Searching in Vain for Barbra ‘The Terrible’

March 5, 1972

by Dan Knapp

“I wish that just once, someone would write about the real me,” said Barbra Streisand. “I'm really not what they say I am. Sometimes I'd like to be, though. That other, bitchy person, I mean. My god, I'd be so much more interesting.”

The lady in question was sitting in the living room of her large but far from ostentatious manor house in Holmby Hills. She looks more like a pleasant girl you would like to take out for dinner than the superstar who has sold millions of records, performed time and time again to SRO nightclub audiences. In the quiet of her tastefully decorated house, a whisper of her spectacular film career rings in your ears: "Funny Girl," "Hello, Dolly!", "The Owl and the Pussycat," "On a Clear Day" . . . 40 feet high and 80 feet wide. One of the few bona fide female "stars," as critic Paulene Kael puts it, to come down the celluloid pike in more than a decade.

During that same decade, everyone from supersniper Rex Reed to the questionable queens of the gummy gossip column world have put her down. She's cut from monstrous cloth, they have said and written. She is difficult. She demands. She demoralizes and demeans. At the drop of an imaginary affront, she turns into a gorilla, throws banana peels at trembling go-fers and fans.

But is she? Does she?

At first, the dressing trailer at Warner Bros., where she was filming a wacky, nostalgic comedy called "What’s Up, Doc?" with Ryan O'Neal, pulled you toward just such a preconception. Ornate, overly large, velvet and crystal laden, it was reminiscent of those private railroad cars the biggies rode about in at the turn of the century. But then the first words out of her mouth were a rap at this small monument to bad taste. "Isn't it awful?" she had said. "I didn't ask for it and it makes me feel uncomfortable. It's not good for morale on the set."

O'Neal had joined her for lunch. “What's she gonna do in a situation like this?” he asked. “If she requests another trailer, the studio knocks her for being hard to please. And if she doesn't, everybody here on the set figures she's strutting. She can't win.”

The lunch had been easygoing, full of fun, teasing and lots of loving glances. They had been seeing one another for almost a year. That seems to be over now, but the impressions from the luncheon interview were those of two people happily, playfully in love. And of a lady willing to, eager to, take a back seat to her less prominent costar. She had kidded herself—through O’Neal—about the remnant remembrances of her Brooklyn girlhood. She had let him dominate the conversation, she had wanted the interviewer to concentrate on him. Strutty? Over-bearingly dominant? Self-centered?

Star on Her Own Terms

Nor did she seem so here at home. Sitting there, one could understand what had drawn O'Neal into her orbit. She isn't the girl in the Breck Shampoo ads, but there is something regally, sensually appealing about the Egyptianesque profile, the glowing skin and the huge hazel eyes. Listening to her, watching her, no one would have guessed that she was fatigued by the effects of a heavy, lingering cold. There were other, more important things to think of. She'd made it from relative obscurity to international fame on her own terms, without capping her teeth, realigning her nose or changing her name. And she was fed up with the bad raps they'd been giving her.

A servant brought in a tea tray, and Barbra sipped some as she recounted an incident that had happened the week before. One of L.A.'s television gossip gargoyles had reported that Streisand had stormed off the "What's Up, Doc?" set in a huff.

“Nothing like that even came close to happening,” Barbra said. “How can they report things like that? It just proves that they don't know what this business is really all about. No one who is a bitch to the people she or he works with gets to the top. There's too much cooperative effort, too many people involved in that kind of success. And even if someone like that did make it, he wouldn't last very long. Because no one would work with him. The unfortunate thing is that millions of people who don't know the industry read and listen to that nonsense and believe it.”

Beyond her, light from a floodlit pool seeped in through high, arched glass doors, adding to illumination from converted kerosene lamps. Handsomely decorated in mid-Victorian, the room was filled with patterned couches, crystal chandeliers, sculpture, two walls of well-worn books, antique vases and a 15-foot-high carved wooden fireplace. Behind flowers and ferns, ancient sheet music for something called “My Yiddisha Butterfly” sat on the rack of a grand piano covered by a Spanish shawl. Only one photograph was observable: a simple red leather-framed likeness of her handsome 4-year-old boy, Jason, whose father is Barbra's ex-husband, Elliott Gould.

