PHOTOGRAPHS BY FIROOZ ZAHEDI
Oprah talks to Barbra Streisand: the legendary singer/actress/director (Oscars! Grammys! Emmys! A tony!) opens up about her wild-child Brooklyn girlhood, the mother who told her she'd never make it, the limits of perfectionism, her worries for today's world, and why her upcoming tour is "about believing i am enough.".
YOU'D THINK BARBRA STREISAND— The eight-time Grammy and two-time Oscar winner—would have a long list of records she loves. Then again, maybe it shouldn't be any surprise that she's selective. "If I hear a record once, I usually never listen to it again," she tells me the day I visit her Malibu house. "I rarely listen to music—unless it's Billie Holiday. Or Shirley Horn ... Maria Callas ... and Mahler, Symphony no. 10. Those are things I never get tired of." Which is why, Barbra says, she's thinking about singing a Billie Holiday song, "out of respect," this October when she goes on her first extended tour in 12 years.
Leaving her dream house won't be easy. This is the refuge Barbra says she has longed for since the days when she shared a cramped Brooklyn apartment with her mother, brother, and grandparents. "Even after I became famous," she says, "I lived in a house I didn't like. I looked out my window and saw traffic going by. I never really saw the sky." Now, the skies have it: On the cloudless day of our conversation, we look out over an eternity of blue heaven and sea.
Beyond the main house, Barbra and her husband of eight years, actor James Brolin, are building a farmhouse—or, more precisely, Barbra is building it. ("I tried to find people to help me," she says, "but no one cares as much about the details as I do.") As architect in chief, she swirls from one unfinished room to the next, explaining to me her vision for a retreat that's like an 18th-century barn, complete with a water wheel in the front yard. At her heels is her frisky puppy, Sammie, an anniversary present from James. ("Give Oprah a kiss!" she cajoles.) She is crazy about this dog! She even had a birthday party for her.
"What do I know for sure?" Barbra says when I pose the question at the end of our time together. "I'm sure that I don't know everything I want to know. I have so much more to learn." Maybe, but having snagged an award in every medium she has worked in (music, theater, movies, TV), she is hands down one of the greatest, most enduring performers around.
OPRAH: I was just listening to my old Barbra CDs. You are truly one of the musical legends of our time.
BARBRA: I think of myself as a girl from Brooklyn.
OPRAH: How can you, when you're sitting in this house, looking at that ocean?
BARBRA: I have two sides. For instance, I have no problem giving away lots of money, but the Brooklyn part of me still has to ask, "Is that tile $10.95 a square foot?"
OPRAH: I understand. But can you acknowledge what your voice and art have meant to the world?
BARBRA: At times. But that's like contemplating your navel. Every time I look out over that ocean and see the lights of the city at night, I am in awe. To have this house now feels like being 21—like I've just made it on Broadway and I get to have all this. On one hand, you're talking about me as a legend. On the other hand, I remember trying to get an apartment on Park Avenue in the early sixties when I was a big star, and either because I was Jewish or an actress, I couldn't get in. I had letters from the mayor, the governor, the attorney general....
OPRAH: And you still couldn't get in.
BARBRA: Right. And no matter how many sold-out shows I do, I also understand when my records don't sell as many copies anymore. I think, Well, I've been around for what, 40-some years? I mean, it's the next person's turn. I could believe it if nobody came to see me.
BARBRA: I wouldn't like it. But I'm also grateful that I've been around this long. I'm told I've had a number one album in every decade since the sixties.
OPRAH: When did you know you had the voice?
BARBRA: When I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, the neighborhood girls would sit on the stoop and sing. I was known as the kid who had a good voice and no father.
OPRAH: I read that you resented your father for many years because he wasn't there.
BARBRA: I wouldn't say resent, but maybe subconsciously. He died when I was 15 months old.
OPRAH: Didn't your mother talk about him?
BARBRA: No. Later in life, I said, "Why didn't you ever tell me about my father?" She said, "I didn't want you to miss him."
OPRAH: Were you angry?
BARBRA: Maybe. I just didn't know I was angry.
OPRAH: Did your mother remarry?
