Queen of Tides
She spent most of the last decade working only when she wanted to, which wasn't very often. After all, in her thirty years of stardom Barbra Streisand has already done everything, and now, at only forty-nine, she's a show-biz grande dame— just like Fanny Brice.
KEVIN SESSUMS meets the most commanding woman in Hollywood as she directs herself in a new movie, The Prince of Tides
- Photographs by HERB RITTS
- Styled by MARINA SCHIANO
'I vant sea gulls. . ." Barbra Streisand dramatically whispers, then giggles at the Yiddischer élan with which she still enhances her every desire. Her distinct Brooklyn accent fills the Cary Grant Theater here on the Columbia Studios lot with such outlandish longing that she could easily be a Chekhov heroine in a spoof by Mel Brooks.
Streisand stands with her back to me and works on the sound editing for her upcoming motion picture, The Prince of Tides. In front of us, on the giant screen. South Carolinian gulls are soaring to recorded orchestral strings as she conducts BBSS the sound levels with her out- stretched arms, her expressive hands and famously attended fingernails fluttering with the instinct of the coastal birds. At the control board, seated around her, are the film's sound men and assistant editors. One of them looks back at the editor Don Zimmerman and good- naturedly rolls his eyes behind Streisand's back. As director. producer, and actress, she has spent the last three years putting together the much-anticipated film version of Pat Conroy's best-seller, and she's allowing no detail to go unnoticed, not even the sound of sea gulls behind the film's lush opening music. The Prince of Tides is the story of one southern family's summer of healing. It stars Nick Nolte as Tom Wingo, the cracker who migrates north ostensibly to rescue his cracked sister from yet another suicide attempt and unexpectedly rescues himself from his own shattered past with the help of her psychiatrist, a woman called Lowenstein, portrayed by Streisand.
One of the technicians punches a button and the film magically rewinds, the gulls flapping a retreat. This woman who can make birds fly backward walks to the rear of the theater, where I am sitting. "This is a great image for your story," she instructs me. "Me standing there with my back to you. All the guys around me. My arms conducting it all. The screen filling up with. .. with... with all this childhood stuff.''
"There is only one way to deal with Barbra Streisand: tell her the truth," says Jule Styne, who met Streisand when she was still a child herself. "If you don't tell her the truth, then you're going to have problems."
Styne, the composer of Funny Girl, was instrumental in securing the role of Fanny Brice for Streisand after she submitted to seven grueling auditions. She was only twenty years old, and the show's creators had been searching for a woman who could convincingly portray a mother in Act Two. They talked to Anne Bancroft, but she didn't like the idea of being called Fanny onstage. At one point Mary Martin was slated for the role; at another, Carol Burnett. It was the latter who advised Styne that someone with "her Jewishness born in her" was needed, and Streisand was finally given the coveted role that thirty years ago thrust her permanently into the cultural consciousness.
Styne: "Barbra's all about the work. After we cast her, I even flew to Las Vegas, where she had already been booked as the opening act for Liberace, and taught her the score between shows—that is, when I could drag her away from the gambling tables. When we were finally in rehearsals for Broadway—now, this was before the girl was a star, she was just this strange little creature who walked out at her first audition looking like a Russian Cossack —she had her manager write me a note telling me that there were two songs that she didn't like, 'People' and 'Don't Rain on My Parade.' She didn't think she wanted to sing them. I called her right up and said, 'Barbra, if you don't sing "People," you don't sing my score.' You've got to be straight with her. This reputation about being difficult comes from untalented people misunderstanding truly talented ones. Because she's so talented she had a tendency—maybe she still does—to show off a bit. She was always shoving shovelsful of her talent in your face. Jerry Robbins summed her up. He said she does everything wrong, but it comes out right."
If not always right, it at least comes out the way she wants it. "I always had extraordinary willpower," Streisand tells me, noting that she has supported herself since she was ten years old, when she worked as a cashier in a local Chinese restaurant. "My grandmother used to call me 'farbrent,' which means 'on fire.' I just couldn't accept no for an answer. I still can't."
In the early days, Streisand's ambition was so naked that New York's Mayor Wagner could have had her arrested for indecent exposure. There had never been a creature quite like her; audiences became voyeurs, discovering her as she discovered herself. "Back then she certainly wasn't the actress she later became," remembers Styne. "But our greatest stage performances have come from some of our worst actresses. Merman, for example. To this day, I've never seen a performance to rival Barbra's in Funny Girl." Which is exactly what many people miss about Streisand. At one point she was our greatest performer. While her contemporaries were off fighting a war, marching in the South, or discovering rock 'n' roll, Streisand was wearing designer gowns, sporting Cleopatra makeup, balancing high-rise hairdos, starring in solo television specials, and making hit recordings of ageless love songs. "She's been famous now longer than she was unfamous," says musician and entrepreneur Richard Baskin, an ex- boyfriend. Indeed, Streisand has had to grow up in public while pretending to be grown-up all along. Not content to be our greatest performer, she wanted to be our greatest serious actress, and now, for the last decade, our greatest director.
