June 11, 1979
BARBRA AND JON: THE MAIN EVENT
by ROBERT GUTWILLIG
Photos by Steve Schapiro
Barbra Streisand, Jon Peters, my wife, Rosilyn, and I have been friends for five years now. Streisand, of course, was a legendary figure long before we knew her. Peters, in another way, was also a legend, at least in the world of the Los Angeles entertainment community.
It is hard to think of friends as legends—large or small. The privileges and pressures, standards and stresses of fame and fortune create a distance.
Barbra and Jon, who once were unknown and un-rich, are both now very well known and very rich. Wealth—or at least the security, comfort, and privacy great wealth affords—is important to them, as it would be to most of us in similar circumstances.
Barbra and Jon seem, to themselves and to us, two small, linked, turbulent islands entirely surrounded by people who want a piece of their money, their celebrity, their privacy, their very lives. Therefore, they lead strange, isolated, protected lives—high walls, electronic security, vicious dogs, bodyguards, and constantly changing unlisted phone numbers.
Last fall, Streisand and Peters started production on a new film, The Main Event, starring Barbra and Ryan O'Neal. At the very least, filmmaking — particularly a movie involving Barbra Streisand—is intense and exhausting, physically and emotionally.
Recently, when I went home to Los Angeles for a few days, I very much wanted to see Barbra and Jon, especially to hear how their movie was coming along and to tell the readers of LOOK about it. I had heard in New York the usual rumors of trial and tribulation on the set of The Main Event—gossip that not only attends each and every Streisand and/or Peters production but, each and every movie ever made.
While living in Los Angeles these last few years, I have experienced the film business's peculiar manners, idiosyncratic methods, and singular difficulties. The surprising thing to me is not that so few movies are very good, but that any ever get made at all. The night I got into L.A., Jon Peters was waiting for me at their Beverly Hills home, a lovely, flowered place increasingly becoming an art-deco Streisand fantasy. Barbra was at a studio, recording the movie's title song and other numbers for an album that will be released when the film opens in June.
The first thing I noticed about Jon was that there was a good deal less of him— about 30 pounds less—than the last time I'd seen him. The second thing I noticed was how uncharacteristically quiet ("laid back," as they say in Hollywood) he was.
"What do you mean, 'subdued?'" he said. "I'm shot, man." Between them, he explained, Jon and Barbra are developing at least 10 projects of one kind or another, separately and together. First, The Main Event, which Streisand and director Howard Zieff were still editing feverishly, despite two enthusiastic preview audiences. The picture cost $7 million to make, and Warner Bros. is going to spend another $7 million on prints and advertising when it opens in 800 theaters. Peters indicated he was temporarily numb, having worked on the film so hard for so long — although he seemed to perk up when telling me about going three rounds with O'Neal (a reputedly tough amateur boxer, who plays a fighter in the film) during rehearsals. I remarked that the sparring session had been reported elsewhere as a punch-out between himself and O'Neal. Peters just looked at me blankly and shook his head. O'Neal and Streisand had had a brief, but widely publicized affair at the time they made What's Up, Doc? in 1972. So I asked Jon—not known for his dispassionate disposition—how he handled the potentially sticky situation.
"Ryan's a real professional," he said. The fact that Streisand is a vintage pro was left unspoken. "But if you mean I'm cool about it, hell no. Would you be? Once I walked into a rehearsal for their love scene, and there they were, kissing, and I just kept right on going." He waved his hand at the imaginary pair in bed and said, "Hi, guys."
Die Laughing, a Peters-produced film starring Robby Benson, starts filming in June. This will be followed by a variety of intriguing projects, not the least of which is an album to be recorded this fall by Streisand and the Bee Gees.
"What's the matter?" Jon asked, noting my expression glazing at all this activity. "Listen, if it doesn't work out, I can always sell shoes or real estate."
He could, too. Seventeen years ago, Peters, a high-spirited California youth, was sent to New York by his exasperated mother to apprentice in, of all things, the hairdressing trade—a family specialty. At 18, he started his own business in Los Angeles and soon was on his way to becoming a millionaire. When the spirit moves Jon, he still cuts his friends' hair.
When Jon and Barbra fell in love and then, sometime later, started to make A Star Is Born together, the Los Angeles film community—not famous for its rigid attitudes toward human couplings and uncouplings—fell upon them with delighted savagery. It was at this period that we spent a lot of time together, mostly at the extraordinary ranch they were building. Barbra's son, Jason (by her former husband, Elliot Gould), and Jon's boy, Christopher (by his former wife, Lesley Ann Warren), were living with them at the time.
