Friday, February 10, 2017

LIZ SMITH: Barbra — Yesterday, Today and Most Definitely, Tomorrow

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

The news that Barbra Streisand will yet again tour — or at least make a few concert appearances later this year (she’ll hit Barclay’s in Brooklyn again, in  May) reminded us of a well-received article about the star that appeared in the luscious Q magazine, two years ago. 

With the permission of Q (they do indeed permit!) we present our tribute to this icon. (That word, too often used, is more than appropriate for her.) 

Happy Friday — relax! Don’t watch cable news!

“I’M A bagel on a plate full of onion rolls!”

That’s how Barbra Streisand explained her unique qualities in “Funny Girl,” just before she launched into her paean to herself, “I’m The Greatest Star.”  (I know I should say Fanny Brice’s paean, but — come on. Barbra was expressing, musically, her extreme confidence in Barbra Joan Streisand as well.)
I have always thought of Barbra as something more exotic than a bagel — a mountain of caviar surrounded by Twinkies.  If not the “greatest” star, she is right up there in the top five, and is most assuredly the last great transformative star. She changed what the industry found acceptable as leading lady, she didn’t look or sound or behave like anybody else.  She appeared — much like Madonna and Diana Ross — to be a bottomless, brazen well of self-confidence and a sense that she was a star long before she was.  And like the other two, all that much-criticized, ruthless sense of self masked an insecurity and vulnerability she was loath to show. 
Barbra’s life had and has been an often painful quest for self-realization as a woman, and perfection as an artist. I don’t know, despite a warm mellowing in recent years, how successful the former has been (she is still wed to her beautiful goy, James Brolin — living out the plot of several of her most famous films.)  But as an artist, she has achieved perfection, as far as I am concerned.
When Barbra returned to concertizing in 1994 — after almost 20 years of sporadic live appearances — I attended her opening night at Madison Square Garden.  I was not much familiar with Barbra onstage.  She was a movie star to me. (Considering the dearth of her live performing, I was not alone.)   She appeared onstage gleaming, sleek as a seal, glamorous. Then she began to sing.  The audience and myself took a collective gasp of pleasure, the voice of the movies and so many albums, still exquisite. (My escort literally burst into happy tears.) There had been the usual behind-the-scenes tales of her demands for this and that, all regarding the show.  But as Barbra took her final bows to an audience that was in a genuine state of euphoria, I thought — if nagging perfectionism results in, well, perfection, she’s right, she’s damn right.  Maybe she is the greatest star.
Barbra returning to the concert stage in 1994.
Barbra Streisand was born in Brooklyn in 1942.  Her father, Emanuel, died when she was 15 months old.  The family suffered after that, and Barbra’s mother married again, to Louis Kind.  That union produced two siblings, Sheldon and Roslyn.  Barbra was not a happy child.  She wasn’t overly fond of Kind, and her mother, who had once harbored her own show biz ambitions was never supportive enough, as Barbra would tell the world endlessly after she became famous.  (Barbra would come to revere and romanticize the father she never really knew, but with Diana there would always be a strain.)
Barbra with her mother Diana and stepsister Roslyn Kind.
Streisand wanted to be an actress, a great actress.  Problem was, her acting didn’t exactly bowl anybody over in summer stock or off-Broadway.  But she had this other little gift — an astonishing singing voice.  Her desire to act, not sing, had led her to literally keep that voice a secret to many friends. She got over it.  Or at least she figured recognition as a singer would be a jump-start to an acting career. 

