by Dale Pollock
Barbra Streisand: At 41, she has the same magnetism that she had 20 years ago. In person, the glow seems to come from within, and it has to do with Yentl, her first movie in two years.
Barbra Streisand comes down the hall of her home in Beverly Hills and walks into a room crammed with Tiffany lamps, Art Nouveau sculpture and overstuffed chairs and sofas. Her golden brown frizzy hair shimmers like an aura around her head.
She appears almost preternaturally youthful: She is slim, clear-eyed, with only hints of aging on her face. The maintenance of super-stardom for more than two decades seems to have taken a modest toll.
At 41, Streisand has the same magnetism that she did 20 years ago. In person, at least at this moment. the glow seems to come from within, and it has to do with Yentl, her first movie in two years.
Anxious is the cliche adjective for stars awaiting release of their new movies, but Streisand's anxiety here is more than just another opening of another show. She is the star of Yentl, plus its director, co-writer and co-producer — “the first woman in the history of motion pictures to produce, direct, write and perform a film's title role,” boasts MGM/UA, which financed and is releasing the movie.
Streisand repeatedly said during interviews that Yentl has obsessed her for 15 years in ways that are intertwined both personally and professionally. And she didn't seem fazed by the repeated rejections of her Yentl project by the movie studios for which her films have made hundreds of millions of dollars. Yentl, they said, was too Jewish or not commercial, or Streisand was too old and fat to play the girl/boy of the plot.
“I survived it,” she says simply, her voice slightly hoarse from 20-hour days alternating between the recording studio (where she was cutting new versions of four Alan and Marilyn Bergman/Michel Legrand songs from the film) and the editing room, where she was fine-tuning the final version of Yentl.
“I thought that this kind of work would either kill me or make me stronger. And it has made me stronger because I survived,” she concludes.
STREISAND IS NOT THE ONLY ONE surprised that she survived Yentl. Her struggle to make a movie about a young girl who pretends to be a boy so she can study the Talmud (writings of Jewish civil and religious law) in an Eastern European-Jewish community at the turn of the century has won her both ridicule and admiration in the Hollywood community.
“You put yourself at risk when you do these kinds of things,” she says with a shrug of her shoulders. She is nibbling on a watercress sandwich, part of the afternoon English tea ritual that she began in London while editing Yentl. “You have to put yourself at risk. I am prepared for that.”
Yentl is the folktale of a young shtetl (Jewish ghetto) girl, daughter of a scholar, who must disguise herself as a boy in order to study the Talmud. Author Isaac Bashevis Singer, in a Shakespearean twist, has Yentl fall in love with a male student who is engaged to the prettiest girl in the village.
When their engagement is broken, Yentl (still in disguise) marries the girl. Yentl eventually reveals her true identity and embarks for America, where she will no longer have to pretend to be the person she has already become.
Hard-core Streisand fans will be eager to see her onscreen, simply because it is her first film since the financial and critical failure of All Night Long in 1981. (Although there was talk early this year that Streisand would do a concert tour in conjunction with the release of Yentl, a Streisand spokesman said the star has “no intention of initiating or embarking on one.”)
Streisand knows that Hollywood will be watching to see if Streisand the director will he embraced with the same adulation her fans have lavished on Barbra the singer-actress. One studio executive said, “This film will be the real test of star power.”
The Jewish community will be watching to see if a movie that deals with Hebrew prayer and study can find acceptance among mass moviegoers. (Streisand said she hopes “that people in Iowa will go see Yentl because it is not a Jewish movie. To me it is a contemporary film.”)
Feminists are also awaiting the film, not only because of its dissection of sexual roles, but because they hope that Yentl will demonstrate that you don't need to be a man to make a critically and financially successful film.
SAID THE STAR IN A LOW, HUSHED voice (Yentl has allowed her to come to terms with the memory of a father she never knew): “I feel like this has released me from the ghost of my father, so that I was able to make him live a little longer.”
