After the sold-out concerts, the million-dollar auctions, the nights in the Lincoln Bedroom, and the whispers about Andre Agasasi and Peter Jennings, Barbra Streisand still feels that, for all that has been written about her, no one has ever gotten the story quite right. In Holmby Hills, MICHAEL SHNAYERSON tries to set the record straight with the woman who only wants everything to be perfect A STAR IS REBORN
by Michael Shnayerson
Photographs by Annie Leibovitz
Backstage, last night of the tour, Anaheim, California. In an airless, white-walled room, friends wait to pay homage. Here is Warren Beatty. Here is a very pregnant Annette Bening, exhausted from the standing ovations that began when Barbra Streisand walked out onstage.
But Barbra is still out singing. The concert has been filmed, and the cameras hired for the evening—so why not get a few extra songs out of it? Maybe she'll use them for the video-cassette, maybe for the HBO special. Barbra can never leave well enough alone. Well enough has to be better.
In the airless room, the well-wishers grow restless. The concert high begins to fade. They watch Barbra on the monitor, and hear again that crystalline voice rising, rising—and then, at the break where almost every other singer goes reedy, blazing higher so that you feel, as her conductor Marvin Hamlisch puts it, that she's pulled you through. The thrill of hearing that voice live has been matched only by the thrill audiences have felt in pulling Barbra through the tour after 27 years of paralyzing stage fright. Which is why shows sold out at record-breaking ticket prices of up to $350, and why a sense of show-business history hung over the tour. Still, the hour is late.
At last, a chosen few of the backstage contingent are ushered into the adjoining white-carpeted, meticulously organized dressing room. Smaller than she looks onstage, Barbra seems to take in each compliment as if it were the first: pleased, but not entirely believing. A wisp of a smile plays on her face. Until, that is, I'm introduced. "Barbra," says her friend Ellen Gilbert, "this is The Journalist."
Barbra makes an effort not to grimace, but isn't entirely successful. Painfully thin-skinned, she remembers every journalistic slight, and the name of the journalist who rendered it; her mental blacklist goes back decades. "They wrote I'm making $100 million from this tour," she begins without preamble. "One hundred cities, a million dollars a city! How can they say that? I've done six cities! Six! And do you know what it costs to stage a production like this?"
Mercifully, Streisand's mother, in a wheelchair, is pushed to the fore. She looks tired. Streisand leans toward her, one legendarily slim-fingered, long-nailed hand keeping her blond pageboy from her face.
"You did good," her mother says, a bit grudgingly it seems to me, in not much more than a whisper. "I'm proud of you."
Barbra, a woman of 52 for whom her mother's approval remains a complex issue, looks vulnerable again. I edge away, embarrassed. But Barbra sees me going.
"We'll talk," she says to me.
Through this spangled year, which has seen her rise again, with a flick of her will, to the very top of the entertainment business, Barbra has shunned nearly all interview requests. She hates surrendering control to writers who can shape their stories as they please, pulling quotes out of context, slipping in inaccuracies. Why introduce a rogue cell of uncertainty into your biosphere when you've sold out Madison Square Garden in 20 minutes flat without it?
But the tour has gone so well — even by Barbra's standards—that perhaps she can't help thinking, though she won't quite say it, that a small celebration might be in order: a bit of rumination on a job well done, a sort of setting things to rest. Nor is she uninterested in how the tour has affected her, what seems more important now and what matters less. But she's given herself no time to do it. The morning after her last concert, she's in the studio editing footage for the TV special and mixing tracks for the inevitable concert album. If only she could interview herself!
At dusk, I press the intercom buzzer outside Barbra's Holmby Hills estate. It's a swell neighborhood, every house a castle, every lawn a sculpture. Barbra's house actually seems more modest than most, hidden as it is by a wall and high trees. But that hardly deters the buses that roll by with passengers craning for a glimpse of the woman who after more than 30 years in show business—as singer, actress, and director—remains the most successful, and perhaps talented, performer of her generation.
The gate glides open to reveal the rambling, whitewashed, Mediterranean-style house where Streisand has lived since 1969. I half expect the interior of the house to be bare, denuded of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco furnishings that brought $6.2 million at Christie's last March. But the treasures of Barbra's first life as a collector have long since been replaced by those of her second: late-19th-century and early-20th-century American Arts and Crafts pieces. The living room, framed by a carved-wood ceiling and four long walls of books, is a dazzling tableau of the period's dark oak furnishings, many by Frank Lloyd Wright, set off by Oriental rugs and the soft orange glow of Tiffany and Dirk van Erp lamps. At the far end, 8 or 10 rose-hued vases, also of the period, line a high wood mantel.
"All this fell in the earthquake," Barbra says of the objects along the manteled wall. She settles into one of the long Mission sofas as I take the other. "We have pictures of it," she says. "The mirror fell off, broke all the pottery I had there—10 pieces. And it's hard to collect that color."
The star is gone, replaced by an understudy with flyaway hair, a sensible woman in a lacy white shift who gets to live in Barbra Streisand's house, eat ice cream out of the carton, and watch videos with friends. This is the Barbra who can say, with utter seriousness, that one reason she won't go on tour again is that she can't stand the glamorous part. "You have to put makeup on, comb your hair. You have to wear high heels. My feet get cramps!"
First things first. "You hungry?"