Small club gigs, bigger club gigs, a cult following in New York led her several well-received Off-Broadway entries most importantly “I Can Get it For Your Wholesale.”  By now, Barbra was well-known “character” via her nightclub and TV appearances.  She was “kooky” and a little abrasive and strangely sexy — if you wanted a fight. (She was a frequent guest on Mike Wallace’s chat show.  It was a lot of parry and thrust between these two.)
Barbra (age 15) in a summer stock production. Fall 1962: Barbra Streisand during auditioning days.
Signed by Columbia Records, she put out her first album, titled — what else? — “The Barbra Streisand Album.”  She was instantly enshrined as the new voice of her time, the likely inheritor to mantle of Judy Garland. (Streisand liked “big” emotional songs, but was a smoother, more controlled singer than Judy, at that point in Garland’s career.  Barbra also favored odd, funny songs, or old ones, re-invented.)
By 1964 she was cast in the long-awaited Broadway version of the life of Fanny Brice, “Funny Girl.”  It was a smash. Broadway declared her the Second Coming of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, unaware that the receptiveness of stage work bored her.  She would never return to another stage production.
More ecstatically reviewed — and popular — albums followed, as did a series of spectacular TV specials.  In these ventures into television, Barbra was compelling, funny, sexy, beautiful in a new and exciting way. (It was okay to have a real nose!)  In short, she was catnip to Hollywood.  After touring London with “Funny Girl,” marriage to actor Elliot Gould and the birth of her only child, Jason, Barbra sailed into Hollywood, to star in  William Wyler’s screen version of “Funny Girl.”  She had also been signed to two more films.  This, before anybody had the assurance she’d really “come across” on the giant movie screen.  So, if she appeared over-confident to some, she was within reason to believe it, express it.  Barbra’s reputation as abrasive, abusive, and a rabid know-it-all had preceded her.  But for all the gossip and Streisand’s unfettered “advice” she and Wyler in fact agreed on most aspects of the film.  “Funny Girl” (and its soundtrack) were a smash.  Was she a great actress?  No.
Vulnerability was still — and remains — difficult for her to express. (It’s there, but showing it too much, even for her art, is, I believe too painful.)   But, oh, how charismatic, funny and beautiful she was.  The very idea she was supposed to be an ugly duckling, “lucky” to snare Nicky Arnstein seemed absurd.  Who wouldn’t  want her, so ravishingly photographed by Harry Stradling?   She won an Oscar, lured a lover (her co-star Omar Sharif) and lost her husband, Mr. Gould. 
She was now the Queen of Movies.  “Hello Dolly” (miscast but adorable) ... ”On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” (superb in a beautiful but leaden production) ... ”The Owl and the Pussycat” (Riotously ribald as a stripper sparring with George Segal) ... ”What’s Up Doc?” (Her greatest comedy, and a new lover, co-star Ryan O’Neal. Also, she is probably at her physical peak here.)
“Up the Sandbox” was a daring flop.  But “The Way We Were” offered a monolith of romance and box-office success. As Katy, the firebrand liberal Jewish girl, attempting to win, wed, and change the beautiful blond of her dreams — Robert Redford — she had what was to many consider her signature role (and one of her signature songs — the title.) She was Oscar-nominated.  
A minor comedy followed, “For Pete’s Sake” but forget the movie; it was during production Streisand met hairdresser Jon Peters.  Sexy and commanding, he had, many asserted — an almost Svengali-like hold on the strong-willed Barbra. (aka he was sensational in bed). After she was forced to make a sequel to “Funny Girl,” titled “Funny Lady” (she is good as an older, rougher Fanny)  Peters told  Barbra her image was stale, she was still a young woman, she should make movies and music in accord to her age.
Result?  The third version of “A Star Is Born” with Barbra as a rock singer, watching her hubby (Kris Kristofferson) drink himself to death.  The production of this film was a PR disaster, with the director, Frank Pierson, eviscerating Streisand and Peters (the latter acted as producer). Pierson’s condemnation was a giant version of all Streisand criticism that had come before; brutal and accepted on face value even by her fans.  But it had long ago been established that part of Streisand’s appeal to her audience were qualities that drove those who worked with her crazy. (Or as similarly entranced diva fan said later, of Madonna: “We all know she’s a bitch.  That’s why we love her!”)   “A Star is Born,” despite withering reviews, was a mammoth hit, as was its soundtrack.  Streisand shared an Oscar with Paul Williams for the song “Evergreen.”
Two small movies followed, “All Night Long” (charming in  a supporting role) and “The Main Event” (unfunny but reasonably successful.)   Her music career flourished with slightly more modern sounds and collaborations with the likes of the Bee Gees. 