Emmanuel Streisand died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 35, when Barbra was 15 months old. An athlete and an intellectual, he taught juvenile offenders in Elmira, New York, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dante and Shakespeare. Written on his tombstone is “Beloved Teacher and Scholar.”
The daughter attributes her drive to make Yentl to a visit she made to her father's grave. “I've had to become my own father,” she explained, still speaking softly. “See, all these years I was just looking for a daddy in a way. And then I realized I was never going to get him. It was only through Yentl that I had a chance to make a father.” The final credit at the end of Yentl reads: “This film is dedicated to my father ... and to all our fathers.”
“I related to it on so many levels, you know,” Streisand said. “The first four words of the story are, 'After her father's death,' so already I was grabbed.”
As she spoke of her childhood on Pulaski Street in the tough Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in which her only doll was a hot water bottle covered with a dress, her carefully sculpted nails dug into the palms of her large hands in a gesture of nervousness.
“I was the only kid on my block with no father. I felt different from all the girls. My mother went to work, and my grandmother couldn't handle me. She called me fabrent [Yiddish for on fire]. If I was sick with the chicken pox and I wanted to go out and play, I put on my clothes, climbed out the window and went out to play.”
STREISAND CALLS this quality of her personality "power of the will." It's what enables her to hold a note for so long when she sings. It is what pushed her to get Yentl made, although every studio in Hollywood turned it down at least once. It is, she said, what makes her Barbra Streisand.
“I remember being a little girl sitting on the fire escape in Brooklyn. I had two best friends, one a Catholic girl and one an atheist. It was so strange, being so young, but we used to have debates about God. One night we were sitting there, with our blankets, and I said, 'I'm going to show you there is a God. See that man walking down the street? I'm going to pray that he steps down off that curb.' ”
Streisand was in full pantomime now, reliving the memory in every detail, her hands moving around in a blur. “I mean, I never prayed so hard in my life, you know what I mean? Just, 'Please show me!' And the man stepped off the curb. That experience was like . . . there must be a God. The guy stepped off the curb.”
IN 1968 THE LATE PRODUCER Valentine Sherry sent her Singer's book of stories that included Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. When she finished it, she called her then-agent David Begelman and told him that “I just found my next film. I must do this movie.” Begelman had just brushed Sherry off, telling him that after Funny Girl, the last thing Barbra Streisand needed was another ethnic role. (Tovah Feldshuh played the part of Yentl in a Broadway version in the mid-seventies.)
But that was precisely what Streisand wanted, it turned out. And, at one point, she got close. Orion Pictures was interested in making Yentl or $13 million, and the Czech director Ivan Passer (Born to Win) met with Streisand to discuss the project. He told her that he thought she was too old and famous for the part. (In his story, Singer doesn't specify Yentl's age, but it seems to be younger than 20. Streisand said she had made her character a woman of 28.)
“I would think, 'I can never make this movie. Maybe Ivan was right; I'm too old. Maybe I'm too famous.' I was so seared that I would talk to everyone about it,” Streisand explained. “And after a while I began to really hear myself, and hear this person talking about this dream they had, but being too frightened to go after the dream.
“There came a point where I just thought, 'My God, life is going by so fast, I have to stand up for what I believe in. I can't be so frightened anymore. I don't want to be some old lady saying, 'I shoulda made that movie, Yentl.' ”
Streisand remained consumed by the project, even after Orion passed on it. (The day she submitted her $13-million budget for Yentl to Orion was the day United Artists' Heaven's Gate opened to the worst reviews a major movie has ever received. As Streisand recalled, “That changed the face of the motion-picture industry. All of a sudden, studios didn't want to hear about any movies over $10 million.”)
So even Barbra Streisand, that most bankable of female stars, the one actress whose participation in a movie could guarantee an audience, couldn't get her movie made. She was forced into the ignominious position of pitching her project, complete with a Super 8 minimovie she had filmed in Czechoslovakia and a cassette tape of the songs she wanted in the film. After playing them for studio executives, she'd then listen while they talked about why the time just wasn't right for a movie like Yentl.