Barbra leads the way into a sunroom off the main hall, across from the grand dining room with the American Arts and Crafts sideboard she bought at auction for, I happen to know, $363,000. We sit down to bowls of onion soup at a small, round, candlelit table—very healthy onion soup, mostly onions and broth and just a dab of melted cheese on floating croutons. I ask about the furniture. Barbra says the chairs are Stickley. "Which Stickley?" I manage, rather proud of myself.
"Gustav, I think . . . ," Barbra says vaguely.
And then we're off.
"That's the thing about art for me," Barbra begins. "I don't feel I have to know that much about the artists' lives. I love Hopper's paintings, I can feel them, but I don't have to read many books about Hopper. That's the whole thing, too, about watching Joseph Campbell [the late mythologist-philosopher], whom I wish I could have studied with. This brilliant man—and then after his death, Brendan Gill, who wrote a book about Frank Lloyd Wright, trashes Campbell as an anti-Semite. And I say, first of all, why did Gill attack him after he's dead, when he can't even defend himself? And why does that, even if true, obliterate his work? . . . And we don't know if he's anti-Semitic. I think it's just jealousy on Gill's part."
There's a lot of Barbra in that whirl of words. Art lover. Spiritual explorer. Sensitive to Jewish issues; sensitive to jealousy. Curious. Passionate. Eager to debate. Quick to flit from subject to subject. And we haven't even gotten to politics yet, let alone Peter Jennings.
Once, when she was young and poor, Barbra hung an ornate but empty wood frame on a wall of her Third Avenue walk-up. Think of her life as a quest to fill that frame and you start to come to terms with who Barbra is now and why she stirs more extreme reactions—of love, awe, envy, irritation—than any other star in the world. For decades, Barbra has had the money, and fame, to put any picture she likes into that frame. Yet she keeps insisting that there's more to learn, and more to feel, issues to grapple with and fears to overcome, before it gets filled in. The quest can seem portentous and narcissistic, but it's also painfully honest, and the art it throws off along the way is, like all good art, a gift as well as a meditation on self.
So it was with the tour, which in a sense began in fashion designer Donna Karan's rented Sun Valley house two Christmases ago. Karan, one of Barbra's closest friends, was there. So was Liza Minnelli. "Liza got up and sang," Karan recalls. "Barbra told her, I can't believe how you just do this.'" "Oh come on, Barbra, you go up and sing," Karan urged. But Barbra wouldn't—couldn't, she said. "So I sang for her, which was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life," Karan says, laughing. "But that was one of the inspirations for the concert."
Barbra's longtime personal manager, Marty Erlichman, knew all too well about her fears of singing live. So for weeks he negotiated, as he puts it blithely, "in the absence of Barbra being aware of it." There would be two concerts only—the two New Year's concerts in Las Vegas. She would gross $14 million, before expenses, and $3 million would be given to charities of her choice. But Barbra had turned down outlandish terms before. This time serendipity played a role: the two scripts she'd planned to shoot weren't yet completed. And she was ready at last to confront her fear of performing live.
"I was really frightened in Vegas," Barbra says as we fish for croutons. "My heart was pounding. Why would I put myself through this agony?" The second show was easier than the first, only because she thought she wouldn't have to do a third. But by then the show was up and running, and she let herself be talked into the tour. The stage fright began to recede, but another kind of terror emerged. "When I was in Detroit, I thought, I don't know how I'm going to get through the next 15 shows. It's very exhausting physically. It's a lot of breathing; you have to be in pretty good shape. And I don't work out vocally. I don't practice. It's the most boring thing you can imagine, doing scales. So I just said, 'Fuck it, I can't.' I'm too tired the next day after a concert.”
In London, critics chided Barbra for the TelePrompTers that hung plainly visible above the audience. Not only lyrics but every line of patter was there for all to see. It marred the illusion of spontaneity, but for Barbra, who had written the patter with her close friend Marilyn Bergman—and kept rewriting it city to city, night to night— there was no choice. "So I went out and said to the people every night, 'Look, I use TelePrompTers! I could never be here if I couldn't use TelePrompTers. I have a fear of forgetting the words, which I once did in front of 135,000 people, and it's a fear— that’s it!'" After that, the complaints subsided to an occasional mutter. What she learned, Barbra says, is that "the external world mirrors your internal beliefs. When I was self-conscious about the TelePrompTers, they mentioned them. When I wasn't, they didn't."
Barbra won't say exactly how profitable the tour was, but Erlichman acknowledges that it grossed roughly $50 million, of which the performer would tend to take 80 to 90 percent. That's in addition to the $14 million gross for Las Vegas, the money for concert merchandise, the HBO special, and whatever fraction of Barbra's $60 million Sony contract is represented by the concert album. Barbra is quick to point out that she had to pay all tour expenses herself, from the 64-piece orchestra that Marvin Hamlisch conducted to the 16,500 square feet of carpeting to cover the floors of each arena, to give the audience the best sound possible. "You know what this tour cost me?" she says indignantly. "Twenty million dollars! Sixteen on the road and four in Vegas … We charged so much because it cost so much. And yet some idiot writes in a paper that I'll have made $100 million." Still, there's little doubt that this has been, by far, Barbra Streisand's most lucrative year. Her vow stands, though. No more touring. The challenge has been met; the quest moves on.
"I'm a shy person, I don't need to keep doing this," she says. "It all worked out; it was right. It was right for me to gain this confidence, to feel absolutely at ease onstage, to feel I belonged there and deserved to be there, that I could give and receive the love of those audiences. I really am grateful to those people. For too many years I didn't appreciate my own singing. . . . But it's not my love; my love is making movies."
