The Lady Is A Champ

Cover of Cue 1979 Cue Magazine
July 6, 1979

June 20 marks the first gas-less movie premiere in Hollywood history, masterminded by Tinsel Town's reigning female impresario, Barbra Streisand. Producing, starring in, and singing the title song of The Main Event, the one and only Barbra asked (translation "required") guests and celebrities invited to the opening of her latest blockbuster with Ryan O'Neil to arrive by gas-less means. Streisand and boyfriend Jon Peters, co-producer of The Main Event, suggested guests consider roller skates, bicycles, golf carts, surreys, ponies, electric cars, and baby elephants, and promised prizes for the most innovative mode of gas-less transportation.

Once again La Streisand, a born leader, proves her word is law and adds more fuel to her legend as a power-mad movie queen. Friends and foes alike feel Streisand's "tough broad" and "castrater" image is unfair. "People are just jealous of Barbra," says one Warner Bros. publicist, "Because she's an accomplished hard worker and the only female movie star since Mary Pickford to know as much about moviemaking as directors, producers, and screenwriters.

Barbra Streisand is more than the biggest female movie superstar today. She is a director, producer, and songwriter as well. She can carry a movie all by herself, with or without a bankable leading man. An acknowledged perfectionist, a movie crafts person who is aware of every camera set-up and angle, she decides her own lighting and virtually directs every film and record she is involved with. no one fits the description of "super woman" better than Streisand who has made it not only in film, but also in TV (remember My Name is Barbra?), recording, live concerts (she was the first performer to earn $100,000 a week in Las Vegas), theater (she became famous in I Can Get It For You Wholesale and a bona fide star with Funny Girl), and song writing.

Is it any wonder she comes out on top in the battle of the sexes? No other female film star has so completely dominated a decade as Streisand has the '70s, even though she has made relatively few movies--The Main Event, her 11th, is the first since A Star is Born (made with Jon Peters three years ago), which grossed over $100 million. The Main Event reteams Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal (last seen together in the 1972 biggie, What's Up Doc?, when they also had a brief, highly publicized, off-screen affair, which Peters claims he's jealous of) in zany comedy about a successful lady perfume manufacturer who finds herself without resources, except for a retired prizefighter. Streisand decides, against O'Neal's objections—to manage him back to championship status. You know the story: The strong Jewish girl with a will of iron takes over and shapes up, as Barbra would say, "a gorgeous, weak WASP."

The most talked-about scenes in the movie are a bedroom exchange between Streisand and O'Neal, followed the next morning by a riotous, knock-down verbal battle, with Barbra, "the mouth," victorious. The Main Event has jokingly been dubbed "Scenes from the Peters/Streisand Love Affair."

A beauty-parlor millionaire in his own right before he met Streisand, Jon Peters has since founded his own Jon Peters Organization and is currently producing Die Laughing with Robby Benson. The couple has been living together, mostly happily, for the last few years with her son Jason (by ex-husband Elliott Gould) and his son Christopher (by former wife Lesley Ann Warren) in an Art Deco Beverly Hills mini-mansion and at their magnificent ranch in Malibu Beach. Fearing marriage could only ruin a beautiful relationship, Streisand and Peters have avoided wedding vows.

The Streisand projects Peters has been involved with (her Butterfly album, A Star Is Born, and The Main Event) have all been huge successes. But even though the couple continues to work together, they are not totally dependent on each other and also function separately. "I have several projects of my own in mind," says Streisand, who at 37 is more sensuous and beautiful than ever, her piercing blue-green eyes radiating charm. "I want to go in several directions, I want to stretch myself."

What is it like being on top of those on top? "That word, superstar, makes me uncomfortable," she says slowly, measuring her words. In person, Barbra is much better-looking than in photos or on film—more petite, fine featured, and appealing. She exudes the energy of a teen and a femininity that is at odds with her "tough broad" image.