Warner Bros., for whom she had made What's Up Doc?, A Star Is Born and Main Event, wasn't interested. Columbia Pictures, for whom she starred in Funny Girl, Funny Lady, For Pete's Sake and The Way We Were, didn't think the project was commercial.
If anything, the constant rejections pumped her up: “I was so shocked, it was wonderful. It gave me such drive, which I hadn't felt in years. I was struggling, struggling. I like that feeling, the feeling of passion about something.”
Yentl went to PolyGram Pictures, which happened to be headed by Jon Peters, Streisand's longtime companion and partner. “For personal reasons, we decided not to work together on this film,” Streisand said, her eyes narrowing at the mention of the word "personal." “It was a time in my life when I needed to be really independent, both personally and professionally. I thought to myself: 'I have to make this picture, and I have to also be the producer.' Before that I was just going to direct and star.”
YENTL FINALLY ENDED UP AT UNITED Artists, only to have the studio convulsed by several management upheavals. When the corporate revolving door slowed down, Begelman, her former agent, was the head of the studio and the biggest supporter of Yentl. But the budget at this point was up to $14.5 million, and UA had Streisand in just the position it wanted: UA knew how badly she wanted to make this movie. It was a rare opportunity for a studio to turn the tables on a star.
“I constantly had to give up everything,” Streisand recalls, without apparent bitterness. “I didn't get paid for writing, I got paid [Directors Guild] scale for directing, which I think is something like $80,000, and I got paid much less as an actress than I did in my last film, All Night Long (for which she was paid a reported $4 million). And then I had to give back half my salary if we went over budget. But it didn't matter to me. Nothing mattered to me except getting this movie made.” (Streisand said that Yentl cost a total of $16.2 million. MGM/UA Chairman Frank Yablans confirmed the figure as being "in the ballpark," adding that the cost might ultimately be $16.5 million, including interest.)
The biggest sticking point between UA and Streisand came over the completion bond, a form of Hollywood insurance in which a private company agrees to pay the budget overruns on a film after the studio pays a substantial, up front fee. In her original contract with UA, Streisand didn't have a completion bond requirement.
“But the day before we were going to start shooting, [the studio] said they would close down the production if I didn't give in and take on the completion bond [supplied by Completion Bond Co.]. It was ridiculous, because they paid the company $700,000, which I needed in the movie,” Streisand said, her frustration showing for the first time during the interviews. “They didn't trust me. Put it that way, I suppose.”
Streisand's involvement with Completion Bond began only after she had finished filming Yentl and was dubbing the sound track, both dialogue and music. At that point, she was $1 million over budget. Completion Bond insisted that she finish dubbing the film in six weeks, or it would take the movie away from her and hire another filmmaker to complete it. Streisand felt she needed ten weeks and offered to put up the $1.7 million (which included the $700,000 advance fee UA had paid) herself. UA was sympathetic, but preferred to deal with the completion company for tax purposes.
“It was all about money,” Streisand said, knotting her fingers together in frustration. “I kept saying, 'Please, we're going to ruin the movie. I'm going to die from the pressure. This is supposed to be a joyous experience.' ” But she managed to finish in the required six weeks. “I did anything to get it done so that they could never take it away from me.”
Streisand also had to give up the right to approve the final cut of Yentl, which meant that UA could change the movie she delivered. “I could never say, 'Well, I'm not going to do this movie if you don't give me final cut,' because I was at their mercy.”
In the end, according to Streisand, UA “didn't touch my movie. Not a frame. They gave me complete control when I gave it away to them, in a sense.” Streisand insists that the disputes over the money for Yentl did not disturb her, even though over the five years it took to get Yentl made, she made almost nothing, because most of the money she earned went for legal and development fees. “It's not about money,” she insisted, speaking of the lower fees she accepted. “I have enough money, thank God. And the only reason I want money is to give it away. There's nothing more I need.”