The Greatest interests Streisand. Stardom does not. She honestly doesn't seem to want to play that role. "Stardom for Barbra is something she has never come to terms with," says Cis Corman, who hasn't talked to the press about her best friend in twenty-five years. Corman, a former casting director, is now the president of Barwood Films, Streisand's production company. "Stardom is a part of her life that has always been difficult for her.''
Sue Mengers, Streisand's agent in the seventies and early eighties, with whom she has become close friends again after a bitter estrangement, claims, "My biggest contribution was nagging her. She has no need for constant employment like other stars. I used to be flattered when she would ask my advice about some artistic problem she was having, until I found her one day talking to the gardener about the same thing. When Barbra works she becomes obsessive and it's the only thing she is able to focus on. I think that's why she doesn't do it as much as the rest of us would like her to. It's just too exhausting. She has less 'star mentality' in regards to What's- the-next-hot-project?-Get-me-a-role-in-it than anybody I've ever dealt with."
Could Mengers be talking about the same striving broad from Brooklyn who gained her fame with the unabashed confidence of her singing and her aggressive candor in Funny Girl and Funny Lady, Hello, Dolly!, The Owl and the Pussycat, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, What's Up Doc?, Up the Sandbox, The Way We Were, For Pete's Sake, A Star Is Born, The Main Event, Yentl, and Nuts? "Look, there's a very interesting need for 'stars' and 'divas,' " Streisand explains. "Madonna is very good at that. She 'plays' the part. Cis was one of the first people to find her. She calls me up one day when she was a casting director and says, 'I found this girl and she reminds me of you. The first person I've met in a long time who reminds me of you. She's coming out to California, so I'm going to bring her over to meet you.' This was before she had had a hit record or anything. We took her out for a Chinese meal and the funniest thing is she orders a whole fish! When I go out with people, I don't order lobster or steak. I think maybe they can't afford it or something. I would never do that. I mean, that takes chutzpah to order a whole fish. I was knocked out by her chutzpah. Isn't that hysterical? She ordered a whole fish! This girl is out there. I don't know how you would put us in the same category, because I'm so not like that."
In her own way, Streisand, at forty-nine, is finally coming full circle and arriving at who she has been all along. Her conversation is punctuated with references to her childhood, and she's devoted a lot of time over the last few years to all manner of New Age soul-searching. She also plans to spend less time in Beverly Hills—where she's lived in the same house for twenty-one years—and more time in Manhattan, at her apartment in the West Nineties, where Lorenz Hart once lived with his mother. For years Streisand said she hated New York, but now claims to have fallen in love with it again while filming The Prince of Tides. She is, finally, a child of the city.
Before she starred in Funny Girl, Streisand stopped another Broadway show, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, with her performance as Miss Marmelstein. David Merrick produced the musical, and, according to Arthur Laurents, its director (who later wrote The Way We Were), Merrick wanted Streisand fired because "he didn't think she was pretty or funny enough. On the road, he was right. They just didn't get her. But once we got to New York, everybody got her."
New York audiences could relate to her Brooklyn-born bravura. Streisand's father, Emanuel, a teacher of English literature, died of respiratory failure when Barbra was fifteen months old. Her mother, Diana, who married a used-car salesman named Lou Kind when Streisand was seven, worked during the day while her daughter was in the care of a beloved "knitting lady," as Streisand refers to the woman who tended her. Left to her own devices—and largely ignored by her brother, Sheldon, who is eight and a half years older—Streisand became, as she has remained, her own authority figure. She graduated with honors two years early from Erasmus Hall High School, and was so headstrong that she moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan when she was still only fifteen. She carried around a cot and camped out in a friend's publicity office while she attempted to hold down temporary jobs before finally settling into a studio apartment above a fish market, where she hung a magnificent pictureless antique frame on the wall.
Sue Mengers remembers the first time she ever saw Streisand onstage, in the Off Broadway bomb Another Evening with Harry Stoones. "When I saw her walk out on the stage I thought, It sure takes a lot of balls for a mieskayt like that to get up in front of people and perform. It was only later, after the Morris office got ahold of her and 'fluffed' her, that I saw how beautiful she could be."
