Dec/Jan 2017

The Knockout

Why Barbra Streisand can't be beat.

Lidija Haas


When I was seventeen, I had my long hair cut off in an attempt to emulate Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Alas, it turned out that the Cleopatran effect—a look the young Streisand seemingly cultivated through a combination of thick makeup and pure willpower—wasn't so easy to re-create. I took the precaution of not telling anyone why I'd done it, but even if somebody had wanted to make a joke, Streisand had already beaten them to it. A woman goes to her hairdresser and asks for the "Barbra" look, she used to say. So he takes the hairbrush and breaks her nose.

One great Streisandian mystery is the question of how someone so funny could also take herself so seriously, and how someone so insecure could also be so overconfident. Yet in other ways, Streisand often seems oddly unmysterious. Even for an enthusiast, the experience of reading a Streisand biography can be a little stultifying. There aren't the ups and downs and heart-stopping uncertainties you get with a Marilyn Monroe, a Billie Holiday, or even an Ava Gardner. No matter how skillfully told, the story has its own internal logic: It bends toward a Great Woman theory of showbiz, in which scrawny, conventionally unattractive Barbra, "a self-willed creation" (to quote Cecil Beaton), propels herself out of Flatbush and into an inexorable succession of successes—Tonys and Grammys and Emmys and Oscars and No. 1 records. Against considerable resistance, she imprints her image on every available facet of the entertainment industry. And then she keeps right on going.

Streisand's is a classic underdog narrative, and it seems every biographer must note the odds she overcame. Some of the details are fairy-tale-like: the exceptionally gifted father who died when she was fifteen months old, bestowing years of longing and poverty; the cruel stepfather who called his own child "beauty" and Barbra "the beast." Others are frankly bizarre: An early mentor and acting coach claimed that for scenes of high emotion he used to make a stagehand eat cake in the wings where she could see him—from childhood, Streisand had conflated food with love, and watching someone else get something she wanted, apparently, was enough to set her sobbing. Industry men she encountered were cheerfully crude in enforcing their norms and unembarrassed to go on record about them. "Great talent but a dog!" said a William Morris agent. "We'll never be able to sell her." An exec at Columbia Records, where they did eventually cave and put out her first album, said, "I kept waiting for the punch line," and ruled her "too special" for a recording career. Neal Gabler, in his thoughtful and enjoyable book-length essay for Yale's "Jewish Lives" series, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power (Yale, $25), claims this meant "too Jewish," which seems plausible. She endured being laughed out of countless auditions ("I cried in every office"), but evidently never considered giving up. It's quite a thing, as Gabler points out, to watch her eyes fill with tears as she sings "I'm the Greatest Star," seemingly from the sheer effort it took her to believe it. She often seemed to be rehearsing her own painful story on-screen and on record, a transference that was unique in its overtness: There are plenty of stars who might be said to embody a single theme in much of their work, but as Gabler puts it, where others express that theme in subtext, "a whisper under the performance," in Streisand's case it's "all text—a shout rather than a whisper." When Glenn Gould called her "one of the great italicizers," I can't help suspecting he meant more than just her phrasing.

If there's something exaggerated about Streisand, there's also something that attracts exaggeration. Even I would hesitate to claim, as Gabler does in his first sentence, that the opening shot of Funny Girl is "one of the seminal moments in American film and, quite possibly, American culture." Equally excitable is this year's other big Streisand book, the pink-and-gold confection Barbra: Streisand's Early Years in Hollywood: 1968-–1976 (Taschen, $70), edited by Nina Wiener, which covers the period when she heaped up her first tranche of major accolades, from a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl to a spot on Richard Nixon's "enemies list" (one of the few women so honored). The book collects shots by photojournalists Steve Schapiro and Lawrence Schiller on and off the sets of early Streisand vehicles good, bad, and fabulous (usually at least two out of three): fake-pregnant or on roller skates in Funny Girl; leathered up, framed by half-naked costars with whips aloft, and showing just a little too much girlish enthusiasm in Cycle Sluts, the porno-within-a-movie in The Owl and the Pussycat; sticking two fingers up next to the actor playing Fidel Castro, who's opened his shirt to reveal a pair of breasts, in the absurdo-feminist fantasia Up the Sandbox. Here she accepts a light from Jack Nicholson, there she's dressed as Harpo Marx, an arm around the real Groucho; here's that memorable profile, mostly obscured by hair as she marks up publicity stills for retouching; there it is again, on a visit to Manhattan's Saidenberg Gallery, echoing Picasso's Profil et Tableau.

