Nov. 12-18, 1983
What happens when the irresistible force (Geraldo Rivera) meets the immovable object (Barbra Streisand) in pursuit of the perfect interview
By Geraldo Rivera
"You don't care about my movie, Geraldo! All you care about is your television show!" she snapped at me. Happily, it was in the privacy of the sound-proofed recording booth, out of ear- shot of the 100 or so musicians, technicians and camera people who filled the London recording studio. "That's not true, Barbra. But what's happening is real life. . . . My job is to try to show your creative process, and you have to trust me." "Trust you?" She paused, looking at me with those icy, beautiful blue eyes. At that moment, Barbra Streisand seemed a human lie detector, probing for the slightest sign of insincerity.
It was one of several intense moments you will not be seeing when our 20/20 profile on her airs. [It's scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 17.—Ed.] Aloof, she has generally been unavailable to the press over most of the 22 years she has reigned as show business royalty. Resentful about that and put off by her strong personality, reporters have often stung Barbra with awful articles that seemed to gloat in attacking her. The experience has left her deeply suspicious of anything to be written or broadcast about her, unless she controls it.
Overcoming that suspicion, and getting her consent to allow a basically unfettered news team to watch her at work while under pressure, was something that took several years to arrange. Even after Barbra agreed to the idea and our crew had started filming, she would dip occasionally into her mother lode of suspicion.
The afternoon in London, for example. Barbra and famed composer Michel Legrand were working on the scoring that is, the editing in of the music to her new film, "Yentl." But as Barbra listened to a playback of one of the songs she had recorded weeks earlier, her keen ear caught an editing mistake. One of the producers had made a tiny cut in the opening bars of the song. Our cameras were rolling as she first listened to the music ... discovered it just didn't sound right .. identified the specific problem ... then, insisted on rerecording the offending portion of the song, over the grumbling and muttered objections of nearly everyone in the studio control room.
As far as I was concerned, it was a priceless moment. Here she was, for everyone in our television audience to judge for themselves. Was Barbra the creative and social tyrant she has been cast as . . . or was she a star rightfully expecting brilliance from everybody working with her?
For a while in the studio, nobody moved.
Except my cameraman, striving to capture the moment for our documentary. Unfortunately, that was when somebody knocked into one of the lights we had set up to film the recording session. The crashing sound shattered the tension, but also focused near total attention on our being there. It was at that point Barbra had requested (commanded?) my presence at a private conference in the adjacent recording booth.
"Trust you?" she said again, almost as if she were asking herself the question. "Why are you filming this? Do you want to show everyone how pushy I am? The diva who is never satisfied?"
"I'm filming it because I want to show your incredible attention to every detail of your movie."
Barbra is not only starring and singing in "Yentl," she is also the film's producer, director and principal screenwriter. By this day, she had already been working on the movie for almost four years, and yet her energy and concentration were as sharp as on the day she started.
"You know why your audience would think I was pushy?" "Why?" "Because I'm a woman. Not because I'm wrong or right, but because I'm a woman ... and women aren't supposed to direct movies!"
"So say that when we do the sit-down interview."
"I will." She cracked that famous Streisand grin, filled with allure and mischief. "Now I've got to get back to work."
"Me too?" After working with her on the 20/20 project for well over a year, I could tell that yet another crisis had passed.
"You too, honey," she answered, as she swept back into the control room to prevail over her colleagues on the issue of the misedited song. It was a sequence we filmed from start to finish, absent only the private talk in the recording booth.
That was what it was like during the time we followed and filmed Barbra from Malibu, Cal., to Prague, to Liverpool to London, and back to Southern California. Over the course of the four interviews and 25,000 miles, our hungry camera consumed an intensely personal portrait of Streisand.
Item: On why she stopped doing concerts: "The audiences wanted me to stick to my old standards. And I tried to say I can't live in the past. I can't grow old singing 'People' and 'The Way We Were'."
Item: On why she killed a sexy Playboy cover photo of herself: "At that time, being interested in feminist issues, I thought, how could I be seen in a bunny suit? Maybe I was afraid of my own sexuality."
Item: On why she risked ruin of her personal life and her professional standing to make "Yentl," a movie about an obscure group in far-off turn-of-the-century Poland: "I was reaching a point in my life where I thought I don't want to play it safe any more. And it doesn't matter what anybody thinks. I have to do this for me."
The film star had worked obsessively on her project for four years. The woman's personal life had changed dramatically as a result of that single-minded devotion.
Jon Peters, for instance, her lover of nine years, had been one of those strongly opposed to Barbra's making the movie. As I asked during one of our preliminary interviews: "What about you and Jon, Babs, did you have to make a conscious choice ...?" "My work or my personal life?" "Really." "Yes, I did. And I chose my work." We thought it best to meet the evening before the final and most important interview, the one at her ranch in Malibu. We had reservations for dinner, but she called a half hour before to tell me about some old videotapes and family photo albums she thought might interest me. Barbra suggested we get together at her stately home in Beverly Hills.
