October 2003

October cover

Barbra Streisand Opens Up


LAZY. IT’S ONE OF THE FEW words you can’t pin on Barbra Streisand. Accomplished? Without question. Outspoken? Definitely. Likes things her Way? And how. But lazy—or even laid back—no way. At 61, the Woman who grew up fatherless in the projects in Brooklyn is as turned on and plugged in as ever. True, she “retired” from concert tours in 1994, and it’s been a dozen years since she made a big-budget film. But she’s still raising money for causes, still dotes on her son, Jason, 36, an actor and her child by first husband, Elliott Gould, and is still as deeply in love as ever with actor James Brolin, whom she wed in 1998. Even when she’s not working, though, her days are full.

We got a sense of just how full when Streisasnd sat down with RD for one of her rare interviews. She’d been in the studio for weeks, finishing The Movie Album, her 58th recording, due in stores on October 14. She spoke to us in the middle of a typically jam- packed afternoon—while getting a manicure and in between recording sessions, postings on her website, barbrastreisand.com, and packing for a road trip with her husband. Unlike Celine Dion, who doesn’t speak when she’s recording, Streisand rarely lets her voice—or anything else—rest.

Singing, truck driving, deeply in love Barbra

RD: Did you always want to sing?

Streisand: At seven years old, I used to sing in the streets with my friends. Those were the days of “Your Hit Parade,” and we used to harmonize. But I always wanted to be an actress and play the great roles—Medea, Juliet, Hedda Gabler. That was my love; it wasn’t singing. Later, when I couldn’t get a job as an actress, I entered a talent contest singing and won. Singing was a way of getting into acting.

RD: At 19, you said you wanted to be the best at everything.

Streisand: Yes: the best actress, the best singer, the best director.

RD: Where did you get that confidence—or maybe it’s called nerve?

Streisand: I just can’t keep quiet. I never could. I remember being in the yeshiva in Brooklyn, and I always got high marks scholastically but I got a D in conduct. I knew the answers and would raise my hand, and if the teacher didn’t call on me, I said the answer anyway.

I was raised as a kind of wild child. I had no father—he died when I was 15 months old, and my mother went to work. My mother would leave food on the stove, so I didn’t know people had dinner together. Instead, I ate standing over a pot when I was a teenager. I didn’t know how to set a table—still not quite sure about it. I didn’t know you’re supposed to keep your hand under the table and still have a hard time keeping it under there. I was at a fancy dinner last night and thought, Everybody’s hand is under the table, but I just like to keep my elbow on the table because I’m used to it.

RD: You have cut your own path pretty much from the beginning. For instance, you’ve never done rock ’n’ roll, even though it’s the dominant popular music of your time. Why was that?

Streisand: I had no understanding of it. I really couldn’t understand loud drums.

RD: Do you still enjoy singing?

Streisand: I do, because now I don’t have to get dressed up. I don’t have to wear makeup. I can wear comfortable shoes. When I’m making a record, it’s great, it’s private, just me and the music. It’s wonderful. I love doing that.

RD: What’s your routine when you’re recording?

Streisand: I’m really bad, because when I was talking to Celine [Dion], she said she doesn’t speak the day she records. But today I’ve been on the phone, between my website and politics and the fights that I go through, oh, I’m yelling! I don’t pamper my voice. I really should.

RD: When you’re recording, do you have any rituals?

Streisand: Everybody at a record session eats. I’ll bring my dinner, my health food, and we bring in food for everybody—Chinese food, Thai food, Italian food. Well, what do you think I eat? Not my health food. I love pizza, Domino’s Pizza, thin crust. And I eat a lot of Breyers Ice Cream. I eat people’s left-overs. I always say, no, I brought my own food, and then of course I sit there and eat their cold spaghetti and pizza.

RD: Tell us about your new album.

Streisand: I’ve always been very influenced by the movies, ever since I was a kid and kind of dreamed in the movies. A lot of the songs come from my memories of how that music affected me.

RD: For instance ...

Streisand: I thought the musical theme of Wild Is the Wind was so beautiful and romantic. And Johnny Mathis, who sang “Wild Is the Wind,” was one of my favorites. I remember watching him sing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with those big brown eyes.

RD: Does your husband come to your sessions?

Streisand: He’s been to every session except one when he was out of town. He’s a good guy.

RD: What do you two do these days when you want to play?

Streisand: Oh, we drive around in our Ford pickup truck. We take trips. We’ll drive up to Sun Valley, 16 hours.

RD: What do you do all that time, locked in the cab together?

Streisand: I read a lot. And we listen to books on tape. I’m reading The Da Vinci Code, which is about ancient hidden religious symbols and the suppression of women. I guess that’s been my theme for a lot of years. That’s the theme of Yentl—the idea that men were so frightened of the power of women that they had to find a way to negate their power.