Click to enlarge

Barbra Streisand, 1969. Lawrence Schiller © Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications, Inc./Courtesy Taschen

A meandering conversation between Schapiro and Schiller offers up a few stories in the familiar diva genre. She lost the great director William Wyler half a day's shooting on Funny Girl—approx. $40,000—when she refused to continue with a scene because the lighting wasn't right: She insisted she could tell based on the heat of the lamps on her skin. (Wyler apparently didn't mind: He considered her, like himself, "difficult in the best sense of the word.") Schiller describes weeks in which he and Yves Montand, her hapless leading man in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, waited around for Barbra to decide she was in the right mood to pose for a Life magazine cover. Eventually she explained: "Larry . . . when this movie is over, a picture of me and Montand will soon become an old picture. But a picture of me alone can always be used." (As well as being true, this barb seems more forgivable to those of us who've sat all the way through On a Clear Day.)

Montand was not the only male colleague to find himself eclipsed by Streisand—and very few of them took it with grace. Walter Matthau, who played opposite her in Hello, Dolly!, sulked so ostentatiously that the head of the studio finally had to remind him that the film was not called Hello, Walter! But the problem had begun even before movie stardom: Sydney Chaplin, her Funny Girl costar on Broadway, whose part shrank drastically in favor of hers in rewrites, liked to torment her by whispering the word nose during their love scenes. Other cast members saw their roles reduced, too: On opening night, Streisand was onstage for 111 out of 132 minutes. She also got twenty-three curtain calls. Those of us who want Barbra at all tend to want a lot of her—and she makes sure we get it. I even recall reading that, much later, for a scene in Yentl (which Streisand directed, produced, cowrote, and played the lead in, as well as singing all the songs), she wouldn't trust Amy Irving, who played Hadass, to do her own humming: What we hear on the sound track is own-brand Streisand. Readers will note that the back of the Taschen book is adorned with only a single blurb—from the woman herself. Hers, we gather, is the opinion that counts.

It's not hard to see what Streisand's appeal was for me as an awkward teen or for the women and gay men d'un certain âge with whom I bonded on LISTSERVS and at one of the many concerts tantalizingly billed as her last ever. Yet Streisand departs from the Judy Garland mold of gay icon. In her, the balance of vulnerability and yearning with strength and defiance is tilted much further in the latter direction. From early on, her voice, capable of rare feats in its upper register, seemed, as Tennessee Williams admiringly observed, "bolstered by so much rage." Whether or not it's true, as Schiller says, that she is the only other woman star who has lasted as Marilyn has, it's difficult to think of anyone else of comparable stature who isn't primarily viewed as a tragic figure. Streisand doesn't beg to be loved or accepted: She demands it, and she presumes you'll submit with no concessions made. When she was singing in New York nightclubs, she'd stop to stare down anyone who talked during her set. And she didn't get the nose job people often recommended, for reasons that shift in the telling: She didn't want to assimilate; she feared the pain or that it would affect her voice. Perhaps it was for the same reason that, aside from dropping the a in Barbara, she also refused to change her name: "I wanted all the people I knew when I was younger to know it was me."

Streisand's contradictory lack of vulnerability can make her a tricky subject for the kind of portraiture in the Taschen volume. Photographing a star, you're either burnishing her as an icon (see Schapiro's 1967 Barbra Streisand with a Pearl Earring) or trying to catch her off-guard, in some intimate moment when she's forgotten to perform herself. But what's striking about Streisand is how visible her legendary perfectionism is at all times. My favorite pictures here are the few in which she appears briefly unaware of the camera, and each reveals a look of deep concentration—to catch Streisand off-guard, it seems, was always to catch her working. What Streisand gives her fans is both less and more than what a Garland-style diva does—in a sense, she's as much an athlete as an artist or entertainer. In his memoir, tennis star Andre Agassi describes hearing her sing at a private party: "The sound filled the room from the rafters to the floorboards. Everyone stopped talking. Glasses shook. Flatware rattled. The bones in my ribs and wrist vibrated. . . . I couldn't believe that a human being was capable of producing that much sound, that a human voice could pervade every square inch of a room." That quality is what sets her apart, a quality that does not necessarily make for the most artful photograph. She was always, as Gabler puts it, "the Joe Louis of Jews and gays, their knockout puncher." After all, a diva who feels your pain and can express it is one thing. One who's on your team and can actually win—that's something else.

Lidija Haas is a writer living in New York City.

Advertisement