Now Jon and I wandered around the empty house, settling once in the room with Barbra's gold and platinum records, her Oscar, Grammy awards, and countless other trophies, finally ending up in the kitchen, where we had a dinner of sorts. Jon recounted the plot of The Main Event, which sounded like an extended metaphor of Jon's and Barbra's life together.
Hours later, Jon went off to pick up Barbra at the recording studio, and I staggered home to bed, thinking how much he had changed in the last few months. Gone was his innocence and enthusiasm about Hollywood. It had been replaced by a fatalistic determination to do the best he could, and if it worked, okay, and if not, on to another adventure.
The next day, I dropped by a film editing studio where I found Barbra deeply engaged with Howard Zieff in reediting the film's ending. She broke away to greet me and immediately launched into a blow-by-blow (I took two in the chops and one in the gut) account other picture: standing, sitting, kneeling, squatting, throwing punches. After this performance, I thought, who needs to see the film?
The Main Event is patterned after the romantic comedies of the 1930s. Streisand plays a bankrupt perfume manufacturer (with a great nose) who owns a semi-retired, not-very-good prize fighter named Kid Natural (Ryan O'Neal). He had been a tax shelter, but now she needs him to fight again to pay back the money he owes her. She decides to manage him.
Barbra said joyously that the script was not ready when shooting had started, and that she, O'Neal, Zieff, and the writers—Gail Parent and Andrew Smith—wrote and rewrote each scene just before it was played. It snowed on location, which wasn't in the script, so they wrote in cold dialogue and kept on shooting.
All this frantic improvisation reminded me of a day several years ago in Tempe, Arizona. Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Peters, director Frank Pierson, and hundreds of others were filming a live concert for A Star is Born in a stadium filled with 50,000 youths.
It was very hot, nothing was going well, and the delays in front of all those people were intolerable. Finally, Barbra, who was not scheduled to appear at all that day, came out on the stage and talked—very naturally, matter-of-factly about their problems. Fifty thousand kids became totally silent.
Then Barbra started singing. Everyone, I suppose, has a cherished recollection of some great live performance. This one is mine. We—my kids, Barbra's, and Jon's—were standing off-stage, perhaps 20 feet away from Streisand. Her voice, her power, her presence suspended that huge stadium for what seemed forever, although it couldn't have been more than 30 minutes. For a long moment, there seemed no sound at all, and then the waves of noise from the kids went on and on, as if they were trying to give something back to her.
I was too moved after the performance to say anything sensible to Barbra. I heard myself babbling something that made her laugh. The next day I told her that I thought her performance had rescued what could well have been even a dangerous situation. Streisand responded that that was why she had raised herself up to that level, despite her fear of performing live. She felt she had to give all those people something to make up for all those hours in the broiling sun. This was more important to her than what the cameras got for the movie.
Barbra ran two scenes for us from The Main Event on an editing machine—one a wonderful seven-minute bed sequence between Streisand and O'Neal, followed by a hilarious verbal fight the next morning in which the traditional male- female roles are totally reversed. This was a risky scene for Streisand—as she well knows—since much of the movie industry already thinks of her as a "power-crazed castrater," she said. It was also a new scene that she had fought for over everyone's objections and shot after the production had closed down.
Some movie couples make magic together—Gable and Lombard, Tracy and Hepburn—and now perhaps Streisand and O'Neal. They did it seven years ago in What's Up Doc? and now, in dissimilar roles, I suspect they will make a lot of people laugh a lot and feel good—for a little while, anyway.
What's Up, Doc? is one of my favorite modern movies. Not Streisand's, however, and we have debated the matter several times. Now I said that Streisand and O'Neal seemed to have something going together that one could sense even on the little screen we had been watching. "Ryan's a real pro," Barbra said. "It's always great to work with a pro." Then she was off again, telling me about other choices, other decisions, other struggles that she felt were crucial to The Main Event.
Making movies—or any collaborative endeavor—involves choices, decisions, and struggles. And certainly Streisand is in her element in these matters. She seemed to me in complete control, more than I had ever seen her. Sooner or later, she's sure to direct a movie. Barbra Streisand obviously feels good—about herself and her new picture. As I was leaving, she started explaining how the plot of The Main Event was like her life and Jon's, like a lot of other couples'. "It's a comedy," she said, "so you try to find the comedic truth. But you try to find the other truth, too, the real truth."
Sooner or later, perhaps this time, perhaps not, she will.