Another of Streisand's Off Broadway bombs was The Insect Comedy, in which she portrayed a butterfly along with her close friend Barry Dennen, who later became a mentor. Dennen, who went on to play Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar and star in London as the Emcee in Cabaret, had a collection of Fanny Brice recordings that the two would listen to for hours at a time. With his help, Streisand began to assemble a nightclub act, which she premiered in local piano bars—the Ninth Circle, the Showplace, and the Lion—that catered to a gay clientele.
Streisand, whether she likes it or not, became the mother of a post-Garland show- biz phenomenon: the pop diva whose career is launched largely by gay male audiences. Following in her footsteps came Bette Midler and, now, Madonna. "When I won my first talent contest at the Lion," Streisand says, "I didn't realize it was a gay bar. Cis came opening night after I'd won and I said to her, 'Why are we the only women here?' She laughed and told me where we were." Why does she think gay men have responded to her throughout her career? "Because I can be imitated?" she says, sounding stumped. "Because I seem bigger than life?" She shrugs. "I guess because I was so odd."
BACKYARD BARBRA CUE The singer lounges in the garden of her Beverly Hills home.
"Of all the celebrities who should have done more for gay men during the AIDS crisis it's Barbra," says an industry bigwig who's active in AIDS charities in Los Angeles. "Whenever you call Madonna or Bette or Liz Taylor, they're there, no questions asked. But what has Barbra done? She hides behind this stage- fright crap, but she got up and raised mil- lions for a bunch of politicians. We are the people who discovered her, who have loved her. Where is she? It's shameful."
Streisand is unapologetic. "That's their opinion. I give loads of money. I've given a lot to pediatric AIDS through my foundation, and all the proceeds from the single 'Somewhere' from my Broadway album went to AmFAR. I don't give public appearances; Madonna and Bette like to perform and I don't. Elizabeth has this as her one cause. She gives speeches. I did have a passion to film The Normal Heart [Larry Kramer's play concerning the genesis of the AIDS epidemic]. I wanted to give back something through my work, which is the best way I know how. I still may do that film yet. I wanted to make it because it is about everyone's right to love and we could fight against the homophobia that sadly really does exist out there."
Streisand and her twenty-four-year-old son, by ex-husband Elliott Gould, Jason Gould—an actor who co-stars with his mother in The Prince of Tides—recently had to fight the homophobia inherent in a false and sensationalized tabloid account of Jason's "marriage" to a male model. Streisand issued a rare public response to a tabloid story, saying, "I've just about gotten used to the garbage they've been writing about me for years, but this is a new low in rag journalism."
Politically, Streisand is an old-fashioned liberal; she gives money to many social causes. Her Streisand Foundation, endowed with her own money and by the "One Voice" concert she gave in 1986 to raise money for six Democratic congressional candidates, has earned more than $5 million to date through the concert and its ancillary rights. The foundation has made approximately 285 grants in the last six years, the biggest being $500,000 to endow the Streisand Chair in Cardiology at U.C.L.A. and $300,000 to endow the Streisand Chair on Intimacy and Sexuality at U.S.C.
Don't laugh—Streisand's own brand of intimacy and sexuality has in many ways redefined the popular concept of "leading lady." Perhaps the best equivalent in English for the French term jolie laide is "Streisand." She embodies what the term describes: an unlikely sex appeal. Because of her powerful presence and exotic looks, Streisand has also redefined her leading men—among them Omar Sharif, Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal, Richard Dreyfuss, and Kris Kristofferson. Nick Nolte is her latest, and he too has discovered a softer, feminine side of himself in order to respond to a woman whose sheer talent is a swaggering presence.
"I don't think I have feminine wiles," says Streisand. "Maybe I do subconsciously. But because I never had a father I never learned about manipulation or manipulating men. I envy these women who can...I don't even know what you call it.. .sidle up? You know, sweet-talk to a man. . .I like maleness. I do. But I also have to have the sensitive, feminine side of a man to relate to. Otherwise, I'm lost."
"People who love her—and there are a lot of us—worry about her. She evokes that," says Elliott Gould. There has been a long line of men over the years who have worried about Streisand—film producer Jon Peters, actor Don Johnson, and Baskin, an heir to the Baskin-Robbins ice- cream fortune. (She has also dated Ryan O'Neal, former prime minister of Canada Pierre Trudeau, Omar Sharif, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Richard Gere.)