"I think of my self as an artist," she says. "When I do a movie, for instance, it is extremely important to me that everything be just right." Although no longer the painstaking perfectionist who used to drive herself and others crazy she admits, "I still care about my work enormously, but I'm having a better time. I'm more comfortable in my work, more contented with myself."

From the start, Barbra showed great promise, and friends felt she could become another Sarah Bernhardt—one of her personal heroines, who was played by Glenda Jackson in The Incredible Sarah. The actress-singer stated long ago she wished to do Shakespeare and the classics, and her superb album Classical Barbra indicates the range of her interests and capabilities.

"I never wanted to be a singer," she says, smiling. "Acting was always my goal." However, she won a singing contest, and the rest, as they say, is history. Had it been left up to Hollywood, she would probably have remained a songbird forever, winding up like Julie Andrews, who, after two consecutive musical bombs, fell from grace. After Hello, Dolly and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever proved to be lesser hits than Funny Girl, Barbra quickly turned to the comedic, non-singing vehicle The Owl and The Pussycat, throwing in a partially nude scene for good measure. She now notes, "I wouldn't call it a nude scene, it was so subtle." Of future nude scenes, she declares, "My body is not for the public viewing."

The superstar's comedic flair carried her into a new wave of success, but when she tried to stretch herself with the feminist Up The Sandbox, box-office results were less than spectacular. She then alternated her proven musical and comedy formulas (Funny Lady, For Pete's Sake) with a love story (The Way We Were) and her first truly personal vehicle, A Star is Born. Now that she has tasted the fruits of artistic control, she is unlikely to give them up, and in future intends to become actively involved in non-acting phases of movie production. She has made no secret of her desire to direct, and has optioned I.B. Singer's Yentl for her possible directorial debut.

Songwriting is still another direction for megastar Streisand. Recently, she had a meeting with the Bee Gees. The purpose? The lady won't say, but the possibilities are tantalizing to speculate about, as are some rumored future projects, including a teaming with John Travolta and a Peters remake of The Women, costarring Babs, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch, and others. "I look forward to integrating my acting with my music," explains the renaissance woman, who is secure enough to admit her intense admiration of female singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

Obviously, when one is so exalted and multi-talented, one can afford to turn down proposals that would make mere mortals' heads swim. No longer very interested in live performances, she states, "Looking back, I sometimes wonder how I managed to do Funny Girl night after night, week after week, month after month, in New York and London!" What about nightclub performances, concerts? "We'll see," she says, noncommittally. The new Streisand takes one day at a time and is untroubled by the future. She is no longer a workaholic, but she isn't about to give it all up, either. Whether or not she ever does over 90 films, like Bette Davis, she may become the leading female film figure of the 20th century. Her future is in celluloid, and she knows it.

What is her special magic on the screen? Why is she consistently the world's favorite actress and, more significantly, American teen-agers' most admired female (according to an extensive Seventeen poll)? The late critic Wyatt Cooper wrote, "She fascinates mainly, I think, because she has willed it to be so. In an age when so many are feeling apathetic, anesthetized, and impotent, there is old Barbra to prove that the human will is the most powerful force on earth. She is in control at all times, in control of her won performance, of the other actors, and of the audience. She turns chutzpah into something that approximates glamour."

Even people who contend she is too "strong" on screen (a judgment no doubt born of sexism) admit she is the finest modern songstress, or at least on of the best. One area in which Barbra may need a bit of help, according to critics and some fans, is in coordinating her screen wardrobes. Her Star Is Born gladrags came from her own closet and she has chosen her own threads for The Main Event. In private, she invariably dresses tastefully, never allowing her clothes to wear her. Yet on screen, critics point out, her outfits too often detract from her unique beauty.

Then there's the hairstyle ... In the past, she used to change styles regularly, affording her fans a vicarious thrill with each new variation. But she has clung to the modified Afro for years now and shows no signs of dropping it. However, for The Main Event she has affected a reddish shade and now wears her hair up more frequently. Is she at last satisfied with her appearance? Barbra says, "Beauty, to a large extent, is a function of ones attitude." She demonstrated that in a scene from The Owl and The Pussycat, where she varied her expressions and demeanor to show off her twin personas of ingratiating commonness and regal beauty.

