March 18, 1966
‘They all come thinking I can't be that great’
by Diana Lurie
Stricken with phenomenal success at 23, Barbra Streisand is more ridden than ever by self-doubts and fears 'It's scary—it could suddenly all fall apart'
Cover Photo by Bill Eppridge
The big studio audience is rapt, silent as Barbra Streisand softens and rounds the long-held note, stripping the brass from it before she lets it fall, ever so gradually, into a throbbing, eyes-closed, roller-coaster drop-off. She rebounds to the final note and deliberately hits it a spine-tingling shade flat. The silence into which she is singing remains perfect. She holds that agonizing fraction of a tone of flatness, then slides into pitch. And then the roar comes. It sounds as though it's for Tebaldi in Milan. Or Garland at the Palladium at her peak.
A couple of minutes later Barbra Streisand is in the control room waiting for the tape of her just-completed TV performance to be run off, sure it is going to he awful. She turns to the director and, between breaths, explodes: "I am waiting for you to say whether I am great or lousy. You said nothing. I must know what you think or I am depressed."
Why Barbra Streisand has to know what people think of her every time she performs is an astounding, and wrenching, phenomenon. At 23 she is an undisputed queen of musical comedy, television and records. Every one of the seven records she has made sold a million copies. She gets $50,000 per concert appearance. For nearly two years she pulled in standing- room-only audiences for an otherwise undistinguished musical, Funny Girl, which she will make into a movie (for a possible $1 million). Starting next month, she will play the stage role in London. She also has a contract to do 10 television shows in the next 10 years for a sum in excess of $5 million.
Everybody knows Streisand is on top. So does she. And the more she is hailed, the more scared and insecure she feels. "I win awards and everything but one of these days something is going to bomb. It's a scary thing. It can all suddenly fall apart."
Such massive self-doubt amid such success might be funny if her fears were not so very real to Barbra. When her understudy replaced her one night in Funny Girl, Barbra worried that the audience would prefer the substitute and she might lose her job. When she left the cast, she got upset when a waiter kiddingly asked her how it felt to he out of work. Whenever she hears one of her numbers being sung on the air by a run- of-the-mill vocalist, she psychs herself into thinking the performance is better than her own—and will sell more records. She has been known to worry 18 hours over just such a possibility.
Her audiences adore Barbra—but she looks on them as her adversaries. For her taped TV show she sang five songs before a live audience. When the director, Dwight Hemion, asked her to redo two numbers, she insisted that the audience leave. She was tired, she was not fond of the songs, and she disliked her interpretation even more. "Tell the audience to go away," she said to her manager, Martin Erlichman. "I hate them. I hate them." For half an hour, while the audience wailed. Erlichman and the director pleaded with Barbra, pointing out that the crowd was needed for the proper sound effect. When she gave in and walked back on stage, she got a thunderous reception. She did the two numbers with dispatch, mumbled "Thank you for staying" to the "bravo"-ing crowd and re- entered the control room. "O.K.," she said, "let's see what we've got."
Sitting stony-faced she watched herself on the three monitors (two black-and-white, one color). Her mood changed mercurially. At one point she groaned in agony, seconds later was exclaiming, surprised, "Ooh, that's nice." Hours later, sipping champagne from a paper dip, she was still critically eying herself on the monitors. During the sixth run- through, she turned to her agent and said: "I know this is a better show than the first. But They are wailing for it to bomb. They always are. People say, 'Go and see this terrific girl.' But most of them come thinking, 'Nah, she can't be that great." It makes me feel they're the monster and I'm their victim."
To deprive the monster of the satisfaction of seeing her bomb, Barbra puts about four times as much work into a performance as she used to—or needs to. In the case of the TV show, most of it was done before there was ever an audience. Three songs were prerecorded—that is, the music was recorded before the taping and dubbed in later. For a prerecording session, Barbra arrived late as usual, carrying her while poodle, Sadie, in one arm and in the other a large shopping bag from Gucci, an expensive New York shop. It was stuffed with letters, her pocketbook, photographs and a pair of shoes. She took off her silver fox fur and put it down on a chair in the control booth. Then, in brown sailor blouse, black slacks and short black boots, she turned to the small multitude of engineers, directors, producers and arrangers behind the control console. She tossed off a couple of jokes in a comic Brooklyn accent, as if it were expected, handed Sadie to her manager and went to the mike, abruptly crisp and professional.
