November 19, 2005

cover of Times

Queen B

Singer, actor, producer and director, Barbra Streisand has been the pre-eminent female star of the past 40 years, whose successes blazed a trail for a generation of women to follow. At 63 and still hitting the right notes, she talks to Alan Jackson about music, love, loss, politics and housebuilding

As gardens go, this is a perfectly nice one. It is long, green and narrow, punctuated by clumps of high, high palms. Behind us is the Pacific Coast Highway: turn left out of the gate and keep driving, driving, driving and eventually you'll reach San Francisco; turn right and in less than an hour you'll be in the Los Angeles-at-the-beach that is Santa Monica. In front of us, meanwhile, beyond the chuck wagon and generators and other on-location paraphernalia, is a house in which Barbra Streisand is sitting, ready (we hope) to meet (less than a handful of) the Press. And just beyond that house, although we're not yet being allowed close enough to glimpse it, is the Pacific Ocean. We're in Malibu, of course. Where else?

It's good that the garden is so very pleasant because I'm going to be spending quite some time in it. At the moment that Jim, a representative of the New York office of Streisand's record company, delivers me on site, the comedienne turned chat show host Ellen De Generes is indoors preparing to tape a short segment. Next up will be Britain's GMTV, who have been placed in a holding pattern on a terrace just outside. Then there's the woman journalist whose interview is to be filmed for SonyBMG's promotional use, and who is an ornamental fish pond's distance further away. And finally there's me, left to circle and re-circle the flower beds until media traffic control gives me permission to land.

This is the sole day of personal publicity that Streisand has been persuaded to set aside in promotion of a new album, Guilty Too. I'm told that we are only here at all because the star has been pleased and surprised by how positively the record has been reviewed and how well it is selling (it debuted in the Top 5 of both the US and UK charts). That said, we are fortunate there has been no last-minute cancellation. Last night Streisand lost one of her closest women friends, someone she will refer to today as having been like a replacement mother. Although this friend had cancer, the death was still unexpected. The funeral will be later this afternoon.

De Generes is on her way back to Los Angeles, GMTV have entered the building, the woman journalist is on the terrace and I am by the fish pond (fishless, boringly, and drained of water) when Jim reappears and begins to walk me back down the garden, away from the house. My heart sinks as we pass the Portaloos and catering crew. To get so very near, and yet not to meet her ... But no. This a change of plan, not a cancellation. Understandably, Barbra is feeling very fragile today, he says, and it's the thought of her manager of more than 40 years, Marty Erlichman, that she may find the filmed interview easier to cope with if it's conducted by a man. Will I do it instead, and in 10 minutes' time? There's really nothing else to say but, Yes.

Seconds later, I am led into the building and propelled to the middle of a reception room which, though California-large, is teeming with people (management, publicists, film crew, hair and make-up personnel, personal assistants) and is as cluttered with equipment as any other film set. And with only the briefest of third-party introductions, I am made to sit on the edge of one of two ornamental chairs, knee-to-knee with the foremost female entertainer of the last 50 years. I have seen these iconic, all-conquering features Cinemascope-sized in movie theatres time and again since childhood. Now here they are before me, pale and sad and small and vulnerable.

As some 15 or so others look on, we shake hands. "Unnatural," she whispers of the situation she/ we find ourselves in. "Surreal." And then she bites her bottom lip, takes off the grey-tinted glasses she is wearing to reveal eyes that are red-rimmed from recent crying. "Sir, could you sit up straight again, please?" comes a cameraman's voice from behind me when I lean forward to express my condolences at her loss. "You're in my field of vision." As a reminder of why we are meeting in quite these circumstances, it's as effective as any. She may be a superstar in mourning, but a job has to be done. Her filmed responses to questions about the album are needed. Now.

