BARBRA STREISAND: Tough, Temperamental, Tremendous
Cosmopolitan (Australia edition)
Adored by many . . . loathed by some . . . always revered, she's the most fabulous leading lady of them all, but superstar Streisand is not content to cultivate just one talent. The girl with the golden voice who became a stunningly successful screen star has made another ambitious leap . . . to produce a film in which she also acts and sings.
By LAWRENCE B EISENBERG
Exterior. Day. The field of Sun Devil Stadium at the University of Arizona in Phoenix. The sky is turquoise, with clouds of white coral, and the scene itself is a study in frantic momentum pitched against enormous stillness. On the stadium's stage, which is surrounded by rising ladders and huge arc lights, activity is frenzied . . people race around, setting up wires and grouping gigantic amplifiers. Meanwhile the entire, enormous field, whose grass is golf-course velvet, is empty, except for an odd assemblage gathered on the 20-yard line. There, like something out of a Fellini movie, 14 tables are set for lunch, with pink tablecloths and flowers. The temperature is 83 degrees, but in this little oasis, constructed to accommodate 150 members of the visiting press, moisture, in the guise of California Chablis, beer, and diet soda, is abundant.
We picnickers at the pink tables have been assembled to witness a location shooting for A Star is Born, and an entire rock concert is to be staged as “background”. That's all going to happen tomorrow, though, and for now, most of us are occupied with the hope that we will talk with any, or, all of the following: Barbra Streisand, the film's executive producer and star; Jon Peters, producer and live-in companion to Barbra; Kris Kristofferson, Streisand's co-star; Bill Graham, Americas' foremost rock entrepreneur, here to stage the concert; and Frank Pierson, the film's director and co-screenwriter.
All the aforementioned are the leading biggies in the fourth movie version of this classic (first made in 1931 by George Cukor, then in 1937 by David O. Selznick, and again by Cukor in 1957), and, in case you're wondering why three times around wasn't enough …well … Barbra Streisand became very interested in the project a few years back, and any vehicle for which the superstar shows enthusiasm is taken seriously by the entire industry. The plot goes like this: Esther Blodgett, small-town girl, arrives in Hollywood, gets a break largely through the efforts of film star and drunk Norman Maine, changes her name to Vicki Lester, becomes a gigantic star. She and Maine fall in love, get married, Norman's career goes down the drain (as does Norman, by drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean) and, in the fadeout, the heroine walks onto the stage of a theatre filled with thousands of people, is introduced as “Vicki Lester!” and says, plaintively: “Good evening, this is Mrs. Norman Maine.” Fadeout and everybody sobs for a week.
In this version, Esther Blodgett is Esther Hoffman and she refuses to change her name or her nose, though neither decision hampers her rise to pop music superstardom. The hero is rock star John Norman Howard, who, in the tradition of the original Norman Maine character, is still self-destructive. And though the ending is similar in spirit, you'll have to see it for particulars.
The picnic crowd is growing restive and hot sun broiling the sweet Chabilis in jumpy stomachs is not helping. Still no stars.
Then, without warning, like the birth of Venus, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson are standing together in the field, 20 feet away. Life size, but seeming larger, they're laughing at some private joke for the public's sake. Barbra Streisand, let it be hereby known, is beautiful. She's thin, her flawless skin is tanned, making her eyes bluer, her hair is flecked with blonde.
Kristofferson, his hair and beard vaguely blond, is tall, thin, and extraordinarily handsome in dark-brown pants, boots, and a shiny brown shirt. And to complete the perfect fan magazine picture, another man appears by Barbra's side. He is, of course, Jon Peters, Barbra's lover, and producer, a good-looking man of 30.
One of the press crew asks the inevitable, if idiotic, question: “How does it feel to work with your husband?”
Barbra runs her tongue across her lips, smiles at Jon and back at her audience. “Wonda-ful,” she say, “but he's not my husband.“
“Do you think he will be?” asks the reporter.
“He's not my husband yet,” she says.
“Is she hoping?”
“Am I hoping?” She smiles and doesn't answer.
“Is Jon hoping?”
“I hope so,” she says. (Fadeout.)