No detail of the music escaped her notice. During a dry run of the first number, she said to the music director: "The drums are too fast. And shouldn't he use brushes or some- thing?" After recording each song, Barbra strode into the control room and flung herself into a chair to listen to the playback on four giant wall speakers that would not only reproduce but magnify any error. As she listened, doubt flickered in her eyes, her expression became dissatisfied, then disgusted and finally desperate.
"I'm going to do it again," she announced.
"You'll be hoarse tomorrow," Erlichman warned.
Already at the studio door, Barbra flung back: "I sang 25 songs a night eight times a week in Funny Girl. I won't be hoarse."
She did it again, and after recording all the other numbers—correcting every phrase, word or syllable she disliked and could get the conductor and the director to alter—she was ready for the even more arduous ritual of second-guessing. "Please replay the tapes from the beginning," she said. And they did. Four hours later, she leaned back in her chair. "Yeah," she said, exhausted. "I love it."
Barbra runs after and flees from fame. When she sees people on the street take on the look that says they have recognized her and are about to greet her, "I cringe, I run." Into such moments is crammed a whole bundle of conflicts. She hates to be recognized because, though she wants to avoid her fans, she doesn't want to appear a snob. On the other hand, she thinks that by acknowledging gushing praise graciously she is indicating that she thinks she's all that good. But she is devastated if she is ignored. "Barbra," says her husband, Elliott Gould, "is the kind of person who is hurt if her puppy walks past her."
She herself understands the anomaly. Recognition after all was her aim in going into show business. Her father died when she was 15 months old. Her mother worked all the time Barbra was growing up, meanwhile marrying a man Barbra disliked. The girl, a "loner" in school—and a bright one—overaware of her large nose and hands, longed to be loved. "This is why I wanted to become an actress, I guess," she says. "I felt I could get the attention I missed as a child."
Many have found Barbra's face beautiful. She is aware of this but not convinced. She genuinely fears that her looks are too great a handicap for her talent to overcome. "I'd like to be beautiful but sometimes I think I am strangely put together." When someone talking to her avoids her eyes, she gets upset. "I know I should realize that person may be nervous," she says. "Instead, I think he can't bear to look at me. They always write about me as the girl with the Fu Manchu fingernails and the nose as long as an anteater's. This hurts far more than if anyone wrote that I was a terrible singer—which they never did. There are a lot of cold people in the theater who build walls so as not to get hurt. I don't ever want to build up that kind of wall. I would rather get hurt. If my vulnerability goes in real life, it goes as a performer and an artist on stage too. I must retain the vulnerability or lose sensitivity as an artist."
If Barbra has difficulty playing star to her fans, she also has problems meeting stars she admires as a fan. She is crazy about Sophia Loren, but she could never bring herself to ask her for her autograph. "I couldn't," she says. "I'd say, "Hullo. I have nothing to talk to you about. Goodbye.' Sometimes, when I am with a real movie star like Marion Brando, I think, 'How can I be famous if he is famous?'"
Just about her all-time horrible example of timidity came last fall at a New York party for Princess Margaret. Barbra, true to form, was late. Actress May Britt and the singer Tommy Steele flanked the guest of honor. As Barbra was being introduced, it popped into her head that the accepted form of address was inappropriate, if not downright hypocritical. "She is not my royal highness," Barbra said later. "I just could not say 'Hullo, Your Royal Highness' to anyone. It doesn't suit me. So I just sort of said 'Hullo.'
"Princess Margaret looked at me, almost like a fan, and told me she had all my records. I didn't know what to say so I just stood there and replied 'Yeah?' Then May Britt asked me how come I was so late. I said 'I got screwed up.' The princess looked bewildered. It was unbelievable, like a scene out of a bad movie. I quickly said 'I mean I got fouled up.'
"Tommy Steele looked white and shocked. I didn't know what to do so I turned to him and asked: 'You two know each other from London, huh?' Tommy is a glib fellow but he was speechless. I don't know if the princess was amused or horrified. She turned her head away. Nobody said anything. 'I mean,' I said, 'you have worked for her sister?' Tommy answered stiffly in his London accent: 'I have performed for Her Majesty and Princess Margaret too.' I said, 'Yeah, that's what I mean.'
"I honestly hadn't plotted it out beforehand. I just didn't know how to reach the princess. I knew I must not have a wishy-washy existence with her—she must like me or hate me. But I didn't mean to act that way. It just came out. Still, I guess I could as easily have said nothing."