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that after 58 gold and platinum albums Barbra feels somewhat indifferent to recording—and downright unimpressed by lucrative sound-track offers. She turned down the chance to record the duet in Beauty and the Beast— "I thought. How can I sing the lyrics? 'Beauuuty and the Beeeast'—I didn't know what it meant. Beautiful melody; I turned it down." Same for The Little Mermaid. "And the next one that was offered to me—about the carpet? [Aladdin, Barbra?] I knew it would be a hit, but I didn't like the melody."
Barbra doesn't even listen to music. People send her albums, but she just files them away. "When I have a massage I'll listen to a Ralph Vaughan Williams piece, 'The Lark Ascending.' Or just New Age innocuous music. I never put my car radio on. I never play tapes. And I never listen to my own music."
Our soup bowls have been whisked away by a sweet, if rather rattled, Asian maid, and replaced by plates of grilled chicken and vegetables—charred black, in truth—with no sauce to add unnecessary calories. On my plate, but not on Barbra's, is an ear of fresh corn. The last thing I want to do while interviewing Barbra Streisand is chomp an ear of corn, get butter on my face, and pick kernels from between my teeth, but I have no choice. "It's from my garden," Barbra says brightly. "I grow my own flowers and organic vegetables."
As I start in on the corn, I ask casually, "WhafffthisaboutPeterJennings?"
"Actually, Peter's Haiti report is on television right now," Barbra says. "I'm taping it."
Jennings, the ABC anchorman separated after 15 years of marriage and two children from writer Kati Marton, made a first public appearance with Barbra last June, escorting her to President Clinton's first state dinner. Between Barbra's Washington concerts, the two also took in a dinner party at the house of tobacco heir Smith Bagley and his wife, Elizabeth, Clinton's new ambassador to Portugal. Not long after, Jennings hosted a cocktail party at his Bridgehampton house for television correspondent Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas, co-authors of Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women's Landmarks. Barbra showed up as the party was winding down, escorted by Donna Karan's husband, Stephan Weiss. She stood shyly off to the side until Jennings realized she was there. His face lit up as he strode across his wide front lawn to meet her; then, without the slightest hesitation, he led her by the hand back across the lawn, in front of the 100 or so guests who remained.
"I don't talk about stuff like that!" Barbra exclaims, more bemused than annoyed. "What I find is that the media destroys relationships before they can even begin. They write horrible things, they assume things. Because I go to see Andre Agassi play at Wimbledon, they write that I'm his girlfriend. Then they write that he 'left' me for Brooke Shields. It's ridiculous."
Perhaps, I suggest, accepting Barbra's offer of a toothpick, the way to avoid that is not to appear in public with someone, as Barbra has several times with Jennings.
"But how do you do that?" Barbra asks. "I should stop living? I shouldn't go to his party?"
Both Jennings and Barbra profess to be irked by the intense media curiosity about them as a couple, but clearly it's also a kick. "He told me the funniest story," Barbra says of Jennings. "He was interviewing [Lieutenant General] Cedras, and [Brigadier General] Biamby, in Haiti. And what Biamby wanted to know was: what's his relationship with Barbra Streisand?" Probably there's less to it than gossip columnists have suggested. It was Barbra, more as a fan than anything else, who invited Jennings to the East Coast dinners. Not long after, Jennings surfaced at a New York gathering with Katherine Freed, a young ABC producer who, according to several of Jennings's friends, has been in the anchorman's picture for some time.
Jennings is, at the least, one of Barbra's new friends in the world of Washington and New York politicians and journalists, a realm of characters and customs she's learning about with a rather charming lack of self-consciousness. "Chris Matthews opened the discussion at one party to a round-table talk about politics," Barbra says of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington-bureau chief. "That was fascinating; I'd never had that happen at a party. They did it the other night at Madeleine Albright's, too." Surrounded by seasoned opinion-makers like Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Barbra doesn't hesitate to speak her mind. On one occasion, she took on Ben Bradlee and others for the media's coverage of President Clinton.
"I don't care what they think of me," she says, brandishing a chicken leg. "I mean, I hope they think I'm smart, but I'm not afraid to have a confrontation about politics with these people in the media. Because I think they're letting a very strange bias affect their reporting of the Clinton administration. They're far tougher on this Democrat than they were on Reagan and Bush. Look at all the legislation Clinton has passed—more than any president since Roosevelt. Yet, he's constantly portrayed as floundering. Why? I think they're jealous—jealous of a president who is very young, very smart, very nice, with a full head of hair! And perhaps they're jealous of someone who really wants to make a change. They're cynical; it's just too idealistic for them."
In the months since her performance at Clinton's inaugural gala, Barbra has become a Washington presence, eliciting awe, envy, snide criticism, and the inevitable rash of inaccurate press reports. Most irritating was an article by The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, who attacked Hollywood figures for trying to foist their "bubbleheaded" political opinions on the new administration. One evening, Shirley MacLaine mentioned to Barbra that her friend Wieseltier was in L.A. Barbra promptly invited him over for a dinner debate. "It was a gracious and feisty thing to do," Wieseltier says. The gangly intellectual and the superstar found they had a lot to talk about, including Brooklyn roots—both are from Flatbush—and childhood years in the yeshiva. "We were trading questions from the Talmud, with our fingers in the air, splitting hairs on philosophical issues," says Barbra. On political issues, says Wieseltier, "it would take more than an evening to get me to change my mind."