The latest man in Streisand's life has been James Newton Howard, who composed the music for The Prince of Tides after Oscar-winning composer John Barry left the project because of "artistic differences." Marilyn and Alan Bergman, the husband-and-wife lyricists who not only are a kind of surrogate aunt and uncle for Streisand but have also co-written many of her most famous love songs—including the theme to The Way We Were and now The Prince of Tides—had initially suggested Howard for the composer job and arranged a dinner for the two. Streisand and Howard hit it off and soon became a gossip item around Hollywood. Having learned from her past experiences, Streisand will not talk about her current love interests, and Howard allows only that he and Streisand are "very close friends. .. .There is no one like Barbra and I'd be very sad if I didn't have a relationship with her in some form in my life."
He probably won't be disappointed, since relationships with Streisand don't seem to end so much as evolve into friendships. One reason is that a majority of her boyfriends have themselves been in show business and inevitably became involved with her career, which in her life has almost taken on the role of the Prettier Twin Sister. Thus a typical Streisand relationship becomes a ménage à trois: Streisand, the Boyfriend, the Career. "I don't know if I agree with that," says Jon Peters, once again one of the town's most powerful producers. It was Peters who gave the go-ahead to Tides when he was co-chairman of Columbia Pictures Entertainment and everyone else in Hollywood had turned the project down.
Peters and Streisand met when she spotted one of the famed hairdresser's shags on one of the models in a fashion magazine she was thumbing through. It was exactly the look she wanted for her role in For Pete's Sake, and she had Peters summoned. After they became a couple, he was intimately involved with steering her career, producing her album ButterFly, as well as co-producing two of her films, A Star Is Born and The Main Event, and running her production company. "Certainly part of the relationship with someone like Barbra has to be creative in some sense," Peters says. "That's just part of the synergy that goes on between any two people who fall in love—common interests are going to be shared. But let's not forget what a sexy woman she is. The first time I walked into her house it was magic. Not only had I never seen such exquisite taste, but I was knocked out by her as a person. One of the first things she said to me was 'See those gates out there? Do they scare you?' I said, 'No. I want a pair of my own.' Then she walked up the stairs in front of me and I remember thinking, What a cute little round butt."
Streisand always considered herself an actress, and from the beginning used her singing talent as a means to an emotive end. But it was the Voice, more than anything else, that catapulted her show- business career. "It's a Stradivarius," says Quincy Jones of Streisand's distinctive instrument. "She's smart enough and instinctive enough to let it alone and allow it to come through her, not from her."
Does the ever self-critical performer like the way she sings? "I don't like the way I sound as a young singer—some of the stuff when I'm sort of eighteen I don't like. But then I think, Jesus Christ! I do have a very good voice," Streisand says, giggling at her immodesty. " I hadn' t sung in about two years and I had to sing for the sound-track album of The Prince of Tides. I didn't know what was going to come out, because I never warm up or vocalize. I never took lessons. I sing because I want to sing. I hold a note because I want to hold a note."
On her 1985 release, the brilliant Broadway Album, Streisand went back to her roots after a decade of unsatisfying forays into contemporary music. Next month she is releasing Just for the Record, a four-CD, three-decade retrospective of her work; most of the songs have never been heard, including a duet with Judy Garland and a rendition of "Warm All Over," from The Most Happy Fella, which is a preview cut from a second album of Broadway tunes now in the works.
"I didn't know she could sing for two years," says Cis Corman. "I met her when she was fifteen or sixteen at our acting class at the Curt Conway Studio. She was my maid-in-waiting in a play we did at the studio, Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning. We became her surrogate family. I had four kids. I had roots. I had a refrigerator full of food. Barbra's appetite for work is only matched by her appetite for food. . . . She had come to the house and my husband and I were sitting around eating in the kitchen. She said, 'Ya know, I'm going to enter a contest for singing.' I said, 'Why would you do that? You don't know how to sing.' She said, 'Yeah, I do.' 'Well, sing for us,' I said. It was rather a silly thing to say. She said, 'I'm too embarrassed. Well, all right, I'll sit on the table and look towards the wall.' So she sat down and faced the wall and sang Harold Arlen's 'A Sleepin' Bee.' She turned around when she got through and we were drenched in tears. It was something I'll never forget."
After her early successes in gay bars, Streisand began to cause a stir in clubs that catered to a mixed clientele—the Blue Angel and, most famously, the Bon Soir, on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, where she was first discovered by the theater cognoscenti. The New Yorker, however, dismissed her first appearance there: "Barbra Streisand, singer—file and forget," wrote Rogers Whitaker. "Instead of being upset, she was irate," cabaret aficionado Ben Bagley told James Gavin for the latter's upcoming book about the early cabaret scene, Intimate Nights. " 'That old fart!' she said. 'What does he know?' Didn't deter her for a minute. The average person would have been devastated.''
