ON THE COVER: Actress/Singer/producer/director Barbra Streisand, a major force on the Hollywood scene today.
THE FASHION: Gray cashmere ribbed turtleneck sweater by Zoran ... Earrings, Marieluisa Stern for Stigi, Ltd. Hair: Suni of Suni and Bruno Salon; makeup, Armando Cosio. Photo by Francesco Scavullo.
CONVERSATION WITH A SUPERSTAR
by J. Curtis Sanburn
Photos by Scavullo
Star quality ... what is it? A secret communion with the camera? ... Overreaching ego? ... A rare sixth sense? Or is it, as Barbra Streisand says in describing herself, "a composite of dichotomies"?
In her case, star quality makes for a driven, creative dynamo; the biggest, most powerful performer in Hollywood. She's big because she keeps building on her talent, and we respond with surprise and recognition each time she gives us something new, yet distinctly Barbra.
Something new certainly describes Streisand's most recent production, Yentl, and never has she been more completely engaged—as producer, director, co-screenwriter and singing star of the $16 million movie musical. The film, which opens in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles on November 18 and elsewhere in the U.S. on December 9, is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy, which Streisand read 15 years ago.
"My father died when I was 15 months old," she says, recounting the genesis of the movie, so I always considered myself an outcast, a loner, different from all other children because they all had fathers. And the first line of Singer's story begins, 'After her father's death. . .' Immediately, from the first sentence, I was intrigued."
Her voice is clear and direct, with its familiar New York inflections and those traces of natural skepticism that sharpen everything she says. She's been thinking these things out over the 15 years she's spent bringing this commercially questionable story—about a Jewish girl in a Polish ghetto who parades as a boy to complete the Talmudic studies she had begun with her father—to the screen.
"You see, in the story, Yentl's father was a teacher and scholar. My father was, too. And I've always been interested in education and learning and knowledge."
The plot is not without a strong romantic interest which Streisand (as Yentl) will, no doubt, sing and act to the hilt. Once accepted in the scholarly community, Yentl (her male name is Anshel) maintains her masquerade by marrying Hadass (played by Amy Irving), who had been betrothed to Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), the man Yentl secretly loves.
Between albums and movies, Streisand slowly talked her dream movie, based on the sketchy, 20-page short story, into a much-publicized obsession. "When this project started, I wasn't going to direct it, I wasn't going to produce it, I wasn't going to write it. At one point, I wasn't even going to act in it. But then, my passion for this piece was very strong, and most people, I found, didn't share it. They can only have that kind of passion about their own dreams.
"I mean, I hired writers, but the scripts never expressed the pictures I had in my head. No matter how we agreed, there's that element of the middleman that you can't have when something is meaningful to you. That's why certain artists get involved in every aspect of their filmmaking."
"THE POWER OF THE WILL"
Streisand realized she was going to have to make Yentl herself, and thus became perhaps the first woman in Hollywood to shoulder an entire, movie as jack-of-all-trades. Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Warren Beatty and Woody Allen are her eminent-and male-predecessors.
"Nothing's impossible," she says. "And that's what I believe. Figuratively, you can move mountains. It's the power of the will.
"People used to ask me, 'How do you hold those notes so long?' because I didn't have any formal training.
"And I said ' 'Because I want to. I want to hold that note. I hear it in my head. I imagine it. Therefore I do it.' So if you have no imaginings, how can you do anything? I became famous because I trusted my instincts."
She stops, thinking about Yentl, her baby still safe from the critics, hedging her bets. "But this is a much more ... more overwhelming set of circumstances."
Streisand is at once overwhelming in her obsession—in her gut-level belief that her instincts, her power and her control will see Yentl (and her) through a bewildering world of critics and skeptical studio heads—and overwhelmed by the demands and complexities of her task.
"I have enormous respect for directors," she says. "They have the responsibility of the entire project on their shoulders. Hopefully, a director has a good team— I was surrounded by wonderful people who helped me visualize the pictures in my head—but ultimately the decisions were mine. I'd come on the set in the morning and they'd say, 'What is it you want to do?' "
Later, she is more reflective: "I found that having all this control was very humbling. Even though I like to have it as an artist, I still wanted everyone on the film to feel he or she could contribute. I wanted to learn from everyone. You know, when you don't have control, you want it. But when you've got it, you also want to give some of it away."