Barbra's political opinions, admittedly, are those of an impassioned amateur. She wonders why the press took Roger Altaian to task for allegedly alerting the White House to an impending investigation of Whitewater; it's not Iran-contra, after all. And she bristles at critics who attack Hillary Clinton's reliance on stock tips from Arkansas power broker James B. Blair. "Why should Hillary be painted as an evil woman because she made money in the stock market?" she exclaims at one point. "We live in a free-enterprise society; you want to make money for your family. Why does that make you a greedy person? In my opinion, it makes you smart."
She has a way of asking questions that aren't as simple as they seem. Bill Schneider, a CNN political analyst, met Barbra at a Los Angeles dinner soon after the election and found himself fielding such questions as "Why, when the economy's booming, is the Fed so concerned about inflation?" Though he has a Ph.D. in political science, he says he had a hard time offering a satisfactory answer. At one of her Washington concerts, Schneider went backstage and found Barbra exhausted. "But the first words out of her mouth were: 'What the hell is Alan Greenspan doing raising the interest rates?' She wasn't making a show of it; no one heard her but me. She's one of the few Hollywood people who doesn't just have opinions, but a genuine interest in finding out more."
Barbra's interest in politics actually pre-dates the Clinton administration by 20 years. She raised money for Daniel Ellsberg's defense, earned inclusion on Nixon's enemies list, stumped for Bella Abzug and John Lindsay, and staged a 1986 fund-raising concert on her Malibu lawn that raised $1.5 million for Democratic candidates. Until recently, though, it wouldn't have occurred to her to try to meet political opinion-makers; the Brooklyn girl who'd become a star felt alienated and alone. "I lived in New York 20-some years and never made friends," she says with a shrug. "I had my friends Cis and Harvey Corman, and that was it. I never got invited anywhere, I never invited anyone over, I lived like a hermit."
For some months now, Barbra has been drafting a speech to be delivered at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to answer critics who think she should stick to singing and moviemaking, and leave the opining to them. The working title is "The Role of the Artist in Society." "People are jealous of all the access that celebrities have, that they can be heard by speaking out. They're saying, 'Don't you have enough?' I say, 'I don't give up my role as a citizen just because I'm a celebrity.' In fact, I think it's the proper use of celebrity. If you believe in a cause, you can raise your voice and perhaps make a difference." She calls herself a student—one whose learning began at the age of five with three years in a Brooklyn yeshiva— and learning, in the broadest sense, is what the quest is all about.
With her first earnings from the stage production of Funny Girl, Barbra bought a German Art Nouveau desk for $2,800 and began educating herself about art of the period. From her early films she learned to edit as well as act; for Yentl, the most underrated film of her career, she took Talmud lessons for three years. And then, for both Nuts and The Prince of Tides, she brought to bear years of reading—and experience—in psychoanalysis.
It was 30 years ago that Barbra first went into therapy, after feeling claustrophobic on the stage of Funny Girl. Now her years on the couch are over, she says firmly. Her choice, not her therapist's. "I just said, "There are things I can't change. There are patterns set up in childhood that are so strong.' And I believe I've changed a lot, by the way, in many areas. I think I'm mature enough to see the patterns; I'm not always strong enough to change them. The big things, like when your father dies, that feeling of loss—I don't think I will ever get over that."
Barbra was only 15 months old when her father died, apparently during an epileptic fit. She says she remembers the loss in her "body and psyche." More specific are memories of her stepfather, who Barbra felt despised her. "When I regress and go toward people who are unsupportive, that's a throw back to my stepfather. But I'm much happier now. I'm much stronger now and I try not to let that happen."
Harder to deal with is the mother who withheld praise for fear of giving her daughter a swelled head. "I owe my career to my mother," Barbra says, only half joking. "Because if she'd believed in me, I'd probably have been a typist." Barbra says her mother has opened up in recent years. "We get along better now. We're able to say 'I love you' to each other. I have forgiven my mother: I know she did the best she could. She showedher love through food, rather than hugs and kisses. In a way I feel bad for her. She wanted to be a singer and never realized her dreams. So I can look at her now and have compassion for what she didn't get."
As a self-protective measure, Barbra has always sought out surrogate mothers. The first was Muriel Choy, in whose Chinese restaurant Barbra worked at the age of 11. Then came Cis Corman (still her best friend and closest colleague as president of Barwood Films), whom Barbra met at an acting studio when Corman was 32 and Barbra was 16. By now, Barbra has had about half a dozen mothers. The most recent was Virginia Kelley, the president's late mother.
"I'd just sung at the inauguration, and there was a ball the next night—I think it was the Arkansas ball. The president told his mother that Roger was singing at the MTV ball nearby. I said, 'Can I go see him with you?' She took me by the hand." In the ensuing months, Barbra would talk with her about everything, including mother-daughter relationships. "And she would only say things that supported my mother. But when I read the book"—Virginia Kelley's autobiography, published after her death—"it turned out she'd had similar problems with her own mother. She understood what I was talking about because she lived with that kind of mother."
At Kelley's funeral, Barbra was so moved by a woman who sang Baptist hymns that she says she may record an album of hymns. "Someone told me about this woman who had lost her voice once and had begged God to give it back, and said if he did she would only sing religious songs," Barbra recalls. A few years ago, Streisand had a similar experience: she really thought she was losing her voice. "Now I realize I was wrong. I just needed to use my vocal muscles more."
