“I don't live in the past,” Streisand tells Inquirer

January 2, 2005

By Ruben V. Nepales

La Streisand is running late. At first, they said that she would take only 20 minutes more. But it's been an hour since the press conference was supposed to have started. A number of the media people get up, head for the door, and threaten to leave.

A colleague, a former Miss Universe, entreats me to stay by saying, "But how often do you get a chance to meet and interview Barbra Streisand?" As if I needed cajoling. After all, she is the only singer-actress-director who has won all the top entertainment awards-Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy. She is also considered the highest-selling female recording artist of all time.

A few weeks earlier, the superstar requested that she be interviewed along with Dustin Hoffman, who plays her husband, Bernie Focker, in the comedy "Meet the Fockers." In the end, she agreed to go solo, but on condition that no photos would be taken during the press con-only afterward, in a separate room, and not by our member-photographers, but by her own.

We understood this would ensure that she got the most flattering light and that she would be photographed from the left side of her face. As she once told Life magazine: "My nose is longer from the other side. My left side is more feminine."

Everyone found this glimpse of diva-hood, Streisand style, amusing.

A little background about the movie is in order: Streisand and Hoffman portray the hippie parents of Ben Stiller, quite a contrast to Stiller's would-be in-laws, Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner, who are strait-laced.

Imagine a scene in which the sex therapist, Roz Focker (Streisand) attempts to massage the uptight Jack Byrnes (De Niro) who, incidentally, is one of the film producers. Inquirer Entertainment got to ask these two giants about that scene. Despite its sterling cast, "Meet the Fockers" is strictly for laughs.

Earlier on this December afternoon at the Four Seasons-and in separate interviews-De Niro and Stiller also told us stories about La Streisand, who is now 62 years old.

De Niro: I've known Barbra for a long time. I must have met her for the first time about 25 years ago at a party. We're friends but we hadn't worked together until this movie, and we had a good time doing it. We have different ways of working. I think that was good for the dynamics of our relationship in the movie.

She's not a Method actress (De Niro is). It's more than Method. It's just different. She was very sensible in her approach. She had good ideas about stuff, and in that (massage) scene, I was concerned that it should build up to a crescendo. I wanted it to build to a kind of climax, no pun intended, but . . . yes, pun intended (laughs).

Stiller: Barbra was very outgoing from the beginning. She invited all the cast over to her house for dinner a couple of times. She and her husband, Jim (James Brolin), they're like the greatest couple in the world. They're very different people, but they seem perfect for each other.

As I was getting to the point where I felt so comfortable with Barbra, there was a fundraiser for John Kerry where she was going to sing. We all went to watch her at the Disney Concert Hall. This was after we'd been shooting for four or five weeks and I was so used to just seeing her as Barbra, my mom in the movie, and then I go to this thing.

A full-on diva comes out and she gets a two-minute standing ovation before she even does anything. She looks and sings like Barbra Streisand and she's not wearing the wig (a frizzy one in the movie; in real life, she has straight hair).

I was so glad that I didn't have to work with her the next day.

It's so funny to be able to ask her, like a friend, how often do you practice singing? And she goes, I hate to sing. I don't like to sing. And just to hear her talk because she has little stories about everybody from Brando to Clinton. There are no airs about it at all.

Going to her house is this incredible crazy thing where you try to pretend like it's normal to hear all these names and incredible experiences. I was blown away by how warm she is as a person.

Hoffman: I met Barbra when we were struggling actors, in 1960 at the Theatre Studio in New York. I started to go out with her roommate, Elaine, who said to me, you've got to hear her sing. I said, oh, please. Elaine said, no, she really has a great voice. I answered, oh, I've seen her act. She's not that great (laughs). Elaine persisted and said, she's going to be on television this Friday.

It was a local black-and-white show. Barbra was like 18 or 19 years old. And by the way, she slept on a cot that she had gotten from the thrift shop or an Army Navy Store. She didn't have a dime and she goes on the "Mike Wallace Show."