Barbra's great current wish is "to be known not as Barbra Streisand the singer or the actress, but just as Barbra Streisand." She wants to become a persona, a style-setter, a woman of the world—a combination of Maria Callas, Sophia Loren, Nicole Alphand and Jacqueline Kennedy. Last year the Encyclopedia Britannica nudged these ambitions along by naming her a major trend-setter of the '60s, and this January she made the list of the world's 10 best-dressed women: quite a change for a girl who a few years ago was famous for her kooky gowns salvaged from thrift shops.
[Barbra-Archives Note on Photo Above: In 2009, Streisand wrote the following for In Style magazine about this photo: “I was at the Chanel collections in Paris. I had leopard-skin pillows on my bed, and I decided to have a leopard suit made. This was before PETA! Going to the fashion houses was exciting. Unfortunately, I was sick to my stomach for 10 days from a bouillabaisse I ate in Marseille. If I look a little strange, it's because I thought I might throw up. I don't think I was even aware that Marlene Dietrich was at the end of the row.”]
This winter, Barbra, in pursuit of this new image—and a vacation— made a trip to Europe. The first stop was Paris, where she was to pick the clothes for next fall's TV show from the spring collections, with her sponsor, Chemstrand, picking up the tab. At four of the six showings, Barbra was late, partly because she was ill and partly because she is Barbra. Dior delayed it 10 minutes while the Duchess of Windsor, among others, waited. "I didn't expect them to delay for me," said Barbra later. "No wonder the duchess looked so grouchy."
Barbra didn't like the Paris prices ("They sew buttons better here but they also charge more") and the styles didn't send her. At Gres, watching a large tent dress sway past, she whispered: "You'd never be able to tell what was going on under there." At Dior, though, she broke down and bought day dresses, suits, evening gowns, sports clothes, hats, shoes and coats, costing a snappy $20,000, as though she were putting together an order of sandwiches, to go, from the Stage Delicatessen.
Barbra was not the ideal carefree traveler of the tour ads. She never could get her mind away from her work. While craning her neck at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, she remembered, through her wonder at Michelangelo, that she was going to have to go back to the hotel to audition an English actor for the male lead in the London Funny Girl. On a visit to the Louvre, she admired the diamonds in the crown of a Bourbon king, opened her Nefertiti eyes wide at how the paint on a mummy case had survived the centuries and then asked Erlichman: "How about that clinker I made in that song on the show?'' referring to a variation from pitch that just might be delectable on an oscillograph. When Erlichman told her there were only a handful of people in the world capable of detecting it, she said, "That's enough. I'll do it over."
This absorption, this pursuit of perfection, is not just fear of failure or vanity. It mirrors Barbra's deep respect for the theater, a sense almost of purity about it.
"There is a holiness about the theater," she says. "There are certain laws you cannot break. I can only explain it in terms of what other people do wrong. When an actor breaks the barrier between audience and stage, when he all of a sudden includes the audience, it is the worst thing he can do. It is cheap and vulgar. The magic is gone. You can't include the audience by looking out front, smiling when they smile and agreeing with them. By being involved in the play you include them the most.
"I hate the theater and I love it. I hate it desperately because it is so intangible. You go from night to night constantly re-creating. But I find out how I can manipulate, how to work on moments, and how to get the audience to understand. The relationship between audience and performer is interesting and dreadful. The spontaneous reaction is the greatest and also the most frustrating. I love the grandeur and formality of the ballet and the opera. If an audience likes you they stand up and throw roses. This is the way it should be—the audience should stand and yell bravo, or boo."
When Barbra flies to London this week to prepare for a three-month stint in Funny Girl, her actor-husband Elliott will be working in California or New York and will be able to visit her only about once a month. This will be the first time in two years she hasn't had him around. She regards him as one of the chief factors in her success and the guardian of her psychological equilibrium. She relies on him greatly.
The separation comes at a time when Barbra says the excitement she felt when she was just closing in on success is no longer there. "When you are doing something, it is nowhere as interesting as the thought," she says. "It is depressing."
"My success? The only way I can account for it is that whatever ability other performers have, I must have it plus. Onstage I am a cross between a washwoman and a princess. I am a bit coarse, a bit low. a bit vulgar and a bit ignorant. But I am also part princess—sophisticated, elegant and controlled. I can appeal to everybody."
But with this hard-eyed self-perception comes the ever-present self- doubt. She adds: "When I am not performing, however, I don't think I have that definite a personality. I think maybe I have nothing."
Related: Color Me Barbra TV Show
Eppridge Photo Outtakes
Below are alternate shots by Bill Eppridge, the photographer who captured the cover image of Streisand.