Will Barbra Make it Big in Movies?
September 24, 1967
A born loser's success and precarious love
by Norma Lee Browning
A $35-million question looms large in the film capital: Can Barbra Streisand make it as a movie star?
It's the only territory left for La Streisand to conquer, and that little matter of $35 million says, she'd better. It's the sum movie-makers are shelling out for three major musicals for Miss Streisand without even a screen test.
"Screen test ? She's finished auditioning. If you want her, buy her," was the ultimatum from her New York manager, Marty Erlichman.
So, on a recent sizzling day, Barbra Streisand, superstar of many media, pirouetted in front of a monstrous 360-degree movie camera—previously used only inside helicopters—with her nasal Brooklyn twang twanging: "Whaddaya gonna do, shoot the swans? Shoot the pigeons, the Indians, the fish, anything, but don't shoot the swans. What are you-dumbness?"
This stunning dialogue started at 10 A.M. on Miss Streisand's first day of shooting in Hollywood on her first movie, the film version of her "Funny Girl," a howling Broadway and London stage success.
She was wearing a white feathery ballerina's costume and false eyelashes encrusted with rhinestones. The rhinestones were too far up on her eyelids, so she ordered them moved down to the eyelashes. The feathers on her tutu were top-too long, so they were snipped. The skirt was shortened by two inches at her bidding.
"How am I? What do you think? How do I look?"
An entourage fetched powder puffs and hand mirror, touched up her hairline, tilted her crown. (It was a fraction off-center.)
At 6 P. M. she was still chanting wearily: "Whaddaya gonna do, shoot the swans? Dumbness?"
Nobody really knew whether the swans ever got shot. But Barbra's husband, actor Elliott Gould, on a Hollywood movie set for the first time, watched his wife in wonderment and said:
"Hmmm. She doesn't look at all tense. She's having fun! This is the most important thing in the world to her. The only thing she cares more about is our son."
"Funny Girl" is the first $10 million worth of Hollywood's $35 million stake in Barbra Streisand.
The others upcoming are "Hello, Dolly!" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." If she makes it through "Funny Girl."
"She can't miss," says producer Ray Stark. "She's in the tradition of the oldtime stars, Gable, Garbo. They emerged in pictures as an extension of their own personalities. That's what Streisand is, more than an actress. A personality. Bigger than life. That's what makes a star."
Stark is so submerged in the Streisand mystique that he cast her as a prima ballerina in a parody of "Swan Lake"—written especially for her—without knowing she had never studied ballet.
He didn't find out until I told him.
He said quizzically: "Oh? Oh. I never thought once whether she could do it. I would put Barbra in as a racetrack driver. She can do anything she wants to."
During her first day of shooting it was obvious that what Barbra Streisand wanted more than anything in the world (except her baby) was to be a movie star. By the end of the second week she wasn't so sure.
At the end of her first day in front of the big motion picture cameras, her only complaint was: "My feet hurt."
BY WEEK'S END she admitted: "It's the hardest work I've ever done."
Halfway into her second week she allowed as how moviemaking was "difficult" and "there ought to be an easier way of doing it instead of in bits and pieces."
"Funny Girl" was live months in rehearsals before a foot of film was shot.
During the rehearsal period, I was one of the privileged few—three to be exact, two magazine writers and myself—permitted to interview her. (She was kept under wraps, her studio-appointed guardian explained, because "you need a degree in psychology to interview her. She doesn't like to be interviewed.")
Then during the first two weeks of shooting, we three were the only reporters admitted to Columbia's "Funny Girl" set.
I followed Streisand like a shadow. I observed her many-splendored moods from pouting, petulance and plain camera fright to that Raggedy-Ann, gum-chewing kook in bridal gown, pregnant and so rattled at being a movie star that she sometimes forgot her lines, her looking glass and other props.
But always she was rather marvelous.
Never mind that she hoked up "Swan Lake" beyond the call of duty—or missed a cue while kibitzing with the dancing boys in the Ziegfeld chorus.
Never mind that she insisted on her left side for important camera angles (So does Rex Harrison.)
Fiddle & Fuss
All movie stars have a "good side" and a "bad side" for the cameras, so never mind that "Funny Girl" fiddled and fussed with herself. She was being what she always wanted to be since she was a kid, a movie star, the best.
"I remember a long time ago when I was a kid, I had to be somebody. And I decided I didn't want to be just the best of one thing. I would be the best singer, best actress, best recording star, best Broadway star and best movie star. That was my challenge."