Streisand's manager, Marty Erlichman, remembers seeing her for the first time. "I had gone down to the Bon Soir to check out an old friend of mine, the comedian Phil Leeds," he tells me. "This was back in 1961. Phil had been blacklisted by all that McCarthy stuff in the fifties and had just been reissued his cabaret card. I went to check out his material, but out walked this eighteen-year-old singer as his opening act. She sang five songs and I had chills through all of them. She already had representation, so I sort of kept my distance at first. But three months later I was out in San Francisco and I got a call. She was playing some club in Detroit and was only making $150 a week. She wanted $200 a week plus dinners. Her agent wasn't helping her out, so she remembered I wanted to represent her. She called and told me her problem. 'But I can't pay you any commission,' she warned me. I got on the first plane to Detroit and worked out a deal. The owners— a pair of brothers—only offered her $175 and no dinners. I told them behind her back I'd pay them the twenty-five-dollar difference if they'd throw in the dinners, which is what happened. The brothers said to me, 'Let us get this straight. You flew here at your own expense so you could pay us twenty-five dollars and you're not even her manager? You must really believe this girl is going to be a star.' I sure as hell did."
If Cis Corman has been Streisand's surrogate mother since she was a teenager, Marty Erlichman has been her surrogate father (except, by his own admission, for the six years when Jon Peters was involved with Streisand's career). "I do think there was less fear in Barbra early on," he admits when asked about his client's New Age soul-searching. "As she's gotten older, I have noticed more fear in her. I don't know where that comes from.''
Another of the constants in Streisand's life, along with her fear, has been the drone she insists clutters her hearing. "I hear noises all the time," she says. "It's pretty horrible. I long for the silence." This is not some sort of metaphysical sensation she is afflicted with, but a real ringing in her ears. It started in childhood, around age seven, she explains to me. "It was the night my mother took me home from a Jewish camp. I was so miserable and homesick. I was a kid of the street— you know, parents hanging out of their windows and yelling at their kids. It was like a neighborhood. I was so alone in this place. I wouldn't let my mother leave without me. She had to pack me up. I always felt that kind of power—like the power over my mother. She took me home to a new apartment. I didn't know she had married a man. She never told me—or that she was pregnant." Make sure you tell everyone that everything is alarmed!" Streisand proclaims.
The actress has long been famous for her acquisitiveness and her obsession with decorating. Even as a struggling performer in New York she collected antique clothes and jewelry, which she still has and now keeps stored away in one of the five houses on her twenty-four-acre Malibu estate. Collecting has almost been an addiction for her; whether it was houses or land or Art Nouveau furniture, Streisand could never seem to buy enough to satisfy her appetites. Maybe it's the cliché about substituting material love for the maternal kind (Streisand tells me that she once believed "objects were less disappointing than people"), or maybe it's just the old- fashioned story, like Fanny Brice's, about coming from nothing. In some ways, actually, Streisand may still be playing Brice after all these years. Speaking about her New York apartment, she tells me that she's redecorated it "in chintz and Chippendale and eighteenth-century furniture. When I was playing Fanny Brice I used to make fun of her taste, you know, when I was on the set of the movie. 'How can she live in this fancy stuff?' I used to ask our director, Willie Wyler. Now my apartment has furniture with Queen Anne legs and it looks like the sets for Funny Girl."
Taking me on a tour of her Beverly Hills home, the inveterate collector and renovator tells me that when she can find the time in her schedule she plans to build her own version of an antebellum mansion on another plot of land in Beverly Hills. For now, however, she has busied herself with decorating this house, which she's recently cleared of the Art Nouveau and filled with furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley. Many of the pieces, Streisand is proud to point out, were owned and used by the two Arts and Crafts designers themselves. Drawings by Gustav Klimt hang next to disquieting nudes by Egon Schiele (holdovers from her Art Nouveau phase), but two Edward Hoppers have been added to the collection to complement the Arts and Crafts pieces.
