August 23, 2009
To understand Barbra Streisand, you have to know why she loves the color burgundy.
"I got sent to a health camp when I was about 6 years old, and we all had to wear the same starchy blue uniform," she says with a shudder. "The lady who took care of me after school knit me a burgundy sweater. It was the only thing that gave me any individuality."
One of the most extraordinary singers in the world, Streisand, 67, has sold more than 100 million albums —making her the top-selling female artist in the U.S.—and won Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. She amazes as a woman who can do anything and has everything, yet the rebellious girl, wanting to be different, is never far from the surface.
"There's a part of you that always remains a child, no matter how mature you get, how sophisticated or weary," she says.
"I was kind of a wild child. I wasn't taught the niceties of life. That's why all this is so formal now," she adds, gesturing around the living room of her main house in Malibu. Burgundy runs throughout the décor, and the flowers outside the windows are the same color. "I believe the exterior should reflect the interior," says Streisand.
But the personal exterior for which she is famous—a glamorously manicured star who commands any stage and brings an audience to its feet—does not match the warm, gracious woman who chats easily about everything from decorating (one of her great skills) to dolls (one of her collections). Brittle, demanding diva? More like a caring best friend.
"Would you like some watermelon juice?" she offers. "It's low-calorie. I'm trying to lose a little weight."
She looks casually elegant in black pants and a top, but she shrugs off a compliment.
"I always wear the same thing at home," she says. "I can't be bothered with jewelry. My pants have elastic waists. I like to be comfortable. There are so many more important things to worry about."
Streisand's new CD, Love Is the Answer, produced by Canadian jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, is her first studio recording in four years. Available next month, it opens with the song "Here's to Life." The lyrics go:
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets/So give it all you've got/I'm hungry still...to see what's down another road.
Can she relate to that feeling?
"I feel like it was written for me," she says.
When her first movie, the musical Funny Girl, came out in 1968, Streisand became instantly known for her lustrous voice, her unconventional looks, and her determination.
"I always had this vision of things. I don't know if it's in the DNA or what. I got good grades in school but a D in conduct. I would question everything, very much like Yentl," she says.
Streisand made the daring decision to produce, write, direct, and act in the 1983 movie Yentl. She played a girl in Poland who disguises herself as a boy in order to be allowed to study. The film won her a Golden Globe award for best director—the first to go to a woman—and earned five Oscar nominations.
"Being a woman in music was fine, but when I wanted to direct, I was poking my head into a man's world," she says. "'What do you mean you're going to direct? Women are the actresses, they're frivolous, not the ones responsible for finances.' That really got me."
Streisand went on to direct and star in two more movies—The Prince of Tides in 1991 and The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996—and she is now pursuing another project. In 2004 she showed a very different side, playing a bawdy sex therapist in the comedy Meet the Fockers. With Ben Stiller as her onscreen son, Streisand was suddenly known to a whole new generation.
But even as she moves forward professionally, the struggles of her past are never far from her mind. In one room, Streisand keeps many of her costumes, including gowns that she wore in her earliest days onstage. She shows them off, affectionately stroking a plaid taffeta top, admiring the workmanship and fine details.
"I stopped wearing them when people said it was a gimmick—you know, Second Hand Rose," she says, even now sounding bewildered. "But the truth is, I didn't know what you were supposed to wear. I'd never been in a nightclub until the first time I sang in one. I just knew women were supposed to wear beautiful gowns. So I bought what I thought was beautiful.
"The tension of opposites has always attracted me," she says, rubbing her fingers over a dress she designed. "Wool with silk. Tweed with chiffon. Even in this house, there are crude beams varnished to look like furniture. It's the way I see things."
Does that describe her own personality, too?
"Oh, yes," she says. "I think there's a part of me that played in the streets and came from the housing project. And another part might have been Queen Nefertiti in a different life."
Another tension that exists in Streisand: She works so hard to create the world that she wants—whether building a house, recording a CD, or directing a film—and then forgets to enjoy it.
"I never hear the good things about me," she admits. "My friend Quincy Jones says we won our first Grammys together in 1963. I have no recollection. I don't even remember the room. When he showed me the picture, I remembered what I wore. But it's like awards don't mean anything."