Guilty, released in 1980, was one of the most straightforwardly pop albums in a recording career during which Streisand has encompassed material ranging from Broadway show tunes to classical lieder. Written and produced by Bee Gee Barry Gibb, it included the hit single Woman In Love and has been her most successful release to date, selling over 20 million copies worldwide. Guilty Too, again a collaboration with Gibb, is its silver anniversary successor. So once an aide has fussed over the ash-blonde drapes of the star's hair (Streisand winces perceptibly as the comb's teeth approach her, steeling herself to accept this unwanted attention), we make preliminary small talk about the march of time.

"All of a sudden you wake up and find that 25 years have passed," she says, but seeming scarcely present as she does so. "How can they have gone by so fast? Shocking."

Clearly, Gibb has a particular empathy with female performers, I remark, and a talent for showcasing them in a highly commercial way. What exactly is his secret? "Gosh. You'd have to ask him that. I don't know what he's done with other women." Can this be true? Is she being disingenuous? Or is it simply that other singers do not show up on her radar. Feeling that I have made a faux pas whatever the explanation, I then mention Dionne Warwick's Heartbreaker and Diana Ross's Chain Reaction. "You know what? I've never heard them," is the flat, unblinking reply.

But then she doesn't listen to music at all. "Except for classical things like Mahler or Bartok, and I don't even have time to put those on, it seems." As for playing her own albums … "Oh God, no. I don't like living in the past. I don't ever listen to my own music. What I listen to in the car is the news, to Air America." Nor, she insists, smiling at the very idea, does she ever use what another producer, Quincy Jones, has called her "Stradivarius of a voice" for her own pleasure. "I never sing if I don't have to. Not in the shower, even."

There are no vocal exercises in between recordings or live appearances either. How strange to think that an instrument which has brought such pleasure to millions of fans should deliver so little to its owner. "It gives me satisfaction," is the distinction that Streisand makes. And that it should be undiminished at the age of 63 surprises her, she says.

"But my voice has always surprised me. (When I came to make this album) I hadn't sung in such a long time and it croaked the first few notes, then somehow as always it then opened up. I was kind of shocked but very thankful to find that it was still there." Given this determinedly low-maintenance approach to the musical element of her career, the decision to work once more with Gibb is even more understandable. "He's a consummate performer, musician and writer, and there was I in the midst of building a house but thinking I had to make an album. Time to call Barry. He really can do it all for me."

He responded by presenting her with a trademark selection of well-crafted, creamily-arranged songs upon which to lavish that voice, leaving her relatively free to concentrate on what is clearly a major preoccupation, overseeing the construction of what she terms, "an elegant barn."

The address at which we have congregated has merely been rented for the day. Streisand's own home or homes (there are three main properties on the one 24-acre estate, and a fourth now nearing completion), is/ are a short drive away. "I guess it's the masculine part of me," she shrugs of this love of property-creation. "It's so satisfying to see your vision come to fruition. An album is easy, but it's very difficult to do a house. You're talking years." No pre-fab this, but the ultimate in bespoke.

Content to leave a majority of the preparation of Guilty Too to trusted and familiar hands (the vocals were recorded at her home studio once workers had laid down their hammers for the day), Streisand is clearly ever-present and detail-obsessed as manager of this other project. Speaking of wainscoting and wood panelling, or of the influence of Charles Rennie Mackintosh on American colonialism, her voice gains an enthusiasm and authority largely absent in any discussion of her recording work. And while it occurs to me to ask why she should want or need another property in the exact same geographical location as her trio of existing homes, I realise that to do so would be to miss the point. It's a labour of love, no more or less.

The wealth her talent has generated now places Streisand 3,000 miles west of where she started life. Born in Brooklyn, New York, her high school teacher father died when she was 15 months old, leaving her to be raised as a single child by a single parent. Diana Kind had herself dreamed of success as a singer, but never achieved it. Biographers have described the love she showed her daughter as grudging and hard; Streisand herself has said she was never praised or encouraged, never hugged or told that she was loved. So when her mother (who died in 2202, aged 93) said she'd best forget her dreams and learn to type, Barbara (as she was then named) responded by growing long, keyboard-inappropriate nails. Even today she shows them off, gesturing constantly with pale hands.

