Bewitched, Barbra'd And Bewildered
by Guy Flatley
January 21, 1973
Once upon a time, in a far off land called Brooklyn, there lived a girl named Barbara, and to tell the truth, she was no great beauty. Not once did Prince Charming cart her off to the ball, or even to the corner candy store; and no one—not even her mom—ever seemed to listen to her. So the melancholy waif made a promise to herself: one day everyone would listen to her. They'd listen because she would be bright and amusing and beautiful and sexy and adorable and talented.
Talented she was, from the beginning. So talented that, in time, she was able to make the rest of her impossible dream come true. Not overnight, of course. At first—belting out hot ditties at the Bon Soir or making like a bush league Martha Raye on Jack Paar's TV show—she was chunky and unkempt, brash and abrupt. But Barbara—by now Barbra—was nothing if not a quick study, and before long she was giving a boffo audition for a Broadway musical called I Can Get It For You Wholesale, and shortly thereafter swiping the show out from under its stupefied star Elliott Gould. And, at the same time, stealing his heart away, a theft which resulted in what seemed a story-book marriage.
What more, you may well ask, could a self-made Cinderella ask for? A breathtaking triumph as the greatest star by far in Funny Girl? An Oscar for the movie version of the same show? The thrill of having her once laughable looks likened to those of an exotic Modigliani beauty? The chance to be wooed both on and off the screen by Ryan O'Neal? Her very own movie company to toy with—assuring her the privilege of being up-front in every scene of Up the Sandbox? The treat of being Robert Redford's heartthrob in The Way We Were? A plea from Ingmar Bergman to waltz through his new movie of The Merry Widow?
What are you—kidding? Barbra's had all that—and then some. And yet ... somehow, somewhere along the road to the superstar ball, Cinderella's horses turned into leeches, her nice new coach became infested with worms, and the whole fairy tale flew right over the rainbow. In its place, shaking an in-stained finger and pounding vehemently on her typewriter keys, there appeared a wicked old stepmother and her name was Rotten Press.
Suddenly gossip columnists were busily buzzing that Barbra had a big head, that she was a brassy boss-woman bellowing commands to puppet-directors, that she gave even the most prestigious reporters the brush-off—all but burping in their faces if they dared to burrow for anything but the puffiest trivia.
As this portrait of the artist as a young monster mushroomed, a badly bruised Barbra cried “ouch” and then “stop the press!” These days, she steps gingerly—if at all—with journalists. The interview she gave me, for example, was negotiated with the delicacy normally reserved for papal audiences and peace talks, and it was granted only after Barbra's right to approve—or to kill—her quotes was firmly established.
Quote approval or no quote approval, it isn't anything Barbra says—as she sweeps into her suite at the Sherry-Netherland—that makes you stand up and pay respectful attention. It's the way she looks. Full-bosomed—but trim—in black sweater and pants, she is, miraculously, the dazzler she always dreamed she'd be. Her brown hair is long and silky, her skin is pale perfection, and her eyes are intense green. Even the prominent nose, once a joke, now seems a mere touch of madness in the Modiglianic method.
After settling Jason, her 5-year-old dynamo of a son, down in the other room, Barbra immediately makes it clear that there is more on her mind than plugging Up the Sandbox. What's bugging her is an earlier New York Times interview one written by Rex Reed back in 1966, depicting her as a rude, gum-snapping, banana-eating egomaniac. Barbra feels that the interview was distortion and that its sole purpose was to further the career of a budding hatchet man. Some time later, the contrite Reed sent her a note saying, “Now that I'm a celebrity in my own right, I know what it's like to have the vultures descend on me.”
But to this day, Barbra does not buy that particular slice of humble pie, and her reasons for not buying it are outrageously quotable. “Rex Reed ———,” says Barbra, her eyes ablaze. And then, to prove she is not one to mince words, she takes a deep breath and adds, “——.”
While Barbra is not in the habit of mincing words, she is in the habit of asking for quote approval, which explains the blanks above, as well as the following message received shortly after my interview with her. “It was such a long time ago and it's not important any more. I'd rather just talk about now. And just the other day I read a lovely piece Rex Reed wrote on Up the Sandbox, so why not remember that?”