BARBRA: Yes, and my stepfather didn't like me. Maybe because he had three kids from another marriage who didn't live with us. I tried to make him like me for a while. I tried calling him Dad and got him his slippers at night when he came in. I'd get down on my belly and crawl so I didn't walk in front of the TV while he watched wrestling. But did he like me? No way.
OPRAH: Why not?
BARBRA: Good question. When I was 7 or 8, my mother sent me away to a camp where I couldn't stand the food. I was throwing potatoes down to the other end of the table. She came to visit, and I said, "You're not leaving without me." I was a very powerful kid. I had no reins on me. I said, "I'm packing my bags and going home with you." Little did I know, the guy with her in the car was my new stepfather. My mother never actually told me she had remarried. And later, she didn't tell me she was pregnant, either. I'm convinced this is why I cannot stand to be lied to. I can take any truth; just don't lie to me.
OPRAH: Who did you think he was?
BARBRA: I didn't know. At the time, my mother, brother, and I were living with my grandparents. My grandmother and grandfather slept in one room, and my mother and I slept in another with my brother sleeping next to us on a cot. We didn't have a living room, so we didn't have a couch, which is probably why I love couches now. When we drove back from that camp, we pulled up to a new apartment in a project.
I remember once riding in my stepfather's Pontiac with him and my friend Roslyn Arenstein. My mother had told me he was color-blind, so I was saying things like "Oh, what a pretty red light that is," thinking he doesn't see the red and the green, thinking I'm helping. My stepfather said to me, "Why don't you be more like your friend—quiet?"
OPRAH: Your stepfather really did a number on you, but what about your mom?
BARBRA: I remember one Christmas when I was doing Funny Girl, she went nuts. With tears running down her face, she closed her eyes and said, "Why is Barbra getting all the presents? Where are my presents?" That's when I realized she wanted to be famous, too. She had a beautiful coloratura, a soprano voice.
OPRAH: Is she still living?
BARBRA: No, she died a couple of years ago.
OPRAH: Did you make peace with her?
BARBRA: Yes. Because I realized she never had her dreams come true.
OPRAH: Do you believe your mother loved you?
BARBRA: I'm sure she loved me in the way she knew how. For her, love was food. When I graduated early from high school and moved out of the house at 16 to study acting, she would schlep to my place to bring me half a cantaloupe and some chicken soup. She didn't encourage me to become an actress—maybe she didn't want me to experience rejection. She never thought I would make it.
OPRAH: Did she actually say those words?
BARBRA: She would say it in other ways. When she first saw me act, her comment was, "Your arms are too skinny." She wanted me to forget acting and become a school secretary like she was.
OPRAH: Barbra Streisand working as a secretary? What a great tragedy that would have been!
BARBRA: "You'll get paid vacations and summers off," my mother would tell me. "It's a steady job." But I knew I had some other destiny. I have a picture of myself singing at P.S. 25—skinny legs, pigeon-toed. I remember people saying I had a good voice.
OPRAH: There's not another one like it. When did you know that?
BARBRA: I don't know.
OPRAH: You still don't know it! Do you listen to your own music?
BARBRA: Never. Lately, I've had to play my old records because I'm preparing a show. For a few of the songs, I thought, This girl's good.
OPRAH: Which songs?
BARBRA: Seventies songs like Since I Fell for You and Kind of Man a Woman Needs, which I may try to sing again.
OPRAH: Let me ask you this: When did you know who you were?
BARBRA: Very early. I was kind of a wild child, like an animal. I could never sit still at a table—not that my family ever sat down and ate a meal together. I used to stand over the stove and eat out of a pot. There was no mealtime. I have no idea when my brother and sister ate, because I came in whenever I wanted. I also taught my mother how to smoke when I was 10.
OPRAH: She let you smoke?
BARBRA: Actually, I went up on the roof and smoked Pall Malls.
OPRAH: When did you stop?
BARBRA: When I was 12.
OPRAH: What a childhood! Did you have any refuge?
BARBRA: Well, I didn't have my own room. I slept in the living room till I was 13. My brother had this tiny room, and one day when my stepfather was being mean, I went in there to get away. I was lying on my brother's bed and I had an out-of-body experience. I actually saw myself down on the bed from the ceiling. It scared the hell out of me.