But her labor of love was upon her.  She had bought the rights to Issac Bashevis Singer’s small, touching play, “Yentl” about a Jewish girl who disguises herself as a boy, so as to attend school and become better educated.   The film version would not be small.  It became a musical, with only Barbra singing, of course. 
She would direct and produce. She chose the cast, cameraman, costumes.  The result was exquisite and moving, if perhaps containing a few too many Barbra solos. “Yentl” dedicated to her father, was a hit, and there was no sensible criticism of her director’s vision and skill.  Streisand’s exclusion from the Oscars in the directing category caused something of a scandal. 
“Nuts” would follow, probably her most successful attempt as a dramatic actress; she is in her element, brash and defensive. Crying convincingly was still an effort, but all in all, her Claudia Draper was splendid. The star was undone  (again!) by accusations of “taking the movie away” from the director, and, frankly, miscasting.  Streisand looked remarkable for a woman in her late forties, but the public knew her age, and would not accept the film’s premise that her character was a $500 a trick call girl.  “Nuts” seems much better now, than it did upon release in 1987.

“The Prince of Tides” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” followed — producing, directing, starring.  “Tides” was expertly directed and she drew a superb performance from Nick Nolte. Streisand’s own presence onscreen — the famously long nails, the hair, the short skirts — was distracting to the max. She surely didn’t mean it to be, but her persona was overpowering.  It was a hit. 
Of “The Mirror Has Two Faces” the less said the better.  It was not successful.   By this point Barbra had returned to recording the classic standards that had brought her fame, and that return was eagerly applauded.  She had also embarked on a series of concert tours, after decades of avoiding anything more sustained that single concerts, usually associated with one of her myriad political causes. (She claimed stage fright had hobbled her, because she forgot lyrics, during her classic 1967 concert in Central Park.) These tours continue, though each time one finishes, she says, “no more!”  (Streisand and Cher are sisters under the “never say never” skin.)

Her movie work now is negligible — “The Fockers” films. (I’m lazy” she says when asked why she appears in such movies.) “The Guilt Trip” with Seth Rogan was, however, surprisingly sweet.  She continues to talk of another “Gypsy” remake, and I wouldn’t count it out.  Really.
I saw Barbra onstage last year in her “Back to Brooklyn” stint in ... Brooklyn.  She sang.  No political statements, just the pleasure of her company.  The voice has matured, naturally and beautifully. She knows where her power is, and how to savor the low notes and save the high ones for when they are really needed.  She has become an even greater artist. 
But the last time I saw her close up was after her acclaimed one-night-only performance down in the Village for a select group of fans and friends.  She appeared for the press in the Louis XVI suite at the Waldorf Astoria.  Unlike other times I’d observed her, she circulated enthusiastically, much less wary and hesitant than she often is with the media. Where was the girl with the eyes narrow with suspicion in this slender, beautifully coiffed, gracious, open woman?   Does time heal everything?  Not at all.  Nor do Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, innumerable gold records and records broken in every medium.

Barbra Streisand remains a woman still searching, if not to find herself, then to better understand the self she is, and in many ways, always has been. (“It’s taken more years on more analysts’ couches  to sing this song and really mean it,” she declares now, before launching into “On a Clear Day ...”) Her marriage endures, her devotion of her son is fierce and loving, her politics unabashed and unafraid.  

Vital and healthy, she still has time to work and look ahead.  And reflect.  But reflection is not looking back.   Barbra has her eye on the prize, and that prize is being whole for her friends, family and her art.  If we approve, she’s okay with that.  But she’d rather we do the same for ourselves and let her evolve as she wants.  She appreciates her fans — and her stardom — more than she did during the feverish height of her career. 

But she appreciates her life more.  And she’ll never explain to us why.  It should obvious.  It’s her life — nu?
Contact Liz here.