Two surrogate mothers who remain, besides Cis Corman, are Evelyn Ostin, whose husband, Mo, is about to retire as the longtime head of Warner Bros. Records, and Joanne Segel, whose husband, Gil, is a retired entertainment business manager. Together with Barbra, they take seriously the sort of self-exploration that gets dubbed New Age by East Coast journalists. Segel calls herself a movement and psychospiritual therapist, and is closely linked to W. Brugh Joy, a publicity-shy doctor who convenes spiritual retreats. She introduced Barbra to Joy, and says that Barbra's inner-life explorations have given her a "huge appetite for many perspectives of truth."
Some time ago, Ostin and Barbra attended a spiritual retreat together. "There were other people, but she and I shared a cabin together," Ostin recalls. "Barbra felt that I have always taken care of people, and she wanted to take care of me." For Barbra's 50th-birthday party a couple of years ago, instead of giving her presents, her friends held a treasure hunt for her inner child in Malibu. Barbra's "child" was given dolls and other toys, which she now uses to play with her six-year-old goddaughter, Caleigh.
Also close, but younger, is Ellen Gilbert, a tawny, taller version of Jane Fonda, whose husband, Bruce, actually produced Fonda's films for 15 years. Now in charge of public relations at ICM, Gilbert met Barbra at a luncheon in Sun Valley a decade ago. When they hit it off, the Gilberts did the unthinkable with Barbra and her then boyfriend, icecream heir Richard Baskin. "I said to my husband, 'I bet no one ever invites them to dinner, because they feel intimidated about it,' so we did. She thought that was great." In their almost daily talks, Gilbert, who has also gone on retreats with Barbra, sees flashes of the wry humor that was so much a part of Barbra's youthful appeal—the bantering with Mike Wallace on PM East, the wacky turns in What's Up, Doc? and The Owl and the Pussycat—but that has been obscured by the wariness and perfectionism of Barbra the superstar. "She and I were driving somewhere," Gilbert says when pressed for examples, "and the traffic was horrible. We were getting close to the turnoff for her house, but no one would let us over. So she stuck her head out the window and started singing 'Peooooooppppllle.'"
Then there's Donna Karan, who became a close friend after supplying clothes for Barbra's last appearance in Vanity Fair. "We have so much in common," says Karan. "Both of us had fathers who left when we were very young; we had the same mothers. We're also strong women. And we share an obsession with finding the truth: where our inner self is." But Karan hadn't always pondered these imponderables. "She really got me in touch with my spiritual self," Karan says unabashedly of Barbra. "She took me to the Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and I learned to meditate. She took me on this boat trip to the Eolie Islands, where the whole idea was not to do anything. I've never not done anything!"
Karan, in turn, tries to take care of Barbra in whatever ways she can. "I have a very strong mothering ability; I get tremendous joy when I see her happy." Inevitably, the two women collaborated on Barbra's clothes for the concert tour. Barbra, who's had a keenly personal fashion sense ever since her thrift-shop days in New York, knew basically what she wanted; Karan tried to translate her ideas. One day, she sent two skirts to L.A. for Barbra to try.
"I love it," Barbra reported.
"When I open the top layer, there's a shorter layer underneath."
"Barbra," Karan said, "that's two skirts. I wanted you to choose one."
"Well, they look good this way!"
Barbra sent the skirts back to be stitched together; the double-skirt ensemble went with her on tour; Karan has put the outfit in her line for next season.
The dinner plates have been cleared, and the most important decision of the evening is at hand: dessert. "I usually eat nonfat yogurt with a nonfat chocolate sauce and almonds or walnuts on it. You like that idea?" Barbra says. "Or I could give you nonfat chocolate cake with low-fat Cool Whip. Or I could give you nonfat chocolate pudding with low-fat Cool Whip."
Nonfat is what Barbra still is, despite an alleged weakness for nondietetic sweets, and she's still amazingly youthful: this is, after all, the woman who at 40 quite convincingly passed as a young woman in Yentl. Over the years, her looks have softened appealingly. Gone is the gawky misfit who exaggerated her elongated features with Cleopatra eyeliner; even the famous Streisand nose seems unobtrusive now. Is it possible that . . . ? No—no need even to ask. It wouldn't be her style, and who knows what a nose job might do to the voice? Age has also been kind to her skin: barely a line to show for all those years of stress, thanks, she says, to an oily complexion in her youth. But she seems, in a most attractive way, tempered by time. More reflective, less self-absorbed, perhaps.
"There are advantages to growing older," she agrees. "You get off yourself more. You realize that there are things too ingrained to change."
This is not to suggest that casts and crews on her upcoming films will find Barbra more willing to compromise. Over the years, Barbra has alienated colleagues with the famous perfectionism, which, among other things, has probably cost her roles. "I get offered opportunities to direct far more than act. It's like the directors are frightened to work with me. I'll get asked to act in [a movie] I'm directing. The only American directors who've ever asked me to be in their movies are Peter Bogdanovich [What's Up, Doc?] and Irvin Kershner [Up the Sandbox]. And then foreign directors. John Schlesinger asked me a long time ago to be in a movie. Bertolucci asked me once, and Ingmar Bergman. And then Percy Adion, the German director, asked me to be in Bagdad Cafe. I was almost going to be in it just because he wanted me! It was so sweet, to be wanted by a director."