OPRAH: I heard that you once tried to contact your father's spirit with a medium.
BARBRA: I did. My brother is a very meat-and-potatoes guy, no woo-woo. But he told me about a woman, a regular housewife, who had a spiritual guide who could call up "Daddy's spirit." My brother said he'd seen the table move across the room when he'd met her. I was very skeptical, and I said, "I've gotta see this for myself." For 39 years, I hadn't even visited my father's grave. So first, I went there and took a picture with my arm around his tombstone. It's the only picture I have with him. Then we met with the woman, and let me tell you, the table moved.
OPRAH: Were there cards on the table?
BARBRA: No. You start listing letters--A-B-C-D-E-F-G--and the table leg lifts when you get to the right one. It spelled M-A-N. So we asked, "Is it Manny?" That was my father's nickname. If the leg stomps yes, which it did, then you don't have to spell the rest of the letters. Then it spelled B-A-R--you know, a message for Barbra. I was totally freaked out. And that message was the simplest word: Sorry.
I'm sure he was sorry. He didn't see my life. I couldn't talk to him about intellectual things. My father was a teacher and a scholar. He taught high school and juvenile delinquents at a reformatory.
On the plane home from that experience, I read one of my father's two doctoral theses. It was about how to teach English to prisoners. It was all about Ibsen and Shakespeare and Chekhov. When I was 16, I had devoured Chekhov and Ibsen—all the plays I wanted to act in. By the way, a week after I got home, my brother sent me the picture from the cemetery. On the tombstone next to my father was the name Anchel, which I hadn't seen when I was there. That happens to be the name of the character I played in the movie Yentl. I hadn't yet decided whether to direct the film or not. This made my decision.
OPRAH: So you felt connected to your father.
BARBRA: Totally connected. Just like my father, I've always loved education. In school I was a member of the honor society. My teachers called in my mother and said, "Why isn't this kid going to college?" But my book reports were on Stanislavsky—I'd always wanted to be an actress. I don't know why—I went to very few movies when I was a girl. For my family, going to a 25-cent movie was a big deal.
OPRAH: Some people become actresses because they don't like being themselves.
BARBRA: That was probably true for me.
OPRAH: Is part of the reason you became so famous that you never altered the way you look? You never changed your name or got a nose job?
BARBRA: People told me to change my last name. But I thought, That's not real. So instead, I decided to take an "a" out of my first name and shorten it to Barbra. I did that when I was 18. As for my nose, I was afraid of the pain. And how could I trust a doctor's aesthetic sense? How would I know he wouldn't take too much off?
OPRAH: If you hadn't been afraid, would you have changed your nose?
BARBRA: From certain angles, I liked my nose—still do. Some people would tell me, "You could take the bump off." And I would say, "But I like the bump."
OPRAH: I'm glad you didn't. Aren't you glad?
OPRAH: Would you consider other kinds of plastic surgery?
BARBRA: Yes, but it's scary. I don't even have pierced ears.
OPRAH: I just pierced mine recently. It was major. And now one has closed up. Yesterday I had to stick a needle through to open it.
BARBRA: Each ear is a different length, so how could you possibly put a hole in exactly the same place on different ears?
OPRAH: You do know you're a perfectionist, right?
BARBRA: Yes, but much less now. I really don't like being called a "perfectionist" as if it's a crime. I strive for excellence.
OPRAH: And you like that.
BARBRA: I have no choice over it. I'm less of a perfectionist than people think. When I'm directing a movie, I'm pretty forgiving. There's a moment in the novel The Prince of Tides that I tried to capture on film. In the scene, the sun and moon are out at the same time. That only happens once a month, so we waited for the right time of the right day with the right camera. But it was impossible to get the shot because that day turned out to be cloudy in South Carolina. For some reason, I could accept that easily because that is what the universe was presenting. Compromising while being conscious is very satisfying.
OPRAH: Do you live a conscious life?
BARBRA: I try to, but I make terrible mistakes. Every day I try to be a better human being. Many days I don't succeed.