While still at high school, she began travelling unaccompanied into Manhattan to make singing appearances in small clubs. At one she won a talent contest, the prize being a support slot at another more prestigious venue, the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village. It was there, aged 18 and in 1961, that she met Erlichman, her manager to this day (amazingly, in a contract-obsessed, litigation-happy industry, there has never been a formal signed arrangement between the two). "I'd gone along to see the headline act, who was a friend of mine," he will tell me later in the afternoon. "And there she was, opening the show. Something about her just reached out and touched me. She only sang five songs, but each one of them gave me goose bumps."

He sensed straight away that she would be what he terms "a polarising performer. She's not a grey area. People love her or don't like her, but rarely do they say they can take or leave her. And the most important thing to say is that I've never really done anything for Barbra but protect her. Right from the start she had her vision of how things should be, and I saw it as my job to make sure no-one messed with that. Because from the get-go it was, 'Change her nose. Change her clothes. Stop her singing those cockamamie songs.' And for long enough after that we had heads of studios, heads of networks and record company executives all trying to alter her. I wouldn't let them. Basically, I knew that she was right and they were wrong."

Their combined self-belief enabled Erlichman to negotiate for Streisand contracts guaranteeing her complete artistic control not just over her recorded work, but also over the lavish, self-referential TV specials of the '60s and '70s (no guest stars, no duets, just Barbra) which helped to further refine her unique brand. "Looking back, I don't know how we did that," she muses. "Maybe it goes back to the fact that my mother didn't discipline me. We never had any kind of regimen. We never sat down for dinner together. I'd eat standing up in the kitchen, leaning over the pot. I had no rules, was always on my own, moved into the big city aged 16 and started doing what I do. It was always just me, on my own terms."

Streisand's film career began with Funny Girl, the stage version of which she had appeared in on Broadway and in London's West End: it won her the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actress. Four movies later, she had her own production company. And in 1973 she was Oscar-nominated again for her performance opposite Robert Redford in The Way We Were. By 1975 she was producing as well as starring (in the remake of A Star Is Born), and a decade further on directing too (Yentl). Her second such venture, The Prince of Tides, won her a Best Director nomination in 1994. "I didn't get many offers (of parts) so I really had to start creating my own projects," she says of this transition. "There was no role model. I just did it."

She pauses, sighs:. "Which was seen as very odd at the time. There was a glass ceiling for women to break through but now, thank goodness, no-one bats an eye." But her third film as director/ producer/ star, 1996's The Mirror Has Two Faces, was less well-received, her camera-hogging performance seeming to sum up an image that had gone from chutzpah-powered underdog to that of humourless control freak. Only this past year has she reclaimed the genuine affection of cinemagoers via her comedic tour de force as a hippy-dippy sex therapist in the ensemble piece Meet The Fockers, a big box office success. Having taken on the industry and bent it to her will, it was as if finally she'd relaxed and just enjoyed herself on screen.

"What was it like not to carry the whole weight of a film on my shoulders? It was nice. It was great." This public mellowing came, perhaps unsurprisingly, at a time of stability and personal contentment in Streisand's life. An early marriage to actor Elliott Gould brought her a son, Jason, now 38 and also working in film, but did not last. Later and variously, there were highly-profile relationships with Jon Peters, Warren Beatty, Don Johnson and Andre Agassi. Then, during the editing of the poorly-reviewed The Mirror ..., she met James Brolin, a conventionally handsome leading man of the '60s and '70s who had never quite made the 'A' list, and who had also turned to directing. They married in 1998.