And, she adds, "being a star is being a movie star."
The movie-makers are doing nip-ups to launch her properly and profitably.
Only the best for Barbra: a superstar's dressing room complete with piano and baby crib (she brings her son, Jason Emanuel, to work with her in a chauffeured Cadillac), a director's chair with her name on it, another for Sadie, her French poodle, and a most auspicious assemblage of cast and crew to assist her in the Hollywood try for stardom.
She could hardly flop if she tried, though I'm told that word isn't in her vocabulary.
She is surrounded by behind-the-scenes Oscar winners—from costumers to cameramen—and top-drawer star-makers whose mission is to make Streisand a movie star.
The bright money says she'll make it.
Her pursuit of stardom led her into such situations as putting on her ballerina costume and being suspended on hidden wire pulleys to dangle in mid-air on Columbia's stage 8.
She didn't look very happy about it.
For that matter, neither did anyone else.
They had spent three days rehearsing a 30-second flying scene in which Barbra flies through the air and descends into a moonlit castle courtyard to find a cluster of naughty men in Robin Hood green leotards about to shoot, her precious swans.
It was part of the "Swan Lake" parody dreamed up by producer Stark for "Funny Girl." The musical is based on the life of his mother-in-law, Fanny Brice.
He got the idea when he ran across an old picture of Fanny in a little girl's ballet costume. And at the moment be looked as though be wished he hadn't.
The "Swan Lake" number—a five-minute sequence—was in its fourth day of shooting. In the marvelous manner of movie-making, the end had already been shot. Now came the beginning.
"We shoot the beginning at the end so it will be a little moody," said production designer Gene Callahan, explaining the set.
The Sound stage had been transformed into a typical Hollywood fairy tale setting, a glittery-blue castle garden in the moonlight, sculpted from Styrofoam, shimmering with tiny bits of broken glass in 15 colors (glued on with linoleum paste) and with bunches of plastic wisteria hung from aloft.
AND HUNG aloft, too, for most of the day was Miss Streisand, wearing a heavy harness of leather straps and braces—her flying rig—concealed under her frilly ballet panties and tutu.
"What's wrong with her now?" someone whispered.
"She's very upset again. The hair isn't right, the crown's off-center and I guess those strings pulling her are damned uncomfortable."
The temperature was 101 outside in the sunlit smog, and it was even more scorching up there in the fake movie moonlight.
Offstage to the far right was a complicated flying apparatus of ropes and pulleys operated by Britain's famed Peter Foy, who was imported to Hollywood especially for Streisand's 30-second flying scene.
Foy is considered the No. 1 expert on flying celebrities through the air in stage and film productions and TV specials. He flew Jean Arthur and Mary Martin in "Peter Pan" on Broadway, has flown Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Icecapade skaters and actors portraying astronauts—all without mishap.
Once more Streisand floated out from the Styrofoam tree-tops, landed safely among her swans and faintly mopped her brow.
Once more her squad of hairdressers, wardrobe mistresses and make-up men surged forward.
Once more bells ring, a voice booms:
"Quiet! Roll! Action!" And Streisand ascends skyward, flapping her arms. By 4 P.M. she looks a bit bored by it all.
And she isn't the only one. Between takes, the corps de ballet girls soak their swollen feet in tubs of ice water and sprinkle ice cubes down their bosoms to cool off.
Late in the day a dark-eyed visitor in dirty dungarees and cowboy spurs wanders onto the set, gazes upward at Barbra still flying around in the moonlight and murmurs: "Magnificent!" When she descends (again), he dashes up to the stage, gallantly kisses her on the cheek. She smiles, for a change. And why shouldn't she?
The man is Omar Sharif, the handsome Egyptian star who is going to play her husband, Nicky Arnstein, as soon as he finishes his cowboy role in "McKenna's Gold," shooting next door to "Funny Girl." He scoots over to watch Barbra every chance he gets. He's going to sing some Songs with her in "Funny Girl.".
He's about the most romantic leading man around movieland these days, and the best catch for a girl who has never made a movie before.
Under Sharif's watchful eye, the brief flying scene finally was wrapped up and pronounced a success. Not so successful was the following Monday, the first day of the second week of shooting on "Funny Girl." It was very unfunny, in fact.