Fade in . . . a few hours later . . . Jon Peters is between conferences and I introduce myself. This is his first effort at movie producing, and Hollywood, drawing the obvious conclusions as to why Peters has been chosen to make his debut on a multimillion dollar film, isn't altogether benevolent. Nobody is trying hard to forget that the former hairdresser's first contact with the star took place when he was engaged to trim her wig. That was during the filming of For Pete's Sake, with Barbra just emerging from her real life ugly-duckling-Jewish-girl-from-Brooklyn phase. Soon after that Barbra became her gorgeous self and Jon quit cutting hair to become Streisand's lover, adviser, friend, roommate, and finally, producer.
“Is it true,” I ask him, “that Barbra was 90 minutes late for your first appointment and you said 'Don't ever do that to me again!'?”
He nods, “Pretty much. But it was 45 minutes. I wouldn't have waited 90.
“Actually I met Barbra when I was ending a cycle in my life. I'd been in business for 17 years and one of the people I'd never done was Barbra. I didn't want to quit without doing her, so I put out a call to people that I'd go anywhere anytime to cut her hair. Later I was in Paris and Barbra was there too and she saw somebody's hair that I'd cut and called me. We've been together ever since.”
“Is there much of a difference between being a producer and running a beauty parlour?” I ask.
He sips his soda. “Business is business. It was high pressure before, though not as intense as this. I've been working at this project for 2 1/2 years and then it has to be shot in just 13 or 14 weeks! That's such an intense period of time. Then, too, I'm living with Barbra, at the same time that I'm working with her and involved with all her creative concepts, her writing, directing, everything she's involved with. And, of course, that just makes the time we spend shooting all the more intense.”
“How do you feel about the industry's hostility to you?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I don't feel it. They want me to fail for their own reasons, and I don't want to fail for my reasons. People like to think I came from nowhere but that's not true. I mean, I had a very successful business for a very long time. I don't think that producing a film is any great magic. It's just a matter of a lot of hard work and dedication and getting the best people you can. I feel lucky to be working with a person, of Barbra's experience.”
How to delicately phrase the next question? “How do you feel about the hand-holding aspects of being a producer?”
Jon Peters shrugs. “Oh, I never held any hands in the hair business and I don't now. I ran my business the way I thought it should be run and I'm going to produce films the way I feel they have to be produced. I'm not too much of a coddler. I'm too truthful for that.”
On that note, Jon is abruptly called away and Kris Kristofferson, just as suddenly, materialises. In close-up, he is even better-looking. But this day has taken its toll. The lips are parched, the blue crystal eyes clouded. Although Kris has already had a couple of successful careers as a singer and composer (Me and Bobby McGee, Why Me, Lord, Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down) he is just emerging as a movie star, with credits including Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, Blume in Love, and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. And he's emerging very big. But not big enough, it is rumoured, to cope with Streisand, whose multifaceted talents are often translated as "meddling" and "ballbusting".
For Streisand, it should be said here, is more than just the star of this movie. She also rewrites dialogue, orders lenses, selects costumes (the onscreen credit reads "Clothes from Barbra's Closet") and is, some say, really directing the picture as well. And it is also said that her efforts as director have been causing problems with Kristofferson, who doesn't seem to know whose lead to follow. Does he do as Frank Pierson, here making his directorial debut (but with impressive writing credits, including an Academy Award for Dog Day Afternoon) says, or does he take Barbra's suggestions? The rumours multiply geometrically, the most often repeated of them holding that Kris's confusion has led to violent onset quarrel.
Putting such rumours out of my mind I hit Kris with an easy question: “How does it feel to be a superstar?”
Kris's eyebrows disappear into his hair. “Superstar?! That's all hype like Bruce Springsteen. He's a star for a minute, then sinks because the hype stops. I'd like to agree I've reached certain heights, but, hell, I can't handle what I have now. I may not even make it through the picture. I found a stuntman on the set today who looked just like me. I told everybody to remember who he was—just in case.”
I ask how he feels about this picture.
“It's one of the scariest things I've ever done. But, the better the people you work with, the better you are. Ellen Burstyn taught me a lot and so has Barbra. It's surprised me how authentic and real she is. We may just do something that is an honest portrayal of life in the music business—and if we pull that off, it'll be a first.”
“Have you ever had any fears,” I ask, “that you could go the same way as the hero of this movie?” (Drugs, alcohol, and death.)
“As recently as this morning,” Kristofferson laughs.
He is summoned away and I say, “It's a pleasure to shake the hand of a superstar.”
“Shake it quick,” he says, “It might be my stand-in next time.”
