November 11, 1997

AT HOME WITH: Barbra Streisand; Love Soft as an Easy Chair (Cue the Violins)


Bart Bartholomew photo

Photo: Barbra Streisand, with a new love and a new album, is hardly shy about her devotions. (Bart Bartholomew for The New York Times)

Barbra Streisand's in love. And she's wearing a white-diamond engagement ring on her elegantly manicured right hand. And she's waxing every bit as ecstatic as the lyrics to one of her hit songs.

''He's so nurturing,'' Ms. Streisand enthuses about her fiance, the actor James Brolin, during a six-hour conversation at her beach-front estate here. ''He's my lover, and my romantic other self. But he also fills a need. I now know what it is to have a father.''

She wants ''to nurture him,'' she says. ''I want to give him lamb stew on a cold night, like last night.''

Followers of Barbra Joan Streisand's legend know of the details of her early story. She was 15 months old when her father, Emanuel, died. Afterward she lived a miserable Brooklyn childhood, always striving for attention from an embittered mother, battling her disapproving stepfather, dreaming of someday getting out and becoming a movie star.

Ms. Streisand, 55, has been making movies, and recordings, for more than 30 years now. The Recording Industry Association of America lists her as ''the female artist with the highest number of gold and platinum awards and accumulated certified sales on full-length albums,'' said Angela Corio, director of the association's gold and platinum awards program.

As an actress, she broadened the concept of beauty, glorifying her imperfect nose, emphasizing her ethnic style. More important, Ms. Streisand smashed through Hollywood's glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to produce, direct and star in her own films. It is that accomplishment, she says, that has made her a sometimes unpopular figure within sectors of the entertainment industry. ''Why am I called an egotist?'' she asks, rhetorically. ''Is it because I dare to do more than one job? Why do you think men are not called egotists? Why isn't Kevin Costner called an egotist for acting and directing his own movies? Or Mel Gibson? I just think it's a sexist attitude, that's all.''

Talk like that makes a visitor expect a feminist firebrand. Yet spend an afternoon with Barbra Streisand, and you see a contradictory woman who is never very far from the fatherless child. Indeed, you expect a tycoon in the mold of a Barbara Stanwyck character. Instead, you find Helen Gurley Brown, with a touch of mysticism.

For instance, Ms. Streisand says that as she was ruminating about whether or not to direct the 1983 film ''Yentl,'' she went to visit her father's grave for the first time, ''because I was angry, probably, that he died on me.'' Later that day, she invited a medium to the home of her older brother, Sheldon. ''It's a Jewish woman, not like a person with a voodoo hat on or anything, a nice Jewish housewife who had a spiritual guide. She could call spirits into the room.''

''We're sitting around this table at my brother's house,'' she recalls. ''There are no strings, no electrical wires, there's nothing touching this table. The table starts to move. I get so scared, I run into the bathroom. I finally come out.''

The table, raised a leg, made a noise on the floor and seemed to spell out her name. ''And who is the spirit in the room? M-A-N-N-Y, which is my father's nickname. The message to Barbra from Manny, 'S-O-R-R-Y.' And then, 'S-I-N-G P-R-O-U-D.' ''

Ms. Streisand says that this moment seemed a signal that she should direct the movie. Of all the films she has made, she is most proud of ''Yentl,'' because, ''it was dedicated to my father,'' she says. ''I felt like I had almost created him. I had a father in that movie. He lived.''

As for the father substitute in her life now, Mr. Brolin, he came to her by a more conventional method, a blind date. It happened 16 months ago, and there was an instant attraction. Two months after the romance began, Mr. Brolin went off to Ireland to act in and direct ''My Brother's War,'' a small independent film. Ms. Streisand finished editing her own ''Mirror Has Two Faces,'' and then flew to his side.

''I really wanted to support Jim, because I knew how difficult it was to direct a movie that you're in,'' she says. ''I had been with men who were not so supportive when I was doing a movie. So I really wanted to give him what I felt I didn't get. I would get up at 5 and give him breakfast and help him through that ordeal. It was just a very loving intimate experience to live in a house with a thatched roof.''

Years ago, she was married to the actor Elliot Gould. They have a son, Jason, now 30. She has dated Don Johnson and Andre Agassi, and there was a long, stormy relationship with the producer Jon Peters.

She also dated Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the former Canadian Prime Minister. ''Trudeau was a man I wasn't ready for,'' she says. ''In other words, he was magnificent. It scared me, even though my lucky number is 24, and he lived at 24 Sussex Drive, and he had this incredible powerful image, and I loved his politics. I was 29, and he was 50. It was complicated, the father image, as well as the sexual image.''

Sighing, Ms. Streisand says: ''You get wiser. You get, 'You love me for all I am, or don't bother.' I'm not going to downplay myself for the sake of man's ego. And therefore I found myself a man whose ego is very strong. He's proud of my accomplishments.

''When he came into my life, he said, 'I'm here to empower you.' He actually said that to me, and I thought: 'This is some hell of a guy. You mean to give me more power?' Because I needed to be empowered in this personal part of me. While I'm doing music, he lies here and reads scripts. He's doing his work, but he's with me. He doesn't feel neglected. He understands the process. I mean, it's a mitzvah. It's a blessing. It's a joy.''

Her publicist, Dick Guttman, said the couple were likely to be married after the New Year.

Ms. Streisand, who has long been interested in politics, is a major supporter of President Clinton, for whom she has only the most enthusiastic praise. Perhaps one reason for her unfailing enthusiasm for the President is her personal closeness to members of his family.

If Mr. Brolin is her father substitute, then the President's mother, Virginia Kelley, who died in 1994, was, for a while, her mother of choice.

''I called her my Southern mom,'' Ms. Streisand says. ''She knew how to soothe with words. Virginia would say, 'Do you know how precious you are?' Every conversation, she'd say, 'I love you.' The way I was brought up, nobody ever used words like 'I love you.' I just wanted to take care of her. I was so looking forward to have her visit me out here. I wanted to take her shopping, because she was so appreciative of everything she was given.''

Ms. Streisand recalls attending Mrs. Kelley's funeral and feeling tremendously moved by the gospel song 'On Holy Ground.' At that sad moment, Ms. Streisand vowed to create her own memorial to Mrs. Kelley, a record album of songs with religious themes.

The recording, ''Higher Ground,'' is being released today by Sony and reflects some of Ms. Streisand's new-found optimism. The album is dedicated to Mrs. Kelley, but also to ''J.B., for giving me the love I sing about.''

Has Ms. Streisand ever wondered what her life might have been like if she had actually had a mother as uncritically loving as Mrs. Kelley?

She takes a long breath. ''Either I would have become President or a very happy Long Island housewife with no artistic ambitions and no need to express herself beyond children and a house. One or the other.''



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