week as a sign that she is finally picking up the pace again.

Don’t bet on it.

“I like being semiretired,” Streisand says softly, sitting in the living room of “Grandma’s House,” the name Brolin gave to one of the three houses in their Malibu compound. It’s a room decorated in comfy New England style and filled with the figurines and family photos that grandmothers favor.

Streisand, 59 and widely regarded as the female pop voice of her generation, is comfortable with both terms–“Grandma’s House” and “semiretirement.”

In a show-business world where each hyphen by your career accomplishments means more power, Streisand pushed the boundaries for women by becoming a singer-sometimes songwriter-actress-director-producer-Broadway star-concert performer.

It’s a body of work, including the films “Funny Girl,” “Hello, Dolly!” and “Yentl,” that earned her two Oscars, eight Grammys and the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute–the first female director to receive that honor.

Now she seems content with one title: wife.

She still has her motion picture and television production company, Barwood Films Ltd., which has won Emmys for such projects as NBC’s “Serving in Silence” and HBO’s “City at Peace”

It’s just her own plate that is largely bare.

“What would you say Marlon Brando does?” she asks. “If he is offered a great role, he plays it. If I get passionate about something that works out with people who aren’t afraid of me, I’ll direct another film and I will make more albums. But I don’t pursue anything that vehemently anymore.”

The difference is that Brando is almost 80, where Streisand is in the same age bracket as such active pop-rock figures as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.

“It is true about artists sublimating a lot of their sadness into being busy with work,” she says. “When you get a happier life, you don’t have the need to express yourself in another way. You express yourself with the people you love.

“Woody Allen asked me about a movie, but I didn’t want to give up my summer,” she continues. “I care about my personal life more than my work now. I didn’t want to be away from Jim for four months.”

She hopes, however, to sing a patriotic number during the Emmy ceremony on Sunday, if she can shake the flu that she has been fighting this week. “There’s something very beautiful about the diversity and generosity of this country, the way everybody really did bond together in mutual grief after Sept. 11,” Streisand said during the interview, which was conducted Oct. 22.

The only reason she is doing an interview now is to promote “Christmas Memories,” her first such collection since 1967’s “A Christmas Album,” one of the most popular holiday packages ever. It has sold more than 5 million copies and continues to add 100,000 or more to the total annually.

Normally, she’d be spending this afternoon in her rose garden, which she oversees with the help of an expert who comes down once a week from Santa Barbara, or throwing herself into some home project.

“There are plenty of things for me to still be compulsive about around the house,” she says, as relaxed as her surroundings in the late afternoon. “I bought a portrait recently of George Washington that was painted during his lifetime. It’s hanging in Mount Vernon now, but when I hang it back in my house, I want it next to this chair, which is also from the 18th century.

“I’m trying to find the right navy velvet so it’ll be the color of his jacket and I want just the right gold thread so I can put his initials on a pillow.”

She smiles at the attention to detail.

“That’s just me, the perfectionist, and it takes a lot of time.”

That attitude is also present in the new album.

Typically, Christmas albums are thrown together quickly. Someone will come up with a list of old favorites (even Elvis Presley did “Winter Wonderland”), whip up some familiar arrangements and wrap the whole thing up in a couple of weeks. Pop fans aren’tthinking about art on Christmas morning, just some comforting tunes.

Yet Streisand spent months searching for material, ending up with an eclectic mix that ranges from the familiar (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria) to mostly new or largely unfamiliar tunes.

Though the songs bear holiday references, it is an album about love and family. She remembered one key number, a brotherhood message titled “One God,” from a Johnny Mathis album she heard as a teenager.

Another, Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember,” came from an old television musical, “Evening Primrose,” about a young girl looking for refuge from the harshness of the world. She asked Sondheim to add a verse to tie it into the Christmas season.

Streisand also asked for lyric changes in Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford’s “Closer” to make it about missing someone who has died. The album is dedicated to the late Stephan Weiss, the husband of fashion designer Donna Karan and a close friend of the singer. In a tragic irony to the album, which was finished before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pitchford’s sister was killed in the World Trade Center horror.

“I’m so glad I didn’t give in and sing ‘Let It Snow,’ ‘Winter Wonderland’ and all those other up-tempo ditties,” she says. “I was almost talked into it, but I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t know what Christmas is going to be like this year, but I think this album will fit with what a lot of people are thinking.”

The fact that Streisand is doing the interview at home is a sign of how she has shrunk her professional world. Typically, stars will drive into town for a day of interviews at their record company or a high-end hotel.

“Grandma’s House,” which is her work area, is just 74 steps from her main house, part of an idyllic setting that includes a wishing well along the connecting path. Inside the house, the windows look onto the ocean below, offering what real estate agents like to advertise as a “million-dollar view.” Only in Malibu, it’s probably a $5-million to $10-million view.

Streisand even recorded some of the vocals for the album and did much of the subsequent details, including mixing, here. Thanks to high-tech equipment, she can communicate with producers and engineers in Los Angeles or New York without any compromise on sound quality.

This is also where she oversees her Web site (, where you buy merchandise or get a career history and political commentaries. A liberal who was closely identified with Bill Clinton, Streisand took down some criticism of the Bush administration in the days after the terrorist attacks. But she is starting to get vocal again.

“After Sept. 11, I didn’t think it was right, so I put a hold on it,” she says. “I think, by the way, that Bush is doing a good job. He has grown in the position. He has more self-confidence. But that doesn’t mean I agree with the policies of this administration. I get very upset when I see big business and corporations getting [favored] over working people.”

The house is also presumably where she will work on the autobiography that she has been hinting at for years.

Streisand, whose father died when she was 15 months old and who has spoken about an emotionally difficult childhood, says it’s “scary” reliving one’s life in a book. But she wants to give her account to balance the numerous biographies of her. One sure topic: her take on the perfectionism and her ultra-confident image.

“That’s such a myth isn’t it?” she says. “There is a part of anybody who is worth their salt that is very insecure, a part that is lonely and sad. As emotional human beings, we have secrets and mysteries and strange feelings, and that’s what comes out in their work.”


Related Pages: Christmas Memories album page