OPRAH: People use the word "diva" to describe you. That word is thrown around so much that I don't even know what it means anymore.
BARBRA: It means they think you're demanding.
OPRAH: Are you?
BARBRA: Mostly of myself. I find that the myth of the "diva" is much bigger than me. If you look at the ad for my concert, the shadow is much bigger than the person.
OPRAH: Tell me about your husband, Jim. I read that after you met him, you went home feeling hopeful.
BARBRA: Yes. I remember being in a supermarket around that time. I was at the checkout counter and read the headline of one of those tabloids that said an astrologer predicted I would marry again that year, but I hadn't met anyone special. I thought it was crazy.
OPRAH: And you've been together for ten years, right?
BARBRA: Ten together, eight married. Time goes so fast. It's hard to understand where all the years go.
OPRAH: How did you meet?
BARBRA: At a dinner party, a blind date. I walked in and saw him with a buzz cut. No hair! It wasn't pretty. I went and played with the children, but eventually I had to come back to the table and sit next to him. We started talking about architecture, because I was building things and his father was a contractor. Then I touched his head, which I'd normally never do, but because I was in director mode—I was working on The Mirror Has Two Faces—and dealing with male actors all day, I was much freer. So I said, "Who fucked up your hair?" He now says that's when he fell in love with me—because I told him the truth.
OPRAH: Does his presence make you calmer?
BARBRA: Yes. My husband is much more easygoing than me. He'll live to be 100! [Laughs] The night we met, he wouldn't let me go back to editing my movie. Before the dinner, I'd told the crew, "I'll be back." But he took me home. I was a nervous wreck in the car. Dating is the worst.
OPRAH: What is it about him that made you say yes?
BARBRA: He's the yin to my yang. I wanted a companion in my life. My husband and I still have to work at our marriage every day. Relationships are about kindness. You have to constantly watch what you say and how you say it.
OPRAH: Tone of voice is so powerful. You and James seem easy together, but I'm sure it's not because you're easy.
BARBRA: Neither is he. He has a lot of quirks. I like things in their places. He doesn't.
OPRAH: Do you have a lot of quirks?
BARBRA: Probably. I'm just not aware of them as quirks.
OPRAH: Tell me about your relationship with your son [Jason Gould, whose father, actor Elliott Gould, was Barbra's first husband].
BARBRA: It's really good. He's a kind, thoughtful, intelligent person. I am so proud of him. It's hard for a child of famous parents. But as Jason has grown older—he turns 40 this year—he has understood how many people go through challenging childhoods. Who has it perfect? Very few. And sometimes difficulty builds character. As we become more conscious and less angry, we become more grateful.
OPRAH: That's right. What matters most to you in your life?
BARBRA: The happiness of my son, my relationship with my husband and friends, and the state of the world. The unconditional love a mother has for her child is amazing and rare. My puppy, Sammie, has that kind of unconditional love for me, and it's so satisfying. She's happy every time I walk into a room. Jim made the perfect choice for me.
OPRAH: And you're perfect for her. Are you looking forward to your tour?
BARBRA: I'm looking forward to the challenge.
OPRAH: So when I come to see you onstage, you're not going to be having fun up there?
BARBRA: Well, I did have fun during the final shows of the last tour. I surprised myself. What I like about music is that it marks time for people—like "I got married to that song." One reason I can perform now is that they have pills for stage fright. I wish somebody had told me about these pills years ago.
OPRAH: Will you use a teleprompter?
BARBRA: Yes, or I might go blank. I'll think, What am I doing on this stage? Holy mackerel! But then I realize that fear has an energy behind it. The whole point is to go beyond the fear and do it anyway, because I know I'm singing for a good cause.
I can sing before a full stadium because it's like looking into a black hole. I can't perform in front of a few people in a living room. I was once with Donna Karan and Liza Minnelli, and Liza just got up and sang. I was fascinated. I'm thinking, Where do you look in a room lit up like this? In a black hole—a theater—I can escape into my own little world.