Perhaps they think that as a director herself now Barbra will tell others what to do. "Perhaps. And yet they ask Kevin Costner to be in their movies, don't they?"
Even as a director with money to buy any script she pleases and a successful track record, she still meets resistance. The Prince of Tides was turned down by every other major studio before Jon Peters, her former companion, pushed it through at Columbia, where he was then co-chairman. The film went on to win every Oscar nomination but the obvious one—for Barbra as director. Steven Spielberg, who watched a just-edited version of Yentl more than a decade ago and told Barbra not to change a single frame, says pointedly, "If people would stop assessing her public persona every time they assess her as a filmmaker, they would discover a talented director." Yet the image persists and feathers stay ruffled.
With her crews at least, Barbra is determined to get respect from now on. "They say I fire people and it hasn't been true. But they're going to say that about you because you're at the top of the heap, anyway, so you might as well do what you have to do. The craft takes so much out of you that it's very important for the soul, the spirit, the body to be surrounded by a loving support system. I didn't have that on Prince of Tides. The grips, the prop people, the gaffers were wonderfully supportive, but there was a handful of 'boys'-clubbers' who were not, and it made my job extra-difficult. I want to work with people who say, 'Yes, it can be done.' And I won't be afraid to fire people who constantly say, 'It can't.'"
Happily, the two scripts that weren't ready last fall are nearly done now. After an interlude of soul-restoring time alone, Barbra will act in, and likely direct, both.
One is The Mirror Has Two Faces, a romantic comedy by Richard LaGravenese, who wrote The Fisher King. The story concerns a handsome Columbia math professor who feels love is an illusion and sex a trap. So he steers his friendship with a dowdy female professor—played by Barbra—into a strictly platonic marriage. Of course, his wife starts falling in love with him and undergoes a makeover while he's out of town, in the hope of stirring his libido. "I think I'm always drawn to films about the mystery of appearances," Barbra says. "Yentl was certainly about that: what is male, what is female? Or in Nuts: what is sane, what is not sane? The Mirror Has Two Faces is a really charming love story. But it has serious overtones about vanity and beauty, the external versus the internal."
Last year, Barbra worked with LaGravenese on the script, had a reading, then asked for a rewrite. For months, as Barbra went on tour, LaGravenese labored. "So I read the new screenplay," Barbra says with the Brooklyn accent she occasionally lays on for backspin. "I don't like it as much as the other one!" On the return flight to L.A. for the Anaheim concerts, Barbra reread the old script. Less anxious now, with the tour almost over, she had a new reaction. "I was so hard on myself, that it wasn't good enough. I read it now, I go, 'That's pretty damn good!'" Harrison Ford's name has appeared in columns as a possible male lead; Barbra says she has a name in mind, but it isn't Ford's.
Though the Mirror script is nearly finished, Barbra will probably first make The Normal Heart, based on Larry Kramer's searing Off Broadway drama of the early days of the AIDS crisis, in part because Kramer's health is uncertain. Of course, she's been vowing to make The Normal Heart off and on for eight years. Now, she says, she's close enough to be drawing up a budget with Columbia, where she has her first-look deal. The only snag is that she's determined to cast Ralph Fiennes, whose chilling performance as the concentration-camp commander in Schindler's List won him such acclaim, in one of the two starring roles. Fiennes, however, is committed to play Hamlet in London. "So do I postpone this?" Barbra muses. She doesn't yet know, but Fiennes may be worth the wait. "I think he's the best young actor of our time," she says. "Like Brando and Dean, he has that charisma and soul in his eyes—great acting mixed with star quality."
Kramer, an activist-author not known for patience, sighs at the thought of another delay, but has no complaints about the process. "She'll challenge you on every word; she'll act out the words," he says of Barbra. "That fine-tuning—as a writer, you either love it or hate it. It's the way I work myself, especially on my novel, so I love it." Barbra, he found, remembers all the words, too. "She'll recall Draft Four when you've forgotten every previous draft." Indeed, they seem to stay in her head forever. "One night we were having a bite in my kitchen," Kramer recalls. "And Barbra was watching television—channel surfing. She came upon a showing of The Way We Were, and recited all the lines as both characters did. Then, when the scene on television was finished, she continued reciting a scene that she felt had been mistakenly cut. 'I fought and fought with Sydney [Pollack] to keep that,' she said."
She's had her rounds with Kramer as well. "We did have a fight about a subject I refer to in my introduction to the song 'Somewhere' in the concert," says Barbra, "about how boring life would be if we were all the same. To me, a perfect world would be a place in which we appreciate each other's differences. We're equal, but we're not the same. In the play, Larry has this scene with his brother in which he says, 'I'm the same as you. Just say it.' I don't believe it! His brother is heterosexual, he's homosexual. They're equal in the eyes of God and the law, but they're not the same! So I can't put that in my movie, because I don't believe it."
"Did he end up agreeing with you?"
"That's what I like about being a director. When you're the director, you direct your vision of the film. I totally respect Larry as a writer and a thinker, but ultimately the film has to be what I feel is the right way to tell the story and to reach people."
Says Kramer, "If one is born with blue eyes and one with brown eyes, are the two the same as people?" Neither that nor sexual preference, Kramer feels, should define "differences" among people. But, he says, "I could never make her understand, and after a while I just gave up."