Barbra comes on. She sits on a stool, chewing what looks like five packs of gum in her mouth all at once. Mike asks her a few questions and he says, oh, you want to sing for us. She says, yeah. I remember thinking, God, she's really laying on the New York thing, the accent. She takes this wad of gum out of her mouth and puts it under the stool (laughs). Remember, she was just a kid but when she opens her mouth, this blessing comes out and I remember I sat down, I got very emotional and I couldn't believe it.

I love her. I swear this is what she was like the first 20 years of her life: Where did you get that? How did you pay for that? They gave you that free (laughs)? She's still shopping for bargains.

When Streisand finally shows up an hour and a half late, all is immediately forgiven. She has an entourage of at least seven -including a woman on whose fur rug-covered lap sprawls Samantha, Streisand's Coton de Tulear dog (a rare breed, we gather, and a wedding anniversary gift from Brolin); and a man whose sole job seems to be keeping an elevator door open and available (in case she decides to walk out?).

"It's been a long time!" she calls out to a group that interviewed her in 1996. Then she goes straight to the side window and says, smiling, "Do you think we could close the inside curtain? Better lighting." Everybody laughs. She closes it.

A colleague asks Barbra, only in jest, "Would you like to close the back one, too?" La Streisand coos, "Oh, look at that back light (laughter all around). Good idea." And she closes that one, too.

Finally, she sits down and we take in the sight. La Streisand all in black, her blonde hair stylishly cut. I've always thought of her as sexy in a unique way, and in person, she lives up to that image. An exposed right shoulder, which seems to be a trademark, enhances that sensuousness. She speaks in a soft voice and often puts a finger on that famous nose.

After the press con, we move to a nearby room where her photographer has set up soft lighting. Barbra inquires about the Philippines as the photographer takes our picture with Samantha. The resulting photo you see on page A3-1 was taken from the left side, of course.

Please tell us about your marriage and the wonderful man you married.

(Streisand laughs as she addresses a female colleague who asked the question). You just fell for his looks, didn't you? We're very compatible, shall we say. But we have to keep in check, too, in terms of watching that tone of voice . . . or maybe you don't say everything. Years ago, I used truth as a weapon and just said, well, that's the truth. But now it's more in line with what the Dalai Lama says: truth with compassion. So then you don't say dear, you look fat today. You say, I've seen you slimmer.

What are some of the things that you'd like to do more with your husband now that you're in your 60s?

Well, we stay in bed a lot (laughter). We usually stay in bed Saturdays and we never get dressed; we stay in whatever we slept in. Then we go down to the kitchen. There's nobody around us, just our little dog, except if his daughter is visiting or my son has just been there and it's the best time. We watch movies. I write or draw. We like to do a lot of just hanging around. Sometimes I feel guilty and then I say, wait a minute, I've been working since I was 11 so what do I feel guilty about? No, this is okay, to do nothing, rest and play. We go to the movies a lot and we travel. We love boats, so we take boat trips.

When I was younger, I had much more ambition. I wanted to do this and win that award and direct and yuck, yuck, yuck, you know. Now it's time to take it easy, to relax, have fun.

I love antique-ing. I'd like to get a U-Haul truck and take a trip down the East Coast to find great American antiques.

Can you elaborate on what you said, that you draw?

I've started to paint. I got a little easel and started to sketch and I thought that was very meditative and quieting.

What else do you do to quiet down?

Well, I have family, friends, and a dog that I love. I'm building a house. It's an escape into another chaotic world but it is an escape from this one (laughter). I'm designing a lot. I design my clothes, house and furniture. I could spend 10 hours a day drawing, designing and coloring.

Does it still bother you that you are sometimes misunderstood?

I think it matters less and less to me (laughs). One of the things that I've learned . . . is not to take things personally. It helps to understand that people have their own regrets, things they wish they had done with their lives and it really helps to let go of certain feelings.

You've had a very interesting and full life. What philosophy guided you?

On that one, you're going to have to wait to read the book that I will write. I've actually written only the first chapter on why I hate lies. What is my philosophy? Let go, let God. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Love thy neighbor as thyself. They're the kind of basic religious, philosophical thoughts that I think are still true today.