I never remember my good reviews, so when I hear something good about myself, I go, "Really?" But I can tell you about the bad ones, because there's part of me that thinks, They're right. And that's an age-old point with many performers. That goes so deep. On the surface, I can tell you that I'm famous and I'm good at what I do. But there's also that part of me that never quite hears the nice things. But I'm much better than I used to be. First of all, I care less about what critics say about me, I don't read reviews, I just want to live each day to the fullest.
OPRAH: And you'll be living a lot of those days on tour.
BARBRA: I haven't really performed much. In my entire career, I've played in a handful of cities in the United States and only three outside of America. Performers like Neil Diamond, U2, and Madonna tour every two years and sing in hundreds of cities all over the world. My friend Diana Krall told me she used to tour 300 out of 365 days a year. I've worked so little, which is why the idea of retirement is ridiculous. Actually, I didn't sing in public for 27 years, except for charity. That's the main reason I'm going back on the road now—to give to organizations that my foundation supports.
OPRAH: So, you want to do big things?
BARBRA: Yes. That's why my foundation just gave the first million-dollar grant from my upcoming tour to the Clinton Climate Change Initiative, which will fight against global warming. I'm interested in setting up more professorships in universities, perhaps one about truth in journalism. Why are the facts so often distorted?
OPRAH: It's propaganda. People are fed whatever makes money.
BARBRA: There are stories about me that are so ridiculous. My husband looked it up. He said there are 36 unauthorized biographies about me. One day I'm going to write my own book.
OPRAH: What's the worst thing you've heard about yourself?
BARBRA: Well, there have been so many silly things. One story was that I walk into a room full of musicians, and if a guy plays the wrong note, I fire him. It's all just diva crap. I'm a normal person. Why would I fire a musician because he played the wrong note? If I sing the wrong note, do I get fired? It's absurd.
You know what it's about? It's about the Aristotelian rule of drama. It's about the fall of kings and queens. The Greek tragedies are not written about the common man. They're written about the fall of people in high places. Part of me understands it: People want to see kings and queens fall because it's the great equalizer; it makes them less envious. The gap between the rich and the poor has become so huge, so terrible. The world is in a chaotic state. People are living in fear and denial.
OPRAH: There's a lack of critical thinking on the part of the public.
BARBRA: Well, you can't listen to negative news 24/7. But the public should be informed to make intelligent decisions, especially about who they vote for. I value intelligence. If you were to go into surgery, would you want to put your life in the hands of a C student or an A+ student? I'm sure President Bush is a very nice guy, but some people voted for him because they thought he was a person they could have a beer with. What is that about? Do you want to have a beer with the doctor who's going to operate on you, or do you want him to be the top of his class ... be a bit in awe of him?
OPRAH: You are not optimistic at all about these times.
BARBRA: Yes, I am, because people are finally realizing the truth about what happened in Iraq, even though, sadly, some of the public is still confused by the good job this administration has done bending the facts. In 2002 I had a meeting with Scott Ritter, a weapons inspector who'd been in Iraq for seven years. He told me there were never any weapons of mass destruction. Even if they'd had biological or chemical weapons, he said, they would be dust, because they have no shelf life. Experts agree that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
OPRAH: Do you fear for our world?
BARBRA: Oh, yes. I fear global warming. I fear nuclear proliferation. I think we have to do everything we can to prevent self-annihilation. I have a knot in my stomach all the time. How can I not? Before the election, the public gave President Bush high marks on fighting terrorism, but he ignored all the warnings. Before 9/11 he didn't even beef up airport security. He was negligent. During the last election, I begged John Kerry to attack Bush on terrorism, to make his "strong" point his weak one ... because it was true! Imagine how different it would have been if Al Gore had been president. We would not be in a war.
OPRAH: I once did a show titled "Is War the Only Answer?" In the history of my career, I've never received more hate mail—like "Go back to Africa" hate mail. I was accused of being un-American for even raising the question .... In the coming months, what are you looking forward to?
BARBRA: On tour I want to be in the moment and really appreciate the love that's given to me. During my last tour, when I kicked off my shoes and said whatever I wanted, I actually enjoyed myself. Performing is not about perfection. I could never perform live if it were. For me, it's about raising the money to do good in the world. It's about self-acceptance. It's about believing that I am enough.