By now, the play might strike some as dated, but Barbra says not. "I see it as a movie about everybody's right to love, and therefore it is for me a love story set against the AIDS epidemic. Like The Way We Were was set against the McCarthy period." As a wheelchair-bound internist who takes on the medical establishment (the role is based on the real-life heroine the late Dr. Linda Laubenstein), Barbra confronts the National Institutes of Health. "I say, 'I don't understand—you've given $20 million to investigate seven deaths from Tylenol. But you don't have money for research of a disease that has already killed—at that time—500 people. What is an epidemic here?' It's outrageous what the government did. I want to re-create what I experienced when I saw that play—the rage, and the compassion I felt for these characters." (The question, of course, is whether the doctor will appear in streaked hair and fabulous fingernails.)
In one sense, at least. The Normal Heart will be plenty contemporary: physical intimacy between the film's male lovers will be shown on-screen. Philadelphia blatantly avoided that risk—and thus, one might reason, did some good by reaching a wide audience. Barbra scoffs at that. "I thought that movie really played it safe," she says. "I thought it was a very strange movie. I mean, I didn't buy that story! The characters were either all good or evil: the good family, the evil lawyers at that firm. ... It did reach a lot of people and that's good, but you have to keep taking steps. All you can do is fail."
Barbra also hopes to make The Race, for Warner Bros. The script is based on a senatorial race. For several years now she's been updating it as the political landscape has changed. In Washington last spring, when she was researching it, the gossip mill once again went into overdrive. Barbra was said to be putting out feelers for her own campaign.
The next screen project that bears her name, however, will be a television movie based on the story of Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer, the Bronze Star Vietnam veteran banished from the National Guard for acknowledging her lesbianism, then reinstated after a bruising court battle. As one of the executive producers, Barbra helped persuade Glenn Close to play Cammermeyer. More to the point, she persuaded Cammermeyer to let her story be told.
"I had been approached so many times for my life story, and I turned down all those offers," Cammermeyer confirms in a subdued voice. "But I respected [Barbra's] work; she seemed to me a person who stands for human-rights causes and rights for minorities." Reluctantly, Cammermeyer showed up with her attorney at Barbra's Holmby Hills house. "When we first got there, there was a general discussion of what various people in the room did—sort of small talk that wasn't really saying anything. And talk about the arts with people who weren't in the arts, namely me and my attorney. But then suddenly Barbra said, looking me in the eye, 'Grethe, do you want your life story all over the television screen?' I said, 'Not particularly.' It was at that point that we got beyond the social stuff . . . that Barbra began to talk about why it was an issue of social relevance for society as a whole. I could be a catalyst, which made sense. After all, that's why I was challenging the policy. I knew my military career was over regardless of the outcome."
As the project moves closer to completion—it's just been filmed, and will likely be shown in February on NBC—Cammermeyer has marveled at the way Barbra is publicly perceived. "Every time I see something written about her in the press, it's never without some negative connotation. What is it about the fact that she's talented, enriching, caring, gives of herself emotionally and financially to the things she believes in—what is it about that that is so offensive to people?" Cammermeyer sees a parallel with her own experience as a lesbian in the military: both worlds are ruled by boys' clubs that close ranks against women who don't toe the line.
Over coffee in her downstairs study—a room done entirely in shades of white—Barbra picks up again on sexism, but more abstractly. "It fascinates me to think why men are so frightened of women. You have to go back to caveman times. The man doesn't know he has any part in making that baby. All he sees is: the woman opens her legs, and out comes human life. Well—she must be a god! The man had to be in awe. He had to be frightened: if she can give life, she can take it away. I think it started there."
Raising a son, Barbra says, made her more aware of ingrained male traits—the need to be macho—and how basic the shaping forces can be. Jason, Barbra's son by actor Elliott Gould, was a cesarean birth. "And even though I went through labor for eight hours, he didn't have to struggle through the birth canal. There's something I find that's connected somehow. In a way, something was too easy for him."
Perhaps it's the hour—almost midnight—but talk of Jason seems to make Barbra more contemplative. She speaks with great pride of the film he made when he was 17 years old, and of his critically praised performance as her screen-role son in The Prince of Tides. "Everything he does, he's very gifted: he'll sit down and play you something, having never taken a lesson, make a film, draw, write a screenplay. But he's not driven like I am."
It's an old story: the up-from-nowhere American success who raises a child with all the material comforts she was denied, and finds—great surprise—the child lacks her ambition, "I had to make something of myself," Barbra says softly, almost more to herself than to me. "I lived in those movie theaters, and went out into the hot humid Brooklyn streets, and went home to an apartment where there were three children. I didn't have my own room until I was 13! We didn't have a couch until I was eight. We had a dining room; we used to sit around the table. My brother slept on a cot that folded out: my mother and I slept in the same bed. I didn't have luxury. My grandmother, my grandfather, my brother, me, and my mother all shared a bathroom. A couch to me was an amazing thing."
Some days later, Barbra calls during an editing break. The news of the day has upset her, as it often does. "What's Whitewater compared to Watergate?" she says. "At worst it's some 10-year-old fekakte real-estate deal. But these Democrats are too nice! They let some senators compare the hearings to Iran-contra."
And the journalists: "Barbara Walters lets Rush Limbaugh get away with saying, 'I shine he light of truth on things.' And then look at The New Republic" latest issue has a piece that points out half a dozen important inaccuracies in recent Limbaugh broadcasts.
That same morning, a New York gossip column is devoted entirely to Barbra. The column suggests that Barbra has all but taken her goddaughter Caleigh under her wing as her own daughter, alienating the child's mother, as well as potentially diminishing Jason's inheritance.