For an instant it's peaceful in the stadium but the instant is short. Because the next person coming at me is herself, Barbra Streisand. It's been a long, hot day, she's been up since 5 this morning and working out in the sun all afternoon, but have no fears, because she has the particular kind of strength that endures and that makes one particular individual sing better, act better, want better, and achieve better than the rest of us.
She looks at me inquisitively. “So, whadda ya wanna know? How come nobody said anything about my hair?” she asks.
“What about your hair?”
“I had it curled. I have straight hair. All my life I wanted curly hair.” All her life she wanted a lot of things and she's one of the few people alive who's gotten most of them. She made such a leap across the Brooklyn Bridge that it landed her in Beverly Hills, and became a star in the grand, almost archaic, tradition. As an example of the Streisand style, the two Ramada Inn suites she occupies for this three-week location stay have been emptied of their furniture, which was replaced by a truckload of Barbra's own, even to the shutters . Barbra Streisand can afford to live out childhood fantasies.
Matter of fact, I repeat something Jon Peters has told me (“Barbra is living out a fantasy”) and she mis-hears “Jon said I'm living in a fantasy?” she says, in the kind of amused voice that indicates when she corners him he's really going to get it. I clarify the statement, then ask, “Does Jon still do your hair?”
“Only when we're making out,” she giggles. She's obviously worked out a pat answer to all the questions and jokes about Jon, but then decides to add, “So what if Jon was a hairdresser! I mean, people say, 'My God, she's going with a hairdresser!' Is that not supposed to happen? It's a very narrow way of thinking. A lot of producers started off selling dresses in New York. They said the same kinda thing about me. 'How can she act when she's just a singer?' No one is just anything. The whole purpose of life is to grow, right?” She tickles the air with her index finger and begins to make designs in it. “Jon has done a lot to open my life. He's a very strong man. I'm basically lazy, and Jon looks after the business side of things. He's exposed me to a lot of things I wasn't aware of before, like gardening and health foods. He fights for what he believes in. He doesn't let people walk over him.” She sighs. “You know, being a woman today is a constant test. You always have to be more assertive than you were brought up to be.”
“What about your real-life relationship with Jon—are there any elements of that in the film?”
“It's all in there. The characters in the movie, they laugh, they fight, just like we do. Jon and I had a spitting fight the other day. Well, not a fight exactly. But we were in bed, and we were kind of yelling and drooling all over each other. And, you know, when you're in love even a fight is a very intimate thing. That's in the movie, too. Kris and I have a fight where we spit at each other.”
She nods thoughtfully. “We're not playing it safe in this movie. I just know the rating is gonna be 'R'. It ha-as to be. And, you know, as we go along, we pull our props out of everyday life, clothes from my closet at home, the grass, and the booze. They're the real thing. We're telling a contemporary story in contemporary terms,” She pauses. “I mean, we're using incidents right out of my own life. A scene where I'm eating spareribs in a restaurant and some people ask for autographs, and I say ‘I'm sorry, I can't, my fingers are all sticky,’ and they say, ‘We're not going to buy your records anymore. Who the . . .’, she gestures , . . do you think you are.”
I take a deep breath and volunteer, “You are very candid about most subjects, but you seem to hedge on the question of marriage.”
She raises her hand and moves it rapidly, like a teacher erasing a blackboard and smiles. “Maybe, but marriage is not the most vital issue in our lives right now. Jon talks about it. I talk about it. But not at the same time. There's a running bit between Kris and me in the movie. He's been asking me to marry him, but I keep putting it off. Then one day I say yes, and the outfit I'm wearing at the time is a man's suit. You get it? It turns the tables on all of that role-playing garbage. I'm all for women's liberation: do it because you feel it. All women should call their own shots, not in a militant manner, but with the conviction that they’ve got a helluva lot to offer other than looking pretty.”
Ironic words for Barbra Streisand, who was never either pretty or passive, but went, instead, from plain to beautiful with the determination of a guided missile.
“What do you expect to do when this is finished?”
“I was supposed to do The Merry Widow with Ingmar Bergman. He wrote the script. I read it and liked the first half. I asked him to rewrite. He refused, so I refused to do the film. I'd like to get into directing myself.”
She pauses, thinking this over. I don't remind her of the many people who hold that, to their sorrow, she is already directing.
“Why aren't other actresses as bankable as you?” I ask.
“They should get better bankers,” says the star.