Her unique charismatic presence has worked wonders for—among other handsome leading men—Ryan O'Neal. O'Neal doesn't hesitate to declare she is his preferred leading lady, since Barbra manages to infuse new life and humor into his screen characters. Critics have sometimes carped that O'Neal is rather wooden, but in What's Up Doc? he was often compared to Cary Grant. After he appeared with Streisand his career soared, and Main Event will doubtless restore him to a primary position among American actors.

The dynamic superstar indeed has a way with weak WASP types, and is the only female movie star who has managed to ignite Robert Redford's dormant flame on the silver screen. She revived Kris Kristofferson's career and made him a leading man; she also, by Kristofferson's own admission, reformed his personal life, curing him of the bottle and sending him back to Rita Coolidge a happier, more stable husband than before. Of course, Barbra isn't a miracle worker, and even her firepower couldn't catapult David Selby (Up The Sandbox) and Michael Sarrazin (For Pete's Sake) to major stardom. Nonetheless, her potent comic sparring showed off George Segal's own funny bone and launched him as on of America's top comic actors. She transformed James Caan's macho facade into a rounded, sensitive, even singing human being, in Funny Lady. In real life, according to insiders, she has helped Jon Peters as much as he has helped mellow her. What is this mysterious power Barbra has over men?

"I love being a woman," she explains."To me, it's anything but a limitation. I view it as a challenge, and my own horizons are unlimited." Those men who are secure enough in their own masculinity to meet the lady on her own ground benefit the most from her natural gifts. Men like Walter Matthau, who during the filming of Hello, Dolly refused to accept her as an equal or acknowledge her savvy suggestions, go away overwhelmed and unenriched. Foreigners like Yves Montand and Omar Sharif especially have resented strong women, and the Streisand magic is most keenly appreciated in liberated North America.

She says with a slight sigh, "Men are encouraged to think and improvise, to assert themselves and extend themselves. When the do, they're flattered and praised, but when females do the same thing, they're put down. A majority of males still don't understand women or relate to us on an equal footing." But Barbra has learned to balance her enormous power and box-office stature gracefully with her personal attractiveness and naturally introverted personality. On the big screen she is just ladylike enough to inspire protectiveness form her male protagonists and simultaneously strong and creative enough (in front of and behind the camera) to earn their devotion and admiration.

"I very much like working with men. It's a challenge on several levels. It's not a battle. I don't go into a film looking to 'win.' I am not competitive in that way; I know that a team must complement each other, or else nobody wins...I can't understand why some men are afraid of me—that seems to be their own hang-up." No less than the late, great Elvis Presley reportedly turned down the male lead in A Star is Born because he feared he would be overwhelmed by Streisand.

Redford and O'Neal, two beautiful blonds who beautifully complement Barbra on screen, enjoyed the challenge of matching themselves with—rather than against—the "fearsome" leading lady.

Redford, who is currently teaming for the third time with another strong woman, Jane Fonda, notes, "Barbra...I can't explain it. Her femininity brings out the masculinity in a man, and her masculinity brings out a man's femininity, vulnerability, romanticism, whatever you want to call it. It's a crude way of putting it, but that's what it boils down to."

Since many reported Streisand projects have fallen by the wayside in years past, she prefers not to go into detail about future plans. "People can and will say about me whatever they wish, but in the end, what I do is all that matters. That, and what the public reacts to."

Streisand feels no need to discuss, defend or hide the private life she has carved out for herself. The very private woman tosses out questions about the possibility of marriage because they are irrelevant. "I'm a very happy person," she smiles disarmingly, her electric eyes lighting up. "I'm certainly happier than I've ever been, in my work and at home. I've got a lot going for me."


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