We sit on facing couches in the living room. A bust of Sarah Bernhardt, sculpted by the divine Frenchwoman herself, stares at us from across the room. It has certainly been quite a journey since those nights with a cot tucked under her arm. "I lived in the world of the imagination," says Streisand, circling back to those early days in New York. "I had fantasies and dreams and imagined what life should be like. But I'm still stuck with certain myths. When my mother first saw me sing at the Bon Soir nightclub in Greenwich Village I was wearing a 1900 kind of lace combing jacket that ladies wore to comb their hair, with a pink satin ribbon, and I had designed a little skirt and wore pink satin shoes from the 1920s that I still have, which are the most exquisite shoes that I own. I tried to get them copied, but I couldn't. My mother was totally embarrassed by me. She thought I was singing in my underwear! To me they were the most beautiful things. And when she first saw me act, she said,' Your arms are too skinny.' "
Streisand sighs. She wears pink cashmere and a newer pair of pink satin slippers, which are embroidered with tiny pearl-like beads. The backs of the slippers are smushed beneath her heels for comfort. Her skin is immaculately rosy and is the exact color of the wall behind her. The only family portrait in the room is a handsome photo of Jason, whose first-rate performance in The Prince of Tides as Lowenstein's son, Bernard, has made his mother even prouder of him.
"Barbra was a wonderful mother," Corman has already confided to me. "Jason had the burden. It must have been difficult for him." Later, Jason himself inadvertently sheds some light on Corman's observation when discussing his work in the film. "The nice thing about the experience is not only did I gain confidence and grow as an actor," Jason says, "but my relationship with my mother grew, too—it went beyond the trust we have as a mother and son to that of actor and director." It does seem that Jason and his mother have grown closer by working together, which makes sense when one considers that all his life he must have observed that those who have been closest to her have always been her surrogate family members, who play supporting roles in her artistic career. Jason was insistent on playing Bernard in Tides, and, with Pat Conroy's blessing, his mother awarded him the role.
Streisand runs her hands through her loose, blondish hair. "You can say, 'Well, my mother didn't understand me,' " she continues, Jason's portrait looking down on her from the bookshelf. "But by her not understanding me, she' s responsible for my success. I had to prove to my mother that you don't have to be so beautiful to be a movie star.. .or conventionally beautiful. That my arms.. .it doesn't matter if they're skinny. Now I look at her with enormous gratitude and I can feel love. I have no more anger.... I lived for many years with a lot of anger at my parents."
Eighty-two-year-old Diana Kind lives with Streisand's half-sister, Roslyn, in a condo that Streisand purchased for them in Los Angeles. During the filming of Tides, Mrs. Kind had to undergo bypass heart surgery, which forced Streisand to put her work into perspective. "When I was faced with the potential loss of my mother, the movie became much easier. It lost its importance. It took the proper place—it's much more secondary to life. That's what The Prince of Tides is about in a way—learning to appreciate your mother," she says, amused at the observation, the rueful way she can hit a high note now a part of her laughter.
There is a joke: Mother Teresa dies and, of course, goes to heaven. She is met by Saint Peter, who tells her he has instructions from God to grant her the one thing she ever wanted before she enters His kingdom. Mother Teresa demurs, saying she can think of nothing. Saint Peter insists. Mother Teresa again says there is nothing she wants, but Saint Peter won't let her in until she confesses. "Oh, all right," Mother Teresa says. "There was one thing. I always wanted to direct."
If Mother Teresa's mission had led her to Los Angeles instead of Calcutta, people would probably take the joke seriously. Streisand herself is a talented director, but it is that common L.A. wish to direct that makes her, for the first time, seem ordinary. An iconic star like Streisand is essentially self-directed even when working for someone else. Yet it wasn't until she was thirty-three that she had the nerve to direct herself for Lee Strasberg in her version of a scene from Romeo and Juliet at the Actors Studio. "See, I had written letters to Lee Strasberg while I was riding on the IRT subway ever since I was fourteen or fifteen years old and never mailed them to him," she says. "One of my treasured possessions—if I could find it—is his tape after my performance, because he had no criticisms. He really got what I was doing. I played her like a spoiled brat. I wasn't this 'fancy' Juliet. It was a Juliet of two personalities. Juliet with her family in court as the proper girl of Verona. But also what she was like when she was in the chamber with the nurse—played by Sally Kirkland—who was her friend. ... It was very spoiled, really bratty. I showed the letters afterward to Lee Strasberg. One of them said, 'I hear you're a starfucker.' "
It is just such brashness that can be misinterpreted by those in Hollywood who are unaccustomed to dealing with Streisand's hyperhonesty. "Barbra is a sweet- heart, but she can be quite blunt," says James Newton Howard. "If you're not thick-skinned, then she's not easy to take. I happen to think she's a genius. The process of working with her is a difficult one because her perfectionism is unequaled. She's incredibly demanding, but I can truthfully say that working with her has elevated my own work."
Streisand's own work as an actress is not necessarily elevated by her work as a director. "Once I produce and direct, 'the Star' goes right down the drain," she says. "If I were just the star of the movie, I would say, 'Listen, you've got to shoot me first so I'm not tired and I look good, blah blah blah.' But that's the part I like about producing and directing—the ac- tress really comes last.