During our interview, however, she is less inclined to let journalistic bygones be bygones and she also stresses her impatience with the uncouth practice some eager-beaver reporters make of prying into her love life. For instance, try asking her to comment on her rumored romances with Ryan O'Neal and Pierre Trudeau, and all you get in the way of a reply are a gasp, a blush, a pair of crossed eyes and “Well, I have very eclectic tastes.”
Perhaps she'd like to say a word or two about ex-husband Elliott Gould? “Once you have loved someone they become a part of what you were and therefore part of what you are. After all, how many people does one love in a lifetime?”
Could it be that Barbra, like various other liberated spirits, considers marriage an obsolete institution? “No! I'm old-fashioned; I believe in marriage. A husband and children—that's happiness.”
As a matter of fact, Barbra strongly identifies with Margaret, the fertile housewife of Up the Sandbox. “There is a part of me that longs to stay home and be with my child, to discover the best butcher shops and bakeries, to feed the people I love. But there is another part of me that needs a form of expression other than bearing children, just as there is another part of Margaret that feels love is not enough. She'd like to go back to school, to write, to find where she belongs without putting herself into a niche. She doesn't want to be just a housewife or just a career woman.”
Some people feel that Margaret made such a career of daydreaming that it's a wonder she ever got any housework done. “Fantasies can make a rich inner life,” Barbra insists. “They can lead you places. If I never had a fantasy about being an actress, perhaps I wouldn't have become one. More than anything, I wanted to be recognized. That's why I started singing—so that somebody would listen to me.”
Now they not only listen but they look and they touch. Does Barbra ever yearn to gash her way out of the gold fish bowl? “I've lost my anonymity, but that's the price of fame. You can't have everything, and the things I get in return for my lack of privacy are worth it.”
According to Barbra, the most worthwhile thing to come her way in a long while has been her membership—along with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier and Dustin Hoffman—in First Artists, the production company responsible for Up the Sandbox. “This is the first picture I've done over which I've had some control. That's why all those stories about my having so much power in the past are so ludicrous. People who have been in films with me and have had their parts cut short blame it on me, as if I had any say-so in the matter. It's a case of people's ego defending their failures.”
Not that Barbra suffers from hyper-timidity. “It's true, part of me is very self assertive but part of me is also reserved and unsure. In some ways it boils down to the old male-female stereotypes. If a female is self-assertive with a man, particularly in a work situation, he is said to be castrating, or some other equally old-fashioned ridiculous term. But women have been castrated for years. And in a professional situation where men and women come together as equals, often this term is used as a man's excuse for his inability to accept equality. It also tells far more about the man that it does about the woman.
“After all, what is it that makes a woman whole? Or what is it that makes a man whole? We all have qualities of the other sex, organically as well as emotionally. A man must have so-called female traits—sensitivity, gentleness, vulnerability. But does that make him less a man? Does it make a woman less a woman to be strong?”
The phone rings and, for the second time, it is the man at the Sherry-Netherland desk insisting that nobody has registered for her suite. “What do you mean, nobody's registered?” Barbra asks, her hand on her hip and her foot beginning to tap. “This is Barbra Streisand, and I'm here, so I must be registered.”
She hangs up with a shrug, and suddenly there's a knock on the door. In an instant, lunch is being served. “I want to make sure the meat is good,” says Barbra, quickly jabbing a piece of Jason's steak. Satisfied, she urges her son to eat. “That's the Jewish mother in me,” she smiles, munching her chicken salad on toast.
Barbra's relationship with her own mother apparently runs both hot and cold. When asked if Margaret's meddlesome mom in Up the Sandbox is anything like her own, Barbra doesn't say no. “The family in the movie is partly based on my family,” she admits. “That scene at the door—when Margaret tells her mother she doesn't want to see her today—I've played that scene with my own mother several times. But it's not really particular to my mother; it's a general feeling many people have toward their parents at one time or another. I'm not interested in doing things that are particular only to me.”
Nor is Barbra interested in being typed in a particular role. “People want to put you in a mold. They want you to play the same part over and over again so that you can represent their idea of what they think you are. In the old-time movies they used to do that all the time. Certain stars could never step out of their molds. But that can be stifling and I refuse to be put into a mold. As I try to grow as a person, I must continue to try to grow as an artist.”
There's another knock on the door. This time, it's a Sherry-Netherlander humbly requesting that Barbra sign the register. More or less humbly, Barbra signs, while Jason spins through the room chanting, “My Name is Jason Streisand, my name is Jason Streisand.”
“Gould, darling, your name is Jason Gould,” Barbra says softly.
“My name is Jason Gould Streisand,” he sings, merrily skidding out of the room.
But getting back to Barbra's growth as an actress—will we be seeing a brand new Streisand in The Way We Were? “I play a college girl—a radical political activist who falls in love with a man who sees life from an entirely opposite point of view. The film is about our attempt to make a life together in spite of our differences. It's a love story played against the political background of the late 1930's through the early 50's.”
Barbra herself does not claim to be a political sophisticate, even though she campaigned for McGovern and is a close friend of Bella Abzug, who visited the set of Up the Sandbox several times to express her fervent hope that the movie would do its lib bit. On the other hand, Barbra believes what she believes with an impressive passion.
“I can't understand the Nixon landslide. Maybe people are afraid of change; it's as if they've grown almost comfortable with corruption. I mean, Nixon is so obviously dishonest. His promise to end the war in Vietnam was just par for the course, wasn't it? I don't know—it's all so destruction, so self-destructive.
“But then I believe the world is moving toward inevitable self-destruction. Frustration is at a high point. I don't know why we've gone to the moon, do you? Spending all that money to go there and saying 'screw you' to the people who need to be fed here. I say live life for today: feed the people on earth, and then worry about getting to the moon.
“Something has happened to this country's sense of morality. In Up the Sandbox, for example, there is no violence and no blood. But we received an R-rating. Why? Because a woman's breast is shown. There is nothing dirty about breasts. What kind of morality do you have when people would rather have children see blood and gore than a woman's breast?”
Does it follow that Barbra would act in the buff in a non-violent movie? “That's an interesting question,” Barbra says after a moment's meditation. “The answer is no. Like the information about my love life, my body is not for public display. Of course, it's a social thing. If society would say to hide your face and show your body, you'd see me hiding my face and showing my body. But that's me—one foot in the 19th century, and one foot in the 20th.”
Even though you won't be seeing all of Barbra on screen in this century, you're sure to be seeing a lot of her. She's what she always wanted to be now—a moooooovie star. “I don't want to return to the Broadway stage, because I don't like the feeling of being judged night after night. When people all over the world are watching me in a movie, I can be home taking a bath, but to have to stand out on stage every night and bear the brunt ... it's exhausting.”
Barbra shudders. “I played Funny Girl a thousand times, and every audience was different. I could tell what their personality was by the sound of the rustling as they were getting into their seats and by how they responded to the overture. I knew when they were there to enjoy themselves. The ones who came to enjoy—the positive ones—were the ones I worked hardest for. If they came openly to me, I felt the need to give. If I felt negative vibrations, I held back.”
But all the world's a stage, not just Broadway, and it's possible that Barbra might one day try a little rep. “I am interested in doing some of the classics. I've always wanted to play Juliet. And L'Aiglon and Camille and Medea. I'd also like to play Shaw's Cleopatra, and—when I'm older—Shakespeare's Cleopatra. It's challenging to take a role people have seen played many times and bring it alive again. I like comparisons, I enjoy risks.”
One thing Barbra does not enjoy is to hear people say that actors have no brains. “I've heard Truman Capote say all actors are dumb and that maybe Marlon Brando is the dumbest of all. Well, he's dumb for saying that. He was being provocative, but he was doing it at somebody else's expense. Any actor worth his salt is intelligent. As for Brando—my God, he has genius! Brando is the only actor who ever really touched me.”
Barbra's right about Brando. And wouldn't it be swell if he could play Caesar to her Cleopatra—once upon a time?