Actually, there was something Streisand wanted and didn't get for Yentl that taught her an important personal lesson. She had hoped to hire Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Reds) to film Yentl, but using him would have upset the British financing for the movie and added another $250,000 to the budget.
“I had to tell Storaro that I couldn't afford him, and three days later I woke up to my insanity. My insanity. I had just given away half a million dollars to set up a chair in my father's name for cardiovascular research at UCLA. I thought to myself, 'I just gave away $500,000, but I didn't treat myself to a $250,000 gift of Storaro?' It taught me such a lesson about my own lack of love for myself. And Yentl is really about that, too. Yentl finally learns to appreciate herself, too. And goes out alone in the world.”
ON THE SET IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA, THE costume mistress came up to ask Streisand a question: Would she be wearing the same hat she had on for a just-completed shot in a scene to be filmed later?
Streisand recalls, “I caught myself saying, 'Well, I'll ask the director.'”
She had the same reaction when Steven Spielberg gave her some advice on editing: “I got panicked.... I shook. I thought me? Direct it? It was like, oh yeah, I did direct this film. It's a funny thing. . . . It's hard to believe sometimes.”
Streisand the actress had never really made a movie outside the embracing paternalism of a studio, a controlled environment in which she knew everything would be weighted to her best advantage. Streisand the director decided to make Yentl far away from the pressures of Hollywood.
In April, 1982, she embarked on her venture. For the first time, she let loose with all the ideas that she had suppressed during her years as an actress, years she had worked to please the director as if he were her long-lost father.
“The last few films I made, I'd be acting with somebody and I'd think, 'Boy, this is not truthful.' I'd wait for the director to say, 'Do that again because it wasn't truthful; I didn't believe you.' And I found sometimes he would settle for it. And I had such an urge as an actress to say, 'Don't-please just ask him [for a chance] to do it once more.' That's the part of me that always was building up.
“It was not enough for me to act in my last films,” she continued. “It was not enough for me to sit in my trailer and read a book.”
The day Yentl started production, she was, in a word, terrified. She remembers her first day on the set: She shook a crew member's hand and was surprised to feel his palm sweating. “So I said, 'Believe me, there's no one more nervous than me. We're all going to make mistakes, especially me. I will make most of them. So I need you.' That was the way I felt. I needed everyone.”
She didn't hire a choreographer and ended up staging her musical numbers. (She's the only one in the film who sings, a conscious decision she made because she intended her songs as interior monologues.)
“I had only nine days to do the musical rehearsals for this film,“ Streisand said. “In Funny Girl I had six months. But I had done a lot of my homework on video tape. And I couldn't have somebody like [director] Herb Ross stage the musical numbers. I didn't want Yentl to he that kind of musical.”
Still, having so much control over her own work was frightening for her: “I had to make all the decisions,” she said, a residue of awe in her voice about her own accomplishments. “I had a co-producer [Rusty Lemorande] who handled the day-to-day budget stuff, but I had to decide whether we hired that actor at this price, whether we shoot a half-hour later, when we go to Czechoslovakia. I enjoyed that, though.”
If anything tripped her up, it was Jewish guilt: “I never think what I do is good enough,” she acknowledges with a nervous smile. “I would do something nice with the camera and I would say,'God, that's good.' And then I would think, 'Better not say that. God forbid I should give myself a compliment. He'll take it away.' ”
But no one took Yentl away from Streisand. Yentl reflects her style of singing with graceful, rhythmic camera movements that she says were inspired by the music. She preferred to film in long, continuous takes rather than short, choppy scenes that could be put together in the editing room.
Streisand likens her directing approach to her natural talent in singing. “It is very rare when a moment of inspiration hits you. It's when things come from your unconscious. They pass through your cerebral state, coming from your guts, your soul, the place that's in the very core of you. You can't think about it too much—if you do, it's gone.