She pauses for a moment to think about what has been meaningful.
"My early television specials were really good. I'm proud of the movies I've directed. I like those. And I like this house. But for all the public life—I get kind of embarrassed by it."
Her malibu home is her retreat. "I don't really like to leave," she says. Five years ago, she bought a property adjacent to her main house. Here, on one of the most exquisite expanses of Pacific Coast imaginable, she has just finished creating another home as distinctly unexpected as she is. "A New England farmhouse!" she says delightedly, walking toward the new barn-red home that is trimmed in black-and-white. "Not a Malibu style at all. I have chickens and green eggs, just like Martha Stewart. I grow vegetables and roses."
Streisand stops in front of a man-made pond that she stocked only with black-and-white fish to match the trim of the house. As she peers into the water, an orange goldfish swims by.
"Where did that come from?" she asks, puzzled. But then she laughs—even Barbra Streisand can't control all of nature.
"I grew up in Brooklyn," she says. "When I'd get sent away to that camp during the summer, it always made me wheeze. I'd get asthma. I couldn't breathe. I was used to the hot, steamy streets where we'd turn on the hoses and play with the water and look down at the rainbows in the ground."
Now she looks up. "Here, the skies change, the cloud patterns change, the color of the sea is always different," she says, gazing toward the horizon. "I'm in heaven. I feel very grateful every day. It's like a movie—I have my own piece of sky."
With her exacting eye for detail and a relentless drive to do her best, Streisand has gotten a reputation for perfectionism. "Really, there's no such thing," she says. "The only perfection is imperfection, because otherwise it would be inhuman, too cold. What is perfect? Maybe a flower with its dewdrops in the early morning."
How about her handsome husband of 11 years, actor James Brolin? He seems to come pretty close.
"Yes, it's annoying," she says with a laugh. "You're right, he's perfect. He has the most beautiful bone structure, jaw, teeth, nose, eyes, forehead. We meet people, and they always say, 'Jim, you look so great.' He looks like that sleeping, too. It's really true."
Streisand was married once before, to actor Elliot Gould in 1963, and they have a son, Jason. Of their wedding, she says, "I got married in a seersucker suit with a justice of the peace in Carson City, Nevada." She and Gould divorced in 1971.
Two years to the day after Streisand met Brolin, they married in a fairy-tale wedding at her home. She planned the whole event in two weeks, complete with a flowing white gown, bridesmaids, and a tiered cake.
"In a relationship, you have to think what's great about it, what works, the good qualities. And you try to overlook the things that bug you. He must do that with me all the time. It's reciprocal. Even though I made Yentl, I see that men are different. The ego is different. You have to understand and appreciate the differences. And they're kind of fun."
Streisand recently donated $5 million to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for women's cardiovascular research. "For so many years, research into women's heart disease was done on men. Can you imagine? We're not worth the studies?" she asks indignantly. Her foundation also gives large grants to education and environmental programs. "Global warming, clean water, clean air. Civil liberties," she says, mentioning a few favorite causes.
Her fundraisers have brought in huge sums of money—and also criticism. "I was always political. You're always a citizen first, an artist second," she says. "It's interesting that a Paul Newman or Robert Redford wouldn't get attacked for being interested in politics, the environment. It's a double standard, but women are changing. There are nine women presidents in the world, and Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State. "
Her guest has one last question: Can Streisand, so strong and beautiful at this stage in her life, now look in the mirror and see that? Or will she always be Funny Girl?
She laughs. "Oh, it's a whole different problem now. You get older, and it's a bit of a shock. I still feel so young inside. And that's me in the mirror?"
She changes seats to show off a perceived flaw in her face. Told it's nonexistent, she shifts again to offer a better view but is still assured how good she looks.
"Well, if you don't see it, I'm thrilled," she says. "It must be harder to age if you were known as a beauty queen. So I'm kind of fortunate. But, in truth, I'm happier than I ever was in my life. I have a husband who loves me, and I have this beautiful piece of the Earth."
Streisand smiles and looks at the sun setting over the Pacific. Finally, the wild child has found some peace. "Look at the light! The light! What could be better?"
Related Link: “Prince of Tides” film pages
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