"Look, the real me, the real person, is kind of scared or intimidated by things," Streisand says. "There's that part of me that goes through the fear and sits at a scoring session and goes, 'No! The oboe goes here!' I go, 'No! No! No! It has to be that way.' I don't lose those arguments, because this is my vision of the film and therefore every costume, every piece of furniture, and every color is something that is a part of this vision. Robert Bly says that the warrior has a cause that transcends himself. And that is exactly what goes on. There's the me in real life who goes ... well, I don't even know how you describe me in real life. It's the one who sits at a seminar and cries easily. And then there's the other part, who's the warrior. I get out of the way and let it go."
Sydney Pollack, who directed her in The Way We Were, has his own theory. "I have a hunch—this could be full of shit— but I think now that Barbra is getting experience as a director she will be easier to direct as an actress.... She's now known what it's like with Yentl and with this film to get to know a script inside and out, to get to know the guts of the piece. Then along comes an actor who's maybe read the script once and offers you his or her insights and you have to have a special kind of patience. I think it will be a pleasure only doing the acting when she does it again. It'll be a treat—for everybody."
Ray Stark, who has produced more of her films than anyone and was the producer of both the stage and film versions of Funny Girl, has always had a loving but complex relationship with Streisand. "The miracles that have emerged from her directing career," he says, "are, one, that she could well win an Oscar for this film and, two, that I've heard she is now always on time on the set." Over the years. Stark has witnessed Streisand's other strength as a director: her relentless curiosity. "Barbra always wanted to find out what made everything tick," Stark tells me. "One night, just after Funny Girl opened on Broadway, I took her to supper at the '21' Club. She studied the menu and really wanted to try everything. She ordered a chocolate soufflé, which fascinated her to the extent that Walter, the captain, and I took her to the kitchen, where she learned to make a chocolate soufflé."
Stark recently saw a screening of The Prince of Tides and was so taken with her work that afterward he told her that she had ' 'the directing style and passion to become another William Wyler." The Prince of Tides does indeed possess the old-fashioned, heartfelt sturdiness of a Wyler film. Like Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, it is a tearjerker with a mission as corny as it is current: the enduring importance of family.
"Barbra was the perfect person to bring this story to the screen," says Nick Nolte, from whom Streisand has elicited a breakthrough performance. "There are the obvious reasons. The wonderful Jewishness that she shares with the character of Lowenstein, and also her old friend Cis Corman has a husband who is a psychiatrist, so she's got that aspect covered. But once we got to talking we realized we both knew a lot about dysfunctional families and co-dependency. Sorry, I know people are beginning to get pissed off already just hearing those words. But that's a lot of what this film is about. Both of us are into John Bradshaw."
Bradshaw, the pop psychologist seen on PBS and the author of Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, has made a fortune with his New Age mission to teach adults how to heal themselves of their "metaphysical blues" by recognizing that "we are still divine infants in exile." Streisand has adopted his views with a Bradshavian fervor and now peppers her conversation with references not only to him and poet Robert Bly but also to the philosopher Joseph Campbell. She has also attended several seminars in Arizona conducted by guru nouveau W. Brugh Joy, M.D., as well as hosted a few "spiritual weekends" for twenty or so friends at her own home.
"Barbra knows not to talk to me about this New Age stuff," says Sue Mengers. "Call me an old-fashioned kind of girl, but I believe in analysis and Prozac." While Mengers, an erstwhile Manhattanite, has remained lightheartedly cynical despite her years in L.A., Streisand has grown completely comfortable with West Coast pop-psychspeak. Yet no matter how real her needs and sincere her beliefs, her open- hearted reveries do conjure the image of another bourgeois Beverly Hills matron in search of distraction from her well-appoint- ed boredom. "I think Barbra is like a Venus's-flytrap," a friend says, summing her up. "She's opening just wide enough so she can suck in all this stuff right now and then she'll snap back shut just as tight as ever."
Streisand has always been a hothouse flower. Since planting herself in California, Streisand (who claims to suffer from debilitating stage fright worsened by the alleged P.L.O. death threats made at the time of her legendary Central Park concert in 1967) has allowed her career to blossom only in private—on soundstages and in recording studios. Audiences miss her live performances, yet they can't blame someone with her artistic curiosity for wanting to explore new areas. Throughout her life, both public and private, Streisand's motto seems to have been "Live and Yearn." "Barbra could easily live in the world of have," David Geffen agrees, wrapping up his old friend in a New Age package. "But she can't help herself: she lives in the world of want."