“So no matter how much thinking and planning you do, no matter how much intellectual thought goes into something, the moment of truth is being—it's the aliveness of the moment. That's why you have to be true to yourself.”
YENTL IS BY NO MEANS A REALISTIC film about Jews in Eastern Europe. There were references to Cossacks and anti-Semitism in some of the early screenplays (there were 16 drafts in all) but Streisand removed them. “This is a realistic fantasy,” she explained. “Just by having the music you make it a fantasy. Music is not real. People don't stop to sing. I didn't want to make Roman Polanski's Macbeth, with people who have grubby, matted hair. This [film] was beautiful pictures, fairytale images. I wanted it to be a romantic film.”
This is romance of a decidedly different sort, in which Yentl, pretending to be a man, falls in love with Avigdor, played by Mandy Patinkin, who also feels a sexual attraction for her/him. Then Yentl marries another woman, played by Amy Irving, who comes to love him/her. It all sounds confusing to describe, but, in the movie, Streisand manages to explore sexual identities in the unlikeliest of settings, the sexually repressed Jewish shtetls.
“I think this is a film about human freedom, male as well as female,” Streisand said. It is a familiar theme in her films, from Funny Girl through Up the Sandbox and Main Event. “Anything to have some social content,” she jokes. But Streisand was making a more serious point, one that slowly dawns on the title character as she accepts her own femininity.
“I have some very close women friends, so I have always felt that we must stick together, that we are sisters, that we must have a bond between us,” she explained. “I am constantly shocked by either women who are jealous of other women, or women who try to act like men: women who are trying so hard to be part of a man's world, but in doing so are taking on the worst qualities of men. I don't want to be a man. I enjoy being a woman.”
On and off the screen, however, Streisand did assume the role of a man, at least in male-dominated Hollywood. Not only that, she became a Jewish man in an industry whose movers and shakers often seem embarrassed by their Jewishness. One of the controversial aspects of Yentl is its overt religiousness, from its depiction of Eastern European synagogues to its constant Talmudic references in the dialogue. “I hope people talk about the universality of the themes here, not just their Jewishness,” Streisand declared.
Streisand is emphatic that Yentl is not a result of her becoming a "born-again" Jew. “I was always a Jew. I feel I'm a good person, and that is what the Jewish tradition teaches you to be. I'm not that religious, but I'm Jewish in my soul, my heritage, my spirit.”
The rumors of her "conversion" to Orthodox Judaism came during her intensive research for Yentl. “I talked to all the rabbis I could talk to, searching for different points of view from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. I was appreciating the good aspects of the religion as well as the negative ones. It's a complex thing. For instance, it's men through the centuries who have found a way to use [Jewish] law to enslave women. That was a fascinating thing for me to find out. Part of me, my whole life, I've always been very desperately curious about things, knowledge. I love to talk to doctors, rabbis, physicists. I love knowledge.”
One assumes that Streisand was always savvy about her career, but this thirst for knowledge has clearly been expanded by the lengthy process of making Yentl. If Yentl discovered new reserves of power and softness within herself from her masquerade as a man, Streisand apparently has benefited in similar fashion from her experience as a filmmaker.
“What Yentl learns by the end [of the movie] is that if you really care about yourself, then you don't settle. You go on to find more of what your dreams are about, what you want out of life,” Streisand said. “Life has limitations. Everything has limitations. It's not just everything you want. But I'm saying it can all be done. Within the boundaries.”
Streisand feels that she pushed her own boundaries with Yentl. She would like to direct again-maybe for Spielberg, maybe another subject that interests her as much as Yentl did.
“At the moment, I can't even think of it,” Streisand said, brushing sandwich crumbs off her lap. “I've got to get this movie opened.”
DALE POLLOCK writes for the Los Angeles Times and is the author of the best-selling Skywalking: The Life of George Lucas (Crown Publishers).
Thanks: scans on this page are courtesy of Jim Miller.
This article also appeared in the October 16, 1983 edition of Los Angeles Times CALENDAR.
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