LA STREISAND: THE
WAY SHE WAS
After heavy-duty negotiations,
Barbra Streisand--in Manhattan to promote "Up the Sandbox"--consented
to do this 1973 New York Times interview. Did she love the results?
Are you kidding? --GUY FLATLEY
upon a time, in a far off land called Brooklyn, there lived a girl
named Barbara, and to tell the truth, she was no great beauty. Not
once did Prince Charming cart her off to the ball, or even to the
corner candy store; and no one - not even her mom -
ever seemed to listen to her. So the melancholy waif made a promise
to herself: one day everyone would listen to her. Theyd listen
because she would be bright and amusing and beautiful and sexy and
adorable and talented.
Talented she was, from the beginning. So talented that, in time,
she was able to make the rest of her impossible dream come true.
Not overnight, of course. At first - belting out hot ditties
at the Bon Soir or making like a bush league Martha Raye on Jack
Paars TV show - she was chunky and unkempt, brash and
abrupt. But Barbara - by now Barbra - was nothing if
not a quick study, and before long she was giving a boffo audition
for a Broadway musical called "I Can Get It for You Wholesale,"
and shortly thereafter swiping the show out from under its stupefied
star, Elliott Gould.
And, at the same time, stealing his heart away, a theft which resulted
in what seemed a story-book marriage.
What more, you may well ask, could a self-made Cinderella ask for?
A breathtaking triumph as the greatest star by far in "Funny
Girl"? An Oscar for the movie version of the same show? The
thrill of having her once laughable looks likened to those of an
exotic Modigliani beauty? The chance to be wooed both on and off
the screen by Ryan
ONeal? Her very own movie company to toy with -
assuring her the privilege of being up-front in every scene of "Up
the Sandbox"? The treat of being Robert Redfords heartthrob
in "The Way We Were"? A plea from Ingmar Bergman to waltz
through his new movie of "The Merry Widow"?
What are you kidding? Barbras had all that -
and then some. And yet...somehow, somewhere along the road to the
superstar ball, Cinderellas horses turned into leeches, her
nice new coach became infested with worms, and the whole fairy tale
flew right over the rainbow. In its place, shaking an ink-stained
finger and pounding vehemently on her typewriter keys, there appeared
a wicked old stepmother and her name was Rotten Press.
Suddenly gossip coulumnists were busily buzzing that Barbra had
a big head, that she was a brassy boss-woman bellowing commands
to puppet-directors, that she gave even the most prestigious reporters
the brush-off - all but burping in their faces if they dared
to burrow for anything but the puffiest trivia.
As this portrait of the artist as a young monster mushroomed, a
badly bruised Barbra cried "ouch" and then "stop
the press!" These days, she steps gingerly - if at all
- with journalists. The interview she gave me, for example,
was negotiated with the delicacy normally reserved for papal audiences
and peace talks, and it was granted only after Barbras right
to approve - or to kill - her quotes was firmly established.
Quote approval or no quote approval, it isnt anything Barbra
says - as she sweeps into her suite at the Sherry-Netherland
- that makes you stand up and pay respectful attention. Its
the way she looks. Full-bosomed - but trim - in black
sweater and pants, she is, miraculously, the dazzler she always
dreamed shed be. Her brown hair is long and silky, her skin
is pale perfection, and her eyes are intense green. Even the prominent
nose, once a joke, now seems a mere touch of madness in the Modiglianic
setting Jason, her 5-year-old dynamo of a son, down in the other
room, Barbra immediately makes it clear that there is more on her
mind than plugging "Up the Sandbox." Whats bugging
her is an earlier New York Times interview, one written by Rex Reed
back in 1966, depicting her as a rude, gum-snapping, banana-eating
egomaniac. Barbra feels that the interview was a distortion and
that its sole purpose was to further the career of a budding hatchet
man. Some time later, the contrite Reed sent her a note saying,
"Now that Im a celebrity in my own right, I know what
its like to have the vultures descend on me."
But, to this day, Barbra does not buy that particular slice of humble
pie, and her reasons for not buying it are outrageously quotable.
"Rex Reed _____ ," says Barbra, her eyes ablaze. And then,
to prove she is not one to mince words, she takes a deep breath
and adds, "_____".
While Barbra is not in the habit of mincing words, she is in the
habit of asking for quote approval, which explains the blanks above,
as well as the following message received shortly after my interview
with her. "It was such a long time ago and its not important
anymore. Id rather just talk about now. And just the other
day I read a lovely piece Rex Reed wrote on Up the Sandbox,
so why not remember that?"
During our interview, however, she is less inclined to let journalistic
bygones be bygones and she also stresses her impatience with the
uncouth practice some eager-beaver reporters make of prying into
her love life. For instance, try asking her to comment on her rumored
romances with Ryan ONeal and Pierre Trudeau, and all you get
in the way of a reply are a gasp, a blush, a pair of crossed eyes
and "Well, I have very eclectic tastes."
Perhaps shed like to say a word or two about ex-husband Elliott
Gould? "Once you have loved someone, they become part of what
you were and therefore part of what you are. After all, how many
people does one love in a lifetime?"
Could it be that Barbra, like various other liberated spirits, considers
marriage an obsolete institution?
"No! Im old-fashioned; I believe in marriage. A husband
and children - thats happiness."
As a matter of fact, Barbra strongly identifies with Margaret, the
fertile housewife of "Up the Sandbox." "There is
a part of me that longs to stay home and be with my child, to discover
the best butcher shops and bakeries, to feed the people I love.
But there is another part of me that needs a form of expression
other than bearing children, just as there is another part of Margaret
that feels love is not enough. Shed like to