You are an icon to many people. It seems that even as a young girl, you already knew the power of control. Where did the confidence to speak your mind come from?

I think it was from lack of discipline. My husband sometimes says I'm like a wild child because I wasn't taught manners. My family never had meals together. We never had conversations. I would eat over a pot. I would sit with my leg up at the table. My friend, Donna Karan, eats with her leg up (laughter). She drives the car with one leg up. People do have soul connections. Maybe it's this leg up thing (laughter).

Where did the confidence come from? There's also genetics. My father was an extraordinary man or so I've read, since I didn't know him. He died when I was 15 months old. But I read about him in the book "Leaders of Great Education." He taught prisoners, and juvenile delinquents in a reformatory. I read his thesis examining behavior in 1933. He wrote poetry and designed photo albums. I find myself becoming more and more like him, and yet I never knew him.

Can you tell us about the album that you are planning?

Barry Gibb is writing another album for me. I did that "Guilty" album with him (1980) and we decided to work together again. He's written one song for this new one and now he's working on others. I'd like to do a Brazilian album someday and I like this idea of doing ethnic songs from around the world. That would be great. But I love things that happen in private. I am not a person who really likes to be onstage. That's why I never went back to the theater. I like recording the best because they're private. You don't have to worry about how you look and you can schlock around, be comfortable.

Since this movie deals with meeting the in-laws, how was your first meeting with your husband's family?

It was fun and they were so surprised. I wore a baggy sweater and put my feet up. I don't know what people expect when they meet celebrities, like you're going to come in on a high horse and (laughter) with a crown on your head and a mink coat and an entourage. I enjoy privacy and small things-staying home, seeing a couple of people.

I really don't like the fanfare of being a star. Thought I did, but then when it happened and I was with Marty Erlichman (her manager) at the opening of "Hello, Dolly!" all of a sudden I turned around, he had blood running down his nose. Who's going to like that? It's not all that it's cracked up to be. But the process of work is great.

How do you feel about opportunities for professional women in Hollywood?

I'm a homebody. I don't really know what's going on in the Hollywood community. I know things are getting better for African-Americans. I remember my friend, Marcia Brandwynne, who was an anchor on TV and she was let go because she looked too ethnic. Now, one doesn't even pay attention to the race of an anchorperson.

I would think that ever since I directed "Yentl," things have gotten much better because now, you don't say, oh, it's a woman director. But I made a film in eight years.

What brought you back in front of the cameras?

Ben (Stiller) called me from London and there was Jay (Roach, the director) saying, please. And all I could think of was, can I really do it? Because I like to sleep late . . . and stay in bed the next morning. For this movie I had to get up at five. That is not cute (laughter). But when I do get up early, by noon I have accomplished so much that it is kind of great-though it's not my natural rhythm.

So did you have fun acting again?

What is fun? Fun is the creative process, discovering a character. For me, the fun part was working with the actors and the director because the director was so open to ideas and suggestions and our playing around and improvising and yet he held us in check. It was fun not to have to worry about every single part of the movie, like when you direct. It was fun to be working with my contemporaries.

How much do you have in common with your character, Roz Focker?

That's not me. I am not comfortable with that kind of openness. But one thing we do have in common is that we have an appreciation of love and sex in the later stages of life.

How did it feel to be on top of Robert De Niro while massaging him?

It hurt (laughter). I worked it out with my own masseuse the night before how I could choreograph the scene. I was doing this thing with my elbow on Bobby and he kept saying, press harder, press harder. My thumbs gave out a bit. I got tendonitis and had to wear a brace. But it was fun. Bobby's just so good to work with.

Would you like to direct again?

I'd like to direct a movie without acting in it. That would be a breeze.

Are you at peace with yourself?

Yes. One great thing about aging is, you see life as it is and know how to be your authentic self.

Do you ever watch your old movies? You were fantastic in some of them.

I can't remember them. Someone was talking to me once about the opening scene of "Hello, Dolly," and I had no recollection of it.

You don't watch your old movies at all?

No. I don't want to live in the past yet. I like living in the present.


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