Her marital problems have not been the smallest source of frequent journalistic distortion. “I'm vulnerable to that sort of thing,” she says. “I hate it. People tell me to forget about it, not pay any attention to it. But how can I bring the natural quality of being vulnerable, how can I be vulnerable in my work and not be vulnerable about things like that? It's like asking you not to be yourself.

“The most ironic aspect of it is that I don't seek interviews, publicity. The only interviews I've ever given are to people who won't take no for an answer. It's easier in the long run. But then they come in and expect to see me acting like a bitchy prima donna. And when I don't, they have to manufacture something to fit the concept of a story about me that they started with. I guess some people think their sense of 'journalism' is more interesting, more exciting than the truth.

“Well, the truth in my case is that I'm a very dull person. Very simple. Very ordinary. I like to stay at home, keep to myself and my real friends. To me, the whole idea of being a star is a pain. For some people, it's fine. Sophia Loren is a star. Being a star is her whole life. And that's fine, for her. Me, I run away from that sort of thing. I don't want it or need it. The only part of it that interests me is my work. And even that gets to me sometimes. I didn't even look at a script for a year and a half after ‘The Owl and the Pussycat.’ I was tired. I'd done four pictures in a row. I had a baby to think about. And it had all gotten to be such a grind that I actually almost decided not to work any more.”

Blend of Beauty, Utility

She was showing a visitor through the house now, graciousness outweighing the need to treat her cold with rest, brandy and hot lemonade. Everywhere there was a curious mixture of costly, beautiful things and simple, inexpensive, functional household items; the latter perhaps a secure link, a hand-hold on the more realistic working-class years of her childhood. She skipped extended comment about the modern paintings by Allan Jones and the Pop sculpture by Frank Gallo in her contrastingly stark, black and white foyer. But she was proud of the little wicker wastebaskets she'd painted, turned over and topped with glass—for end tables—near her enormous, down-quilted bed.

“That's the way I am,” she said. “I like beautiful things. I love this house. But I don't like things too beautiful. Too perfect. That's unreal.”

In a nearby bathroom, she pointed to a pair of lovely bird prints. “I was shopping for some new ones,” she said. “Jason uses this bathroom and he'd grown tired of the baby prints that were in here. He's something, that kid. Anyway, I told him he could select them himself. He went through at least two dozen and finally picked these. I didn't look at the signature on them until we got home and hung them up.” She pointed again. “‘By J. Gould.‘ Can you believe that from a 4-year-old?”

Downstairs, she ignored the damp night air and walked with her visitor to his car. “I like to work extra days—for things rather than money,” she said. “The money doesn't really mean much to me. Not the amounts my business manager handles, anyway. I worked an extra day or so in ‘On a Clear Day . . .’ for a pair of leaded glass Victorian windows. I made some real money from them. Fox rented them back from me for $500 to use in ‘The Great White Hope.’

“I put money like that into a little account I have in the Seaman's Bank for Savings in New York City. I was 16 when I opened it. I was working as a baby sitter and as a cashier in a Chinese takeout restaurant. I have about $2,000 in that account. It's the only real money I have. Some day, if it all gets to be a little too much to stand, I'm going to take the money out of that little bank account and run away.”

No lady gorilla, no monster within sight or earshot that night. Only the words of Peter Bogdanovich, her much-acclaimed director on “What's Up, Doc?”: “I don't think there ever was a Barbra ‘The Terrible,’” he had said on the set that day.

“The impression from the media has been that she is very difficult to work with. Well, from the start I've found her a pussycat. She has a lot of ideas. A lot of insecurities. And they make her question many things, particularly about herself and what she is doing. But that's healthy, natural. She likes things done right. But that doesn't make her an ogre. Barbra is difficult only in delightful ways. After all, she's a woman. I only wish there were more women like her in the industry.”

End.

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