The voice, the face, the courage, the conscience—her star was born early, and after half a century of acting, directing, singing, producing, and influencing, it's still burning bright.
Photographed by Art Streiber
(Cover: Barbra Streisand wears clothes from her closet, including a shirt and vest from Mr. Alex Custom Shirtmaker, Beverly Hills, jewelry by Sheryl Lowe Designs, and shoes by Chanel.)
(Styling and makeup by Ms. Streisand; hair by Soonie Paik at Bruno & Soonie, Beverly Hills; manicure by Lorri Keefer Smith; assistant to Ms. Streisand: Renata Buser)
The Grimm-fairy-tale childhood; the escape from Brooklyn to Manhattan at 16, the vagabond existence, scrounging for work, sudden stardom ... it all sounds so romantic now, from the safe distance of time, sheathed in the armor of two Oscars, 12 Golden Globes, five Emmys, a Tony, 10 Grammys, and 30 platinum albums. Her success is the stuff of legend—and a master class in chutzpah. “I had been in acting class with Barbra in the early '60s, but she never mentioned she sang,” recalls Dustin Hoffman, who some 40 years later played her husband in Meet the Fockers and its sequel. “Her roommate, whom I was going with, told me Barbra was going to be on a local TV show, PM East, hosted by Mike Wallace. She said, 'Watch Barbra, she's a good sing.' I doubted it; when you're a young unemployed actor, you don't need to be threatened by anyone else's talent.
“So I watched the show in my one-room apartment, hoping for the worst. Barbra was sitting on a stool, chewing what appeared to be an entire pack of chewing gum, and chewing it loudly, while Mike was interviewing her. I thought, Oh God, is she laying it on. At one point, Mike said, 'So do you want to sing?' She said, 'Yeah, why not?' in the thickest Brooklyn accent she could muster. About 10 seconds into the song, I got goose bumps and started crying. The sheer power of her talent was something I had never witnessed.”
Three years later, the scrawny kid with the big voice was a Broadway phenom in Funny Girl. The Hollywood screen version followed, capturing her beauty—the sapphire blue, Nefertiti eyes; lush heart-shaped mouth; splendid nose. By 30, Streisand had an Emmy, a Tony, an Oscar, and a lock on stardom. To this day, there isn't an actress who comes close to her screen presence. Her screwball comic timing, lacerating one-liners, and crushing insecurity keep us in the palm of her well-manicured hand, rooting for her, concerned for her. Coupled with Sharif, Redford, O'Neal, Kristofferson, Nolte, Bridges—the Clooney/Pitt/Gosling/Penns of their day—Streisand projected internal vulnerability and external strength so deeply human that even her happy endings were somehow heartbreaking.
“She was fascinating, funny,” recalls Ryan O'Neal, her costar in What's Up, Doc? and The Main Event, “a diva in the best sense—no airs. I was crazy about her. She was powerful. She had approval over all the photographs that were taken. Men would present her with the stills, and she'd start killing shots: 'No, no, no...' That's what you have to do if you have to be on top. It was hard to get that kill approval.”
Kris Kristofferson was a beneficiary of that power when Streisand, who formed Barwood Films in 1972, cast him in A Star is Born. “They had a huge poster outside the studio, hundreds of feet high,” he recalls, “with that picture of Barbra and me that was later on the album. All of a sudden I was a movie star. She made more of a difference in my life than anything else. I have a lot of respect and affection for her.”
Remembers Streisand, “Kris would have these moments that were very interior after the take. And I'd say to Frank [Pierson, the film's director], 'Don't cut the camera so quickly; let it roll another 30 seconds, because what happens after you say 'Cut' is very interesting.' On The Main Event, Ryan wouldn't do a take unless I was watching. I had final cut on those movies since they were for my production company. I wanted to get the best performances out of my costars.”
So much so that Streisand became a director at a time when female directors were scarce. “In a sense, they still are. There's a kind of prejudice when you're an actress where you're never really taken that seriously in terms of being financially responsible. The old-fashioned idea of the actress as flighty or childlike—I didn't accept it.”
Such drive and determination in men is admired. In women? Eh, not so much. But when those qualities are trained on her stars, “it's a wonderful thing,” says Jeff Bridges, her costar in The Mirror Has Two Faces. “I was in the room when Lauren Bacall had to say the line, 'Wha?' That was it: 'Wha?' We must have done that line 60 times. It ranks up in the top five surreal moviemaking moments for me. But it's an example of Barbra bringing the best out—Lauren was nominated for an Oscar.”
It's the Streisand Effect. Her three directing credits, Yentl, The Prince of Tides, and The Mirror Has Two Faces, earned 14 Oscar nominations, four of which went to the actors in the pictures. Despite this, “I don't get a lot of offers to either direct or act,” she says. “I'm still a kind of threatening object.” Though to be fair, she's never pursued a role or even auditioned for a film; she's only ever yayed or nayed offers, many of them major. “I was offered They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, but you had to dance through the whole movie—I got tired just reading the script,” Streisand says. “I was offered Klute, but I was seeing someone at the time and didn't want to work. I was offered Julia, but I was editing A Star is Born. As I say to Jane Fonda, 'I'm responsible for your career.' Because I turned down those movies and she got them and she was wonderful in them. Now people want me for a specific role,” like The Fockers or the upcoming road-trip comedy My Mother's Curse, in which she costars as Seth Rogen's mom. “It's good. We play and improvise. You never know what's going to come out of us.”
Streisand's latest album, What Matters Most, a collection of songs by legendary lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, debuted at number four last summer, right up there with Adele. And still, says her old friend Hoffman, “If you happen to say how extraordinary she is as a singer, she'll answer, 'You think I can sing? You should have heard my mother.' And she means it.”
Her close friend and couturier, the designer Donna Karan, says, “i don't think people realize the two sides of Barbra. You can't imagine somebody who is that large in every dimension, so iconic, who to this day is shy. And at the same time to have this voice that has manifested all these years in so many respects—music, directing, acting, writing, politics ... she's a true artist.”
Asked which gift makes her most proud, Streisand doesn't hesitate: “My son, Jason. He's 44—he looks 32. We have good genes, somehow; we look younger than we are. He's writing music, which is beautiful. He was always too shy to sing, but now he's singing and he's amazing.
“That was the most creative time of my life,” she continues, a wistful note in her voice. that was, for me, the highlight of my life.”
Q: Which actress do you most admire?
A: Sarah Bernhardt. I have her self-portrait in bronze. She was very instrumental in politics in terms of the Dreyfus Affair. Standing up for Alfred Dreyfus. It was an anti-Semitic political thing. She had her own theater. She ran things. The way I work, the kind of all-consuming thing I do when I direct movies, I get very involved in all the details, down to the actors' haircuts. Reading about her, I feel a kind of affinity, like I did with Fanny Brice in a way.
Q: I know that in 1972, Warren Beatty persuaded you to sing at a fundraiser for presidential candidate George McGovern.
A: Warren and I met when I was 15 years old. I was babysitting for my acting teacher, and it was Warren's first summer of stock. Can you imagine, he asked if I would cue him! That's the closest I ever got to a casting couch, not that I could get a part! [Laughs] I saw him a month ago. We're always, 'I can't get over it. Here we are. We were both nobodies!'
Q: What scares you the most?
A: What scares me is that anything might happen to anybody I love—my son, my dear friends, my dog. I've had people in my life for a very long time. My personal assistant, 37 years; my manager, 50 years; the Bergmans, who I made my new album with, 51 years. Longtime relationships that you never want to end.
Streisand participated in a special video for Elle, too:
Outtakes by Art Streiber