From Barbra Streisand – The Last Word

Cosmopolitan Magazine February 1974

Vulnerable, suspicious, spontaneous … this actress of infinite fancies is dancing to a new beat and a subjugating man!

By Peter Evans

From Barbra Streisand, the last wordThis, Miss Barbra Streisand declared, after almost a year’s silence and professional inertia, will be her final interview with the press. One reason for this traumatic turn in the life of a Hollywood film actress is that Miss Streisand’s incalculable moods and tidal fancies tend to invalidate her responses almost before they are uttered, and certainly before they are in print. “Just the nature of being interviewed disturbs me, therefore what I say comes out hostile or negative or defensive,” she says. “When I try to put things into words, the whole meaning of what I feel is altered. Anyway, interviews stick but I change.”

Thus, she carefully explained in London not long ago, the views she expressed and the things she said in Hollywood last year, when the preparation of this article began, are not necessarily relevant today. She was feeling decidedly down then, she said chronicling the difficulties of communication. Her remarks were negative and had an almost obituary odor about them she now found fallacious and unpleasant to read. Now she was up, she added, and felt altogether different.

“She is too totally honest and too candid for the world we live in, for the business she’s in,” thinks her manager, Marty Erlichman. “I tell her, ‘Barbra, make your interview like another scene. Have your big interview scene. I’ll give you the right dialogue and attitudes and you can rehearse it like another role.’ But she can’t fake.”

Astonishingly, there is about her still, a decade since Funny Girl made her a Broadway legend and led on to world acclaim, the classic confusion of all sudden success after prolonged hard times. She refuses to be the “honest hypocrite” of Hazlitt’s axiom about actors, refuses to live the voluntary dream he supposed all entertainers gladly lived. Even so, she is wary of the perils of too much candor in a business built on deception and artifice. “There’s a line in Joan of Arc,” she once told me, “about she who tells the truth shall surely be caught. It’s absolutely true. There is no place for truth today.”

Yet, unable to condone or perpetuate the convenient falsities of stardom, she intimated some severe surgery was required on our original interview conducted at her home in Beverly Hills. Indeed, she was now going through a positive stage in her life and would prefer to start the article from scratch – preferably without having any quotations attributed to her at all. An inspired and rooted innovator, Miss Streisand appears keen to become the first performer to bring government briefing techniques to show-business profiles. Fortunately, for what may well be her farewell interview, she consented to be judiciously quoted on a number of subjects upon which she feels fairly consistent, provided we hurry.

“Let me tell you another reason why I don’t like interviews,” Miss Streisand said over lunch at Elstree Studios, where she was currently making her first television special in five years, called Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments. “Because you’re here I’m not having lunch with the director, the producer. I’m not discussing the shots and angles we’ll be working on for the next seven or eight hours. Yet what goes into those hours is forever, for posterity, that’s my show and a part of my life. The next hours are going to be crucial to me for a very long time. But what am I going to get out of an interview? It doesn’t help the work to do an interview. I can’t win. I can only lose.”

Her directness is both awesome and admirable, but, often unconsciously couched in the bullying accents of Brooklyn, it can unsettle other actors and has earned her a reputation for being difficult, dictatorial, even ruthless. “Nobody,” Walter Matthau told her during the filming of Hello Dolly, “in this company likes you.” It is a complaint she would like us to believe she takes easily in her stride. She might even sympathize with the sentiments. Why act, she wants to know, if you like yourself? No actress can really like herself, otherwise there would be no motivation.

The moment she walks on to a film set she is totally absorbed in her work. Her concentration and self-discipline at such moments, she agrees, may be unattractive to the non-professional observer and to some professional detractors, but it is her style and it is too late to change that now. “I have to work with a certain amount of tension,” she shrugs. If she says she cannot play a scene because she doesn’t believe in it – because it’s not real, not visceral – does that make her difficult? It might offend some people’s clichéd ideas of femininity, she concedes, but little else. “I’m accused of being a perfectionist. Well, maybe I am.” Yet, almost gleefully she will point out that her covers are too short for the chairs and sofa. “The truth is, I still compromise at every turn. There is no such thing as perfection without a certain amount of sterility.”