One person she sought advice from was her friend Steven Spielberg, the creator of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist and E.T. "He was very encouraging," she says. "I know he knows what works. I showed him an early print of Yentl, and I thought he'd look at it and say, 'Well, it's much too long or you should cut this or cut that.'"
In fact, when asked to comment on Streisand's directorial debut in Yentl, he compared it to the best work of Francis Ford Coppola, the creator of The Godfather, and said, "Barbra really pulled this one off."
THE ARTIST HAS NO GENDER
Streisand pulled it off as producer, too, with the costs of Yentl coming in, she says, at a modest 11 per cent over budget. It was in this capacity, however, that she felt the most sexist heat, both real and imagined.
"You simply have to be adult enough to accept the responsibility and the risk of failure on this kind of project. It's not male or female; it's not a sexist thing. Yet I can already sense the vibrations from people looking at it as something special because I'm a woman. A lot of them, I feel, are ready to kill me for it, but I hope they don't. I hope they like it; I hope they judge the work on its own merit.
"I'm an artist and to me that has no gender. It gets back to what Yentl is about, the way women are oppressed. I mean, they're still considered inferior in some ways. Less than a man, you know?"
She warms to her subject and characteristically turns to her own astounding history to prove her point. "Somehow, I always had the feeling that, according to everyone else, whatever I was, was enough. People wanted me to stay put. They'd say, 'You sing, so what do you have to act for?'. . .'You're an actress, now what do you want to produce for?' I got a lot of flak when I was executive producer on A Star Is Born, yet I was financially responsible for every penny of those six million dollars."
Is Yentl, the story of a girl who has to dress as a man to get what she wants, a conscious political statement?
"I would say it does express my feelings, yes. It's about a woman who wants everything, who won't settle for less than acceptance of her total being, of her mind as well as her body. And I personally want that, to be accepted for my strengths as well as my weaknesses, for the strong woman inside me as well as the little girl.
"Yentl represents what I believe about life. The Jewish tradition—that love of learning and growing. Yentl starts off in a little village. She takes a path, crosses a stream and then there are scenes played by a river. Ultimately, she crosses the ocean to America. These symbols, mostly unconscious when I shot them, of a growing world, outside and also within one's self, the opening up of possibilities, of growth ... I feel so inarticulate about it because I realize, looking at the film now, how many things were subconscious and unconscious, you know?"
Not quite, but she tries to explain, first with memories of being 15 in acting class, when she had to act out how a chocolate-chip cookie feels when you put it in the oven. She adds a more recent incident of singing Papa, Can You Hear Me?, one of the songs from Yentl, and starting to cry. She doesn't know why she cried, though she knows it has to do with her father and with her movie.
Perhaps Streisand is no longer simply a star, after all. She rarely shows up anywhere; she's cool to the press; and stars don't really make movies the way she has made this one.
"I was never comfortable being a star," she admits. "Star is a kind of embarrassing word for me. Maybe that's why I get a lot of flak from the press. I never thought it was necessary to expose my personal life. I hope people enjoy my work—that's what they paid for— but I don't believe they have any claim on my personal life or my personal time. The thoughts and feelings I want to express, I do—in my work."
After a long rest once Yentl is released, Streisand would like to act in the classics— Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov.
On stage? On film?
"No. Probably on television. There's not really an audience for filmed classics, and I'm too frightened of people to do it on stage. I don't like the instant judgment. I like the privacy of creation. I don't like being applauded. I remember seeing Laurence Olivier on stage in Othello, and this man behind me was booing him. I turned around and said, 'How dare you!' I mean, keep it to yourself!' He said, 'I've seen this seven times and Larry was off tonight.'
"Sometimes people think they own you! Well, they don't." So says the superstar. Obviously she's a woman whose responsiblities to her millions of fans are outweighed by her obligations to herself. She wouldn't have it any other way.
"You know, I'd rather complete a film, and then when the people go to judge it, I'll be in my bathtub taking a bath."
Related Pages: Yentl movie page