"That was such a load of bull!" Barbra says heatedly. "Caleigh has one of the richest fathers in the country. Does she need me to leave her a trust fund? And then that she's spending a night a week at my house. I've been touring for eight months—how could she be spending the night? Where do people get this crap?"
In fact, Barbra has become something of a fairy godmother, spending time with several children, even escorting Ellen Gilbert's son to his school on grandparents' day. Her love for them is palpable-an opening of the heart. That, she says, is the real goal of the quest. But, of course, that isn't news.
"Why am I so affected by things that are written that aren't true? Why can't I let it roll off my back? Because the truth is what I rely on as an actress, as a singer, as a director. I think that any performer knows his or her work has to be based on the truth if it's to communicate to the audience. If I'm truthful to the moment while I'm singing, it works; if I'm not, the audience feels that. So the truth to me is all-powerful. And I know how easily a lie can become the truth in most people's eyes if it's repeated enough. Things I never said show up again and again, in articles, then in unauthorized books. Like 'Brooklyn to me was baseball, boredom, and bad breath.' Nice line, but I never said it. And then these things define me. It drives me nuts."
Even when the facts are right, there is a curious snippiness in most reporting about Barbra. In part, it seems provoked by the same strength of character that irks film colleagues. Barbra is perceived as the controlling diva, and so journalists take enormous delight in proving she can't control them. For those journalists who actually interview her, the snippiness comes less from envy than from exhaustion. Almost every day now, the phone rings: Barbra has edited the previous day's talk in her head like film footage, and wants to add or subtract. I should put in that as ardent as she is about Clinton, that doesn't mean she loves everything he does. And have I put in the line about journalists as careerists, more interested in themselves than their subjects? And about how she always used to think, Why am I being raised on the stage? I'd rather be down with the people in the audience. And about the telephone game, Barbra's metaphor for all the distortions she sees, from the Altman testimony to gossip about her private life. And why haven't I asked more about her love of children, and the charitable work that's come out of that? It’s all true, yes, and I'll do what I can! But at some point a voice starts to resound in my head. And what the voice says is: "Hey, Mom, get off my back!"
The irony is that her work is about all Barbra does control. Certainly she doesn't control the press, as she keeps being reminded. She can't control her fans, who mob her every time she steps outside and yet turn vengeful—as she's often found—if she fails to reciprocate their adoration. And while she can surround herself with trusted friends, she's no closer after this year of money and applause to a committed relationship with a man than she was a year ago.
"Not long ago," recalls one friend, "I saw Barbra as she was getting ready to go out on a date. I couldn't believe how nervous she was—like a high-school senior going out to the prom." S.W.R, divorced, runs her own business, gym-fit, loves beach walks in baggy sweaters, spiritual exploration, children, C-SPAN, and The Economist, seeking handsome Democrat not put off by crowds and paparazzi. "If you get a man who doesn't mind, and is weak," muses the friend, "then you begin to hate him for it. If you get a Peter Jennings, you'll annoy the shit out of them. So she's alone, and it comes at a time when she's more open—warmer, nicer—than ever before."
It's the pattern that's characterized most of her life. Unloved, she sang for approval. She got approval; it grew; sooner or later, it pushed the love away. It's not like being poor, and it's not like being hungry. But it's a sorrow all the same. "In some ways she's had so little denied her," says Grethe Cammermeyer. "And yet there's still a perception of sadness about her, and intensity. Not a sense of lightness and joy."
The only answer is to keep on with the quest: to work, battle fears, take pleasure in the world, and hope for love to grow. "I'm a pretty pragmatic person, grounded in reality," Barbra says. "I'm an earth sign, Taurus. I don't like swimming underwater or flying in the air. It's about accepting things as they are, but always striving to better them. Suffering is the resistance to what is. If you want to suffer less you have to come to grips with what is.
"I'm looking out my window," Barbra adds, "and looking at the trees shimmer in the sun. I have flowers all around because they're such a gift. I even have flowers at nose level in my bathroom. I have this cranberry-glass Victorian hanging vase and I keep the most beautifully scented flowers in it. So while I'm brushing my teeth, I stop to smell the roses."
The morning after the HBO show, Barbra checks in one last time. She says she worked 27 hours straight to edit the tape—"I thought I was going to have a fucking heart attacks'—and delivered it only an hour before the show was scheduled to air. Even so, she says, there are imperfections. Exhausted, she watched it air with Richard Baskin, Ralph Fiennes, Shirley MacLaine, and the Segels. "We were talking about how far I'd come from Vegas," she recounts hopefully, "when I had to take Lomotil and lost weight and sleep. I thought I really would disappoint people, that I wasn't good enough. So in my growth process, I've come to realize I'm pretty good. I don't know why I'm good, but I know that I am good. And now that I have more sense of that, the imperfections are O.K. Whoever I am is good enough to be there.
"I'll tell you this," she says, "as of Wednesday I'm going on a fucking boat. I don't want to know from work."
Related: Barbra's 1994 Concert Page
Annie Leibovitz Outtakes
The following photos were all taken by the incredible Ms. Leibovitz during her sitting with Streisand for Vanity Fair. Barbra and Annie set up shots in the back of the truck with the concert furniture, with the film camera, and with Barbra wearing a striped suit. Streisand utilized some of these shots to illustrate the CD packaging for her 2003 album, The Movie Album.