The iconography that has assembled itself around Streisand along the way – all that against-the-odds, ugly-becomes-beautiful Barbra fabulousness - has brought her a vast gay following, of course (neatly enough, son Jason is 'out'). She has attributed this aspect of her appeal to the fact that she too is different to the norm, and also misunderstood. But that doesn't mean she accepts a duty to embody her diva self, day in, day out. "It's hard to explain, but I am two different people," she says. "Anyone who knows me only in the context of building a house would be unable to imagine me up on stage, as I had to be the other night (at a political fundraiser, the only real impetus for her to accept a microphone in public these days). It felt odd on that occasion because I was wearing trousers, as I do most days, and comfortable shoes. It was a reminder that I need to put on heels and a skirt to be the other person."

When in private, she admits to being anything but glamorous. "It's a heightened reality we're experiencing here and now. I've had my hair done. I'm sitting up straight to talk to you, whereas normally I'd be schlumping any old how in the chair. In real life, I wear Birkenstocks and baggy, comfortable clothes with elastic waists (she is dressed in flat-heeled suede boots, an above-the-knee tailored skirt and chiffon blouse, all black). I don't go to opening nights. I don't go to any place where there'll be photographers if I can avoid it. I'm a very private person who finds it hard to talk about myself. Yet on stage something happens to me. It's a kind of focussing … I've heard some people call it channelling, but I'm not sure what that means in relation to me."

More comfortable writing than speaking her mind, she maintains a kind of blog at Yes, of course, there are some nice photographs sprinkled around the site, and the usual catalogue of career achievements. Prominently, there's a Truth Alert section too, in which she refutes media distortions or lies about herself. There's even a link to eBay, where she sells unwanted items (think Jean Muir cardies and household knick-knacks, rather than gorgeous gowns worn on stage or screen) to further the aims of the Barbra Streisand Foundation (over $13 million raised at the time of writing, and to benefit all manner of noble and humanitarian causes). But mostly, there's just an awful lot of very detailed, entirely relentless Bush-bashing. 'Does this smell familiar?' is a typical heading of one of her recent, self-written articles there.

For every liberal east- or west-coaster who loves her work and buys into the same values, isn't there also an illiberal middle American who might want to like her but who thinks George W. is a very good thing? "Has my political stance harmed my career? Probably, yes, if you can tell such a thing. But it's not important. I'm a person, first and foremost, and a citizen of my country. Only after that am I an artist, a performer, whatever you want to call me. And most important to me of all those things is being a citizen." She won't countenance a political career of her own, however. "I could never play the games that politicians play. I'd be too blunt. I'd get myself into trouble. No, I'd rather endorse those I believe in than go that way myself."

Previously and consistently, Streisand has been a friend to, champion of and fundraiser for Bill Clinton. "I don't care who he's screwed as long as he doesn't screw the country," she was quoted as saying, post-Lewinsky. And now? "It's interesting that we have been so backward politically. Britain had a women leader Israel. India. In America you couldn't fathom it. But things have changed. Absolutely, we can have a female president now, and Hillary Clinton may be the one to prove it. I admire her, yes. She's smart, and you've gotta be smart. She's well-read. She understands the issues. She has what it takes to be leader of the free world, I think. Absolutely, I'll endorse her. In 2008 I think it could happen. Finally, America has grown up."

Beyond individual names/ political persuasions, she believes gender is significant. "Women are more nurturing. They'd be more hesitant about going to war (best not to mention the Falklands here, I feel). If the technology available to us now isn't used with heart and compassion … It's all so fragile. Time goes by so fast (the rawness of recent loss now causes her eyes to glitter with tears). I'm shocked at how my country is being run: the corruption, cronyism and incompetence. But finally people are tiring of it. Finally they're waking up."

At which point she is reminded of the hour, and the pending funeral of her friend and mentor. Streisand makes herself ready to leave within a minute, her sorrowful eyes hidden behind dark lenses once more as she looks out from the passenger seat of an SUV. "So, here's to a better world," are her parting words to me.


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