THE ZIEGFIELD GIRLS were doing their big bridal number, with Barbra a very pregnant bride in her wedding gown and wax orange blossoms.
Batteries went dead. Lights went out. Dancing-girls in sweltering headdresses and tons of beads and chiffon fanned themselves with their bridesmaids' white plastic lilies.
And there was Barbra playing Fanny Brice, the pregnant bride, leaning upright against a slant-board in her wedding gown (so it wouldn't get mussed), playing gin rummy with her best friend and constant companion from New York, Sis Corman.
Broadway was never like this, what with the heat of the Hollywood lights, the physical discomfort, the endless waiting between takes. So Barbra plays gin rummy, Scrabble or perquacky (a word game) to calm her nerves.
The lights come on again. Everyone up the white staircase. The Ziegfeld girls and boys take their stances on the gleaming marble steps, and Streisand, in five layers of satin, net and lace and stuffing, including a fat pillow plumped frontward, begins singing: "I am the beautiful reflection of my love's affection...."
Cut.... Once more.... Cut. . . Another take
An umpire called time out, and she wilted into the cameraman's chair, furiously chewing gum and drinking lemonade.
After the brass huddled and unhuddled, I asked Stark: "How are things going?"
"Dreadful!" he answered. "You spend all this money on sets and costumes and . . . It's our blue period. Dreadful. Just dreadful. Like having a baby."
I asked the director, William Wyler: "How are things going?"
"Fine. Beautiful. All I have to do is sit here and let someone else do the work..."
The day's confusion was enhanced by the presence of four former Ziegfeld showgirls who were aghast at the half-million-dollar Cellophane set.
EEch! Ziegfeld would roll over in his grave if he saw this. Cellophane, yet! He would have used real satin. If he'd used Cellophane, maybe be wouldn't have died broke."
The ladies also allowed as how Hollywood's Ziegfeld girls weren't as classy as the originals, who sometimes wore custom-made hose at $100 a pair.
Also visiting the set this day was Fanny Brice's son, William Brice, a well known West Coast artist and a professor at UCLA. He commented on the astonishing parallels between Barbra Streisand and his mother, notably in their feeling for comic gesture — and especially in the "graceful and beautiful movement of their hands," which also has been frequently noted by others.
Later, in an interview, Barbra summed up for me her first six months in Hollywood for her movie debut this way:
"I have arrived here without having my teeth capped, my nose fixed or my name changed, and that's very gratifying to me."
People told her it couldn't be done but she did it. And for the record:
"My nose was, is and always will be the same."
"They said I couldn't make it in movies because I wouldn't photograph well. Now word is going around that I look all right, so they're saying I've had my nose fixed. It's the sickest. Hollywoodism at its worst."
When we talked, she was dressed now in a red middy blouse and pleated navy-blue bloomers for a Fanny Brice chorus girl scene in which she sings, with prophetic overtones, "I'm the greatest star—but no one knows it .... "
Is she willing to accept the responsibilities of being a Hollywood star, which would mean changing her way of life? Only Garbo could get by with that.
"I'm living in Garbo's house," she smiled. (It's now owned by director Jean Negulesco.) "I'm not the social type. I never have been that, so why should I be it now?"
"I can only operate on the basis that I am what I am. I do only what I want to do and sing only what I want to sing and say what's on my mind...."
What about rumors that she's difficult to work with?
"I'm not easy. I don't have patience. But I don't have false temperament. I'm not an idiot. I'm not temperamental. I am very demanding — of myself more than anyone. I want everything the best it can be."
If "Funny Girl" is as big a screen bit as it was a stage hit, and Streisand fulfills her ambition to be a movie star, why not quit while she's ahead instead of taking a chance on possible future film flops?
"If I stopped with 'Funny Girl,' then they'd say that was all I could do. My whole career has been based on taking chance. If I flop? Then I could have a comeback. I think all bad things are good, too. Everything shouldn't be all good because then someone would really take pot-shots at you."
Phenomenal success came to Streisand at a very early age. She's still only 25. How does she feel about the inevitable changes it has made in her life?
"I don't regret it, and I don't like it. It's just something that is. With more money comes more pressures, and you have to be careful. Everyone wants something from you. It's tough to put yourself in all these positions and keep yourself together sanely.
"If you're not well-liked, tough. I'd like to be well-liked, too, but I can't sacrifice my work to be well-liked. So I'm philosophical. It's al part of life."
Related links: Funny Girl Movie page