“Is this the first time you're taking executive producer credit?”
Barbra nods, then gives me the rolling eyes of a doll you win in an amusement park: “I never had the power before. If I did, some of my movies would have been better. When I record an album I have complete artistic freedom. But when I've made movies in the past, I haven't had the same freedom. The director would say one thing, and although I might disagree, I always gave in, you know, him being the director and all. And, of course, I had no say in the editing or anything like that. In this movie, I'm in control.”
What Barbra is saying is in violent contradiction to the many rumours about her past off-camera performances. When she was making her first movie, Funny Girl, directed by screen veteran WiIliam Wyler, the tales of troubles between the two moved one wry sideliner to comment, “Give her a chance, this is the first movie she's ever directed.” The novel element here isn't Barbra's urge to power but that she doesn't have to fight for it.
“How do you feel about being the second biggest box-office star in the world?”
“The second?” She shrugs. “Who's first?”
She nods. “Oh, yeah, I hearda him.”
“How does Kris compare with Redford as a leading man?”
She nods and smiles broadly. “He has the quality of success and vulnerability that is so essential to the role. Today we're filming a scene where Kris comes out drunk on the stage during a concert and crashes a motorcycle while I'm singing. I'm too strong to let this ruin my career, but I love this man and I'm pissed off because he could have been killed. I say to him, ‘What are you going to do for an encore? Set yourself on fire?’ Kris has such honesty about him. I want him to cry in the movie. I want the man to cry . . . Kris is frightened a lot of the time, but that's part of the role, too. He has a macho femininity about him. He's what a man should be. In the film, Kris dies. My reaction — the reaction of a woman of today is first anger, then sorrow. At first I think, How dare this mother die and leave me alone? I'm furious; it seems so pointless. After he's dead I find a cassette with one of his songs on it. That's all there is left of him, that cassette. At the end of the movie, I go on stage and sing his song, lamenting his death with his own music.”
Her eyes seem on their way toward misting, but clear up quickly when she looks across the table, past my head and says, “Sit down, Kris.” Kristofferson falls into a chair.
“Kris said a lot of nice things about you,” I tell her.
Streisand smiles. “And I told you some nice things about him. He's great!”
For this eyes and ears of the world, Kris articulates, “She said I was an a...h..... !”
Barbra's smile gets broader. She purses her lips. “Listen, I call him an a...h..., but he's nice.
“We're trying to use real media, you know what I'm saying?” Not really. “When we record in this film we really record in a recording studio. When we do a concert we really do a rock concert. There's a scene where Kris and I are in a bathtub and I put makeup on him. We're concerned about role-playing. What is female, what is male. There are really no set roles any more.”
Now she hold up her hands, one featuring the celebrated lethal fingernails, those on the other hand an inch shorter. “The sacrifices one makes for ahht! This is my guitar-picking hand . . . I learned how to play for this movie. That's what's great about making movies. Like you have to learn how to ride a horse when you do a western . . .” Barbra is chatty now, almost relaxed, so, of course a production person chooses this moment to interrupt and tell her she's on “golden time” (overtime for crew).
Kris nods goodbye and strolls away with Barbra. They're two feet apart, but the distance appears impenetrable. Except to Jon Peters, who fills it. Kris move on ahead and Jon puts his arm around Barbra.
FADE IN ... We're at the back entrance to Sun Devil Stadium at 7:30 the following morning, and although the sun is up, the moon is still out. This is the day the big scene is to be shot, the one where the Kristofferson character literally and figuratively cracks up in front of a live audience, and as Streisand (or Pierson or Peters or some combination of the three) has determined that this scene is to be shot in front of a real audience of thousands, lots of trouble has been gone to. In order to attract the crowds, Streisand and company have with the help of entrepreneur Bill Graham, engaged several big-name rock groups, including Santana, Peter Frampton and the LA Jets, to do an actual concert.
I stagger out into the grandstand where 47,000 people face me. Not only are more people entering the stadium, but others seem to be crawling up a nearby hillside for a free vista, like religious pilgrims. Oblivious of the hour, the crowd is grooving on a performance by the LA Jets, and there is the smell of burning grass as it's passed from mouth to mouth. Everybody is having a good time.