"There is so much to talk about!" she exclaimed, as she walked into her office/library, where I sat waiting. She gestured with the long page of scribbled notes she carried. At that moment, she reminded me of a kid frightened she was going to leave something off her Christmas list. "How do you fit a whole life into an interview?" she asked rhetorically. "Tell me everything, and I'll decide what to leave out," I said, smiling as I stood to greet her.
What she unfolded for me, from that moment on, was an incredible trip into her once and future life. She explained, for instance, with great emotion, how her father had died when she was just a year old. And how Yentl, the girl she plays in the film, also lost her father. (As I learned, a lot of what is in the movie is actually Barbra's reality.)
"In the film I had a chance to make a father. He exists now, I mean . . . I created him. And he tells me he's proud of me, which are words that I would've liked my real father to say."
As the evening progressed, it became increasingly clear Barbra was going to use the opportunity of the 20/20 broadcast to tell her story. And there were going to be no ground rules. She was ready and willing to answer questions as tough as any I might ask for the focus of one of my investigative reports. For example, that night we talked about her dating Pierre Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister; and about her image as a person who is formidable and haughty; we talked about her being a woman director in a man's world; and about how motherhood and her family have suffered as a result of her tunnel-vision dedication to her work.
As we were saying good night, hours later, I said, "Now don't be shy to talk about these things tomorrow. I mean, I'm really deaf unless the camera is rolling." "Don't worry." She smiled reflectively. "I want people to know what's going on in my life."
To simplify my over-scheduled life, and provide an attractive and relevant setting for his interview, I had asked Jon Peters to come out to Malibu, to the ranch he and Barbra own.
Actually, calling the place a "ranch" is like Vanderbilt calling his Newport mansion a "cottage." It is a modern-day rival to Hearst's San Simeon; a golf course-sized property that occupies the entire end of Malibu Canyon. There are five major structures On the spread, including the original ranch-style house, a peach-colored California contemporary, a Victorian-themed wooden house, Barbra's fabulously authentic art deco delight and the property manager's house.
So finding appropriate interview locales was no real problem. What to do about Jon and Barbra, I thought, might be. By this time (late summer), they had both decided their relationship had to be "renegotiated." Although they no longer live together, they talk every day and have many business and personal interests, including the ranch, still in common.
Up until this morning really, Barbra wasn't a hundred per cent sure I wanted to interview Jon in connection with the 20/20 profile on her, or that he would consent. I was. Jon had played a critical role in Barbra's personal and professional life in recent years.
Her decision to make "Yentl" despite his objections ("I wanted her to do Vegas") was, I thought, the bravest thing she had ever done. More than anything, the act symbolized a new era in Barbra's life: independence and experimentation.
So I wanted to get Jon's side of the story, and after knowing him for years, never doubted he would consent. I worried only about one watching the other being interviewed, an uncomfortable situation sure to cramp everyone's style.
To avoid having to ask either friend to take a powder, I had scheduled Jon for 11 in the morning, and Barbra for 2 in the afternoon. But because getting cameras and things set up always takes longer than it is supposed to, Barbra, arrived at the ranch as my interview with Jon was barely starting. To cut her off at the pass, I ran over to the gate as she walked in.
"Oh come on, Geraldo! Let me watch!" Barbra can be playful, a side of her you never hear about. Far from regal or stand-offish, she is, more often, a sexy, funny girl.
"In the words of Michael Jackson, beat it," I responded. She did, and I finished the interview with Jon.
He hung around at my interview with Barbra began. The first setup was around the art deco house she had created. The cameraman had her beautifully back-lit by the golden, mid-afternoon California sun. But just as we were about to shoot, Jon interjected that he thought the lighting wasn't quite right.
"Don't you have something important to do?" I asked. He graciously took the not-so-subtle hint and left.
Over the course of my friendship with Barbra, I have never really been comfortable talking with her. I know that confession would surprise her, and it was entirely my problem, not hers. Two main things affected our relationship. First, I've never had many real girl friends; relatives, professional associates, lovers, yes. Girl friends, not many. My problem, not hers. Secondly, there was always the Streisand mystique. She may be girlish and charming, but she is also enormously talented, accomplished and powerful. I don't know. I guess it was hard to be close friends with a woman from a blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn whose self-made wealth exceeds the gross national product of many countries.
So I had wondered, in the months leading up to the climactic interview, how that let's call it what it is, awe—that awe of her would affect my performance.
As it turned out, not at all. Having a heart-to-heart conversation with Barbra the friend may have been a problem. Interviewing her was not. Secure in my well-worn roles of interviewer, historian, investigator and professionally curious person, I was comfortable asking Barbra on-camera about everything from her roots to her motivations, her joys, fears and current flames. As I said, there were no ground rules; you see Barbra as she is today.
Item: From the interview: "I'm open to new ideas, new relationships, new priorities and new ways of looking at life." "Are you excited?" "Excited? Yeah. I'm excited—and scared."
Geraldo Rivera is correspondent and senior producer on ABC's 20/20.
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