RD: You just had your fifth anniversary. What’s it like to build a marriage later in life?

Streisand: That’s one of the reasons I sang “The Second Time Around” on this album. I think it’s much more pleasant when you’re older.

RD: Some people think it’s harder to marry later because you’re set in your ways and develop so many, let’s call them, individualities.

Streisand: On that level, maybe it gives you challenges. But I think you know what you want and what you won’t compromise about. You can’t have everything you want. But that’s okay. It’s like Indians weaving a flaw into the blanket. There is no such thing as perfection.

RD: What is it that you won’t compromise about?

Streisand: Honesty is a given. To me truth is so powerful. As they say, what comes from the heart goes to the heart.

RD: Speaking of the heart, the theme of the new album seems to be love.

Streisand: Yes, and for a while I only sang positive songs. But there’s a sadness to some of these songs, and that’s really the more well-rounded person. Nothing stays on a high that long. Take “But Beautiful.” It’s a fantastic lyric, because it’s the truth. It talks about love. It’s cheerful, gay, sad, happy, quiet, mad, but it’s beautiful. Love is all those things. And you want it, no matter how painful it is.

RD: There’s a rose named after you, a Barbra Streisand rose.

Streisand: Yes, a very big seller.

RD: Did you have requirements for it?

Streisand: Oh, God, yes. It had to be very healthy, a disease-resistant rose. It had to have fabulous fragrance and the color had to be—I’m very particular: There’s not an orange thing in my house or in my garden. If this rose is in bloom, it’s lavender. And as it blossoms, it actually goes through many colors, like a chameleon, which represents me in a sense, because I have a lot of facets to my personality.

RD: You’re a perfectionist, somebody who doesn’t quit until you get it right.

Streisand: Yes, because these things are forever. Movies and albums— forgive me for still calling them albums, but they'll always be albums to me—are forever. I say I strive for excellence. Nothing is perfect. But if it gets to a certain level, it’s pretty good, and that’s all you can do.

RD: You must have sung “People” hundreds of times. How do you keep your music fresh?

Streisand: Well, it gets very old and I bore myself. When I record, I have to hear the music over and over and then I play it in a car stereo and I play it on a good stereo and I play it on a cheap stereo. I’m so sick of the music that I never listen to my records for maybe ten years. Then I can appreciate it, but really, I just get sick of it. That’s why I gave up concerts—in addition to having stage fright and the exertion of singing 30 songs a night. It’s boring to sing your own songs. I remember going into Tahoe once, and I sang all new material because I was so bored with mine. The reviews were, “How dare she not sing ‘People.’ "

RD: You still suffer from stage fright?

Streisand: Yes. Except now they have pills to stop the adrenaline from pounding your heart so fast. I’ve taken a little piece of one, and I think it works. But that was after I said I was going to give up concerts. Had I known, I might not have done that.

RD: You could change your mind. Do you think you might ever do a concert?

Streisand: I would probably never do anything I did before—walk around a stage, sing 30 songs, have no opening act, have pits you can fall in and all this production. Because, really, I think like a director first, and it’s fun, to create a show and direct it and conceive it—except that you have to do it, you have to perform it. I never think of that until it’s too late.

RD: There’s a spiritual theme in a lot of your work.

Streisand: I like going to retreats, I like learning.

Brolin and Streisand

RD: What have you learned?

Streisand: About opening the heart, being more understanding, more loving, kinder. How you can serve better. Someone said to me, hopefully when you die and go to heaven and God is at the gate and he asks you a question, the question is not, how well were you loved, but how well did you love.

RD: You once said that life begins at 50. Why is that?

Streisand: Well, it would be nice to have the body of 25, but it’s so nice to have more of an understanding. You don’t play the games anymore; you grow into yourself, and you know who you are more.

RD: A lot of people are wrestling with Act Three in their lives, because they don’t want to repeat what they did in Acts One and Two. What is Act Three like for you?

Streisand: I like not having appointments. I like going to bed at four in the morning. There are no phone calls at night, and I can read—books, novels, The New York Times at midnight. I never had the time to read for pleasure. I’m sitting with a script I should read. I find it very hard to read scripts. It’s hard to find projects that I really have a passion for. If and when I do another movie, it would be just to direct or act, which would be fun and seem so much easier after doing both together.

RD: You don’t seem to age physically. Do you feel more beautiful now than you felt when you were young?

Streisand: You mean have I kind of grown into my nose? Recently, doing some DVDs, I’ve had to look at myself in old movies or on album covers. I thought, Oh, my God, I really looked good there, and why didn’t I know that then? Why didn’t I appreciate myself? But I do have a strange face. It changes so much from angle to angle. Sometimes I think I really did look quite beautiful, and a lot of times I thought I looked really bad. It’s a shame. But on the other hand, I’m not going to cry over it. I’m trying to be in the moment, and I’m enjoying my life.