At about a quarter to nine Barbra Streisand walks out onto the stage, in a shiny black outfit with spangles. She bows to the unbelievable applause and then her voice, magnified a trillion times, sails over the desert dunes. “We're gonna do rock-'n-roll today. That's what we're gonna do. And we're all gonna be in a movie . . . Let me tell you a little about it. In our movie, we're real ... we fight, scream, yell, we talk dirty (cheers), we smoke grass (this brings down the house). So listen, what we're gonna do now is meet Kris Kristofferson, my co-star. A great performer. So, when he comes on I know you all love him anyway, but you have to love him even more, you know, so we won't have any problems. So, in the lingo of the movie, I say, ‘All you m ....f.., have a great time!!!!!’” (Ovation.)
Kris comes out in the brown outfit of the day before and launches right into a song. After a few bars he stops, holds his hands up. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, stop talking, stop clapping, hold it, hold it!” He gestures towards his guitar. “This f-cord wasn't long enough. ’Scuse me.”
He tunes up, starts again and gives a very uneven performance of the song. But what the audience doesn't realise is that Kristofferson is playing a part. He's supposed to be drunk, to perform badly, because the character, John Norman Howard, is on the skids at this point. Their applause reveals they either didn't notice or didn't care. It doesn't even bother them when he re-does the finish four times for the cameras. They give him an ovation each time.
Streisand walks out again. Over the system we hear strains of Streisand's recording of The Way We Were. She grabs the mike. “Okay, cut out the voice and I'll really sing the melody. I just needed to have an orchestra because I don't have any strings here.”
She launches into The Way We Were. As Mark Antony said, “If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”
Streisand bows. “I tell you what we're gonna do now, I'm gonna do a song from the movie, okay?” She talks about The Woman In The Moon, which is a tune she wrote herself, Barbra's first original composition, then says, “Okay, here it is ...”
The audience goes wild at the tinkly little song. She bows. “Thank you. God, I'm really glad you liked it, 'cause that's the first time I ever sang that song in front of people. Okay, I’ll be back a little later, and I'll sing more for you, okay?”
[Barbra Archives note: The author probably got the name of the song wrong. Streisand sang Evergreen, which she wrote the music to, not Woman in the Moon.]
Backstage, Jon Peters is wandering around in white shorts, T-shirt, tennis socks, and rubber boots. “Did you hear her?” he says, like a kid at a carnival. “She knocks me out. I cried twice during The Way We Were.”
“You don't think Barbra is formidable?” I ask.
“Oh, man,” he says, “she has eyes in back of her head. Take a look at her head. That's her antenna up there.” He laughs.
Streisand in a white knitted coat, walks up to us and Jon puts his arm around her and tousles her hair. “Isn’t she great?” he grins, leading her toward her dressing room.
Kristofferson appears, looking somewhat less exuberant than they. “How's the experience so far?” I ask him.
“It’s the hardest thing I've been through since I jumped out of planes in ranger school,” he says. “I'm writing a song about it— it's Never Gonna Be The Same Again.”
“What's never gonna be the same?” I ask.
“My f..... head,” he answers.
“How are things going between you and the director?”
“Who's the director?” he asks. “Barbra and Frank (Pierson) make me feel like a jackass between two stacks of hay. I don't know which one to go for.” (fadeout)
Fade in .... The shooting is finally over for this scene of scenes. The project 400k two days, involved 125 cast and crew members, five pop music acts and their attendant groupies and functionaries, 300 extras, 47,000 ticketholders, the visiting press contingent of 150, along with an enormous assortment of relatives, friends, and enemies. In the finished film the sequence will run seven minutes. The rock entrepreneur who helped assemble the concert talent, Bill Graham, now summons Barbra, Kris, Jon, and Frank Pierson to the centre of the backstage area, where atop a large round table is his surprise — an enormous cake, topped by profiles of Kris and Barbra drawn in four colours of icing.
Barbra plunges her knife into the cake, cutting out one piece. Kris eyes her cautiously. She stuffs the piece into his mouth. He laughs and chomps at the same time, then puts his arm around her. She cuts a second piece and feeds it to Jon who seems to rise several feet off the ground. Now Barbra feeds a piece to Bill Graham. And Kris feeds a piece to her. She giggles and pinches his arm. He roars with laughter and throws a piece in the face of his dresser, which breaks Barbra up. They all begin to double up, laughing hysterically, as we pull away. These are movie people, after all, and it's in the natural order of things for them to fight and then kiss and make up and fight again and so on. Even stars are people who need people.
Acting more like children than children.
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