"I think it goes back to not having a father and having this stepfather who was very mean to me and never talked to me," Streisand says. "I always wanted to get his approval and his love, but I couldn't no matter what I did. My father was elegant, he was a scholar—this phantom father, you know. And this guy liked the boxing matches. So one day I decided I'd call him Dad and crawl on my stomach underneath the TV so I wouldn't interfere with his boxing when I passed. I groveled at his fucking feet and called him Dad and brought him his slippers for two days! There was no change. He didn't treat me any better. He didn't ask me how I was. He didn't talk to me. He didn't see me. He didn't recognize me. He didn't like me. My point is what happens, what hooks into a child is the want, is the yearning for, is that seeking-approval aspect that probably does permeate into one's adult life. That's probably why I could sing love songs at eighteen. I didn't know from it. It was a yearning. It was what I imagined it should be like—which is may—be more powerful than the real thing."
Shirley MacLaine, one of Streisand's best friends, is an expert witness to this self-reflective phase of Streisand's life. "How can I put this so you East Coasters can understand it?" MacLaine says with a mystical laugh. "Barbra rivals me in questioning values and human behavior. She's as much a question machine as I am, and she has gotten to the point in her life and reached the level of wisdom where she wasn't getting satisfaction from the more traditional ways of education. We've gone through a lot of consciousness investigation together and honesty sharing."
Each year on April 24, MacLaine also goes through a birthday sharing with Streisand, and this year the two of them spent it celebrating privately with their respective mothers and children. "Barbra said this time our birthday was only for blood relatives—and, sure enough, there was a little blood on the table," MacLaine says, her laughter lower, more down-to-earth.
"I think it is all very complicated—why Barbra was drawn to The Prince of Tides.'' theorizes Marilyn Bergman. "Barbra's family was fractured by the death of her father so early. Yentl was an homage to her father and the coming to terms with that loss. It was about completing some kind of circle. The Prince of Tides is about forgiveness, I think, and not blaming. It is about coming to terms with other things in her life. It is about forgiving her own mother, forgiving her own son." And forgiving herself.
Streisand and I head up the stairs to her study. On the wall next to the stairwell, across from another Klimt and a small portrait by Tamara de Lempicka, are three gigantic Mucha theatrical posters advertising Parisian productions starring Sarah Bernhardt. "These are the only posters I've ever bought, because they are the three roles I have always longed to play," she tells me later. "Camille and Hamlet and, especially, Medea. I did Medea when I was fifteen in acting class in New York, and I still think it is my best work. I'll always remember one of her lines: 'I have this hole in the middle of myself.' "
We settle into Streisand's study, where all the portraits of her family, surrogate and otherwise, are kept. Now wearing her reading glasses low on her nose, she plays the opening song on her upcoming retrospective collection for me. It is the very first demo she ever recorded, the love song "You'll Never Know," and the scratchy quality of the recording does not lessen its impact. The voice of the thirteen-year-old Barbara Joan Streisand from Brooklyn, New York, fills this Beverly Hills house. She stands behind her desk and warns me that her first attempt at musical improvisation is coming up. At the end of the number, as promised, her voice swoops around a few final notes. Streisand, giggling at her youthful audacity, punches a few buttons on her digital tape machine. "Now I'm going to play you the last number," she says. Hesitantly, hauntingly, the forty-nine-year-old begins to sing a duet of "You'll Never Know" with her thirteen-year-old self.
Streisand plops down in the overstuffed chair behind her desk. The emotional duet swells. "You'll never know how much I love you," the adult Streisand and the baby Streisand sing to each other while the real Streisand sits and listens. Through her reading glasses, she glances down at an imperfection in one of her fingernails. She lip-synchs with herselves.
Barbra Archives Note:
Streisand told the L.A. times in December 1991:
“That other article had so many things that were terribly incorrect," she says, referring to a piece in the September, 1991, issue of Vanity Fair. "The paragraph about my ambition (in the early days), that `I should have been arrested for indecent exposure,' that my ambition was bup, bup, bup," she says, launching into the little rap riff she employs when words can't keep pace with her thoughts. "I called up (the writer) and said, `Why did you write that?'
Herb Ritts Outtakes
(Photos, above, below: A couple of different versions of Herb Ritts' profile photograph of Barbra have been published. City & Shore magazine also used the Ritts' shot on its October 2006 cover.)
(Photos, below: An outtake from Ritts session with Streisand graced the cover of this April 1994 Entertainment Weekly magazine. Streisand is wearing the black sweater and fishnet stockings seen in the article above, taken at her Beverly Hills home in the back yard.)
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