She is thirty-two years old, a superstar, the only performer in history to win the major prizes in every area of entertainment, including an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy. Despite early reports likening her looks to such zoological curiosities as amiable ant-eaters and myopic gazelles, she is today simply, gravely beautiful. “Ten years ago,” explains Richard Avedon, who was flown to London to photograph her for Vogue magazine, “she simply decided to be beautiful, and now she is. It’s sheer willpower.” At lunch Miss Streisand became obsessed with a new diet chart (her willpower stops short of the dining table: she says she is ten pounds overweight) and frequently interrupted our conversation to announce the number of calories in pork chops, fried chicken, rice pudding, cream puffs and other Streisand favorites.

It has been almost a year since she completed her last film, The Way We Were, a love story, with Robert Redford. I asked whether she found it difficult to return to work after such a prolonged lay-off. She didn’t think in those terms. It’s no picnic, she said, sweltering in a heavy gown with Victorian lace up to your neck and eighty musicians waiting to go home at five o’clock on the dot, and having just fifteen minutes to do your number after the electricians have finally got the lighting right. If you want to say that’s hard, she allowed, it’s hard. “But it’s also interesting, challenging, and if it comes out right, rewarding.”

There is an assurance about her now – perhaps the brittle assurance of a woman half in love – that hasn’t been there before. Still vulnerable, suspicious, spontaneous, still growing, she has nevertheless outgrown the massive, wrenching self doubts that plagued her for years after she was stricken with success at twenty-three. “When I’m not performing,” she reflected in the early days, “I don’t think I have that definite a personality. I think maybe I have nothing.” Her sense of insecurity was never far away, like a sniper in the gods. The Academy Award she got for Funny Girl might have been something to bite on to ease the pain. “Part of our society kills what it loves, despises what it’s created. It really hates success. It’s for the underdog … you’ve got to be destroyed, buried, pushed right back down again.” Her father, a schoolteacher, died when she was fifteen months old. Memories of her childhood are not happy ones. “From the day I was born, I was trying to get out. I’ve never been nostalgic about my past.”

The crazy days of her early fame over, now securely rich, famous an independent – she is divorced from actor Elliott Gould and has a six-year-old son, Jason – Miss Streisand is curiously ambivalent about her career, which has reached its most interesting juncture. Up the Sandbox has been less than triumphant, despite fine notices for her performance as a repressed, fantasizing mother. Emotionally controlled, minutely observed and minus the usual Streisand schtick, it is arguable the best performance of her career. Perhaps genuinely baffled by the failure of Sandbox – produced by the First Artists company (comprising herself, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier) and her first film over which she has exercised any control despite rumors to the contrary – she now sees her future from a different and more personal aspect. There has, she intimates, been some deep self-appraisal of late and a definite shift of emphasis in her interior life and values.

Such statements are not uncommon among Hollywood’s leading ladies, particularly after any time spent in analysis, but Miss Streisand’s distinct change of pace is quietly impressive and more hopeful. “My object now is to get rid of all my professional obligations, to conclude any contracts I have, to do whatever I must to be free of commitments. With records, television, films, I’ve spent ten years in bondage more or less. Now I want to work only when I want to work. If I want to go and live in Nepal for six months, fine, I can do it.”

At least part of the reason for this cathartic phase is personal and, to the doubtless disapproval of Women’s Lib, which as long considered Miss Streisand one of the gang, designed to accommodate the man in her life – Jon Peters, a twenty-eight-year-old Hollywood hairdresser. “I like to accompany him on his business travels. I feel terribly guilty having to work. He doesn’t want to be around when I’m working – and I don’t want him to be because my concentration goes right out the window. The other day he came to rehearsal, for instance, and the musical director asked me if I wanted three bars or four in a certain spot … and I didn’t know and I didn’t care. Yet if he hadn’t been there, I would’ve known exactly. It’s a terrible thing – but I actually enjoy being subjugated to him. Not in a personal or physical sense – I still need to be respected in my own right – but in terms of our work. I don’t need to work anymore to feed my ego. I get all the ego nourishment I need from him.”

How long Miss Streisand’s new attitude will last is anybody’s guess. Right now she appears determined enough. “Like I’m doing this television special and it’s quite fun for eight weeks in a year. I enjoy seeing some of my ideas come to life. But now I’m interested in my career only to a degree. It’s like a hobby, you know what I mean? But I’m still me. I may change, but I’d never trade my life for anybody’s. I like my life. I like what I’ve done. I like what I’m going to do.

Barbra Streisand may never give another interview. It really doesn’t matter. She will remain one of the most interesting and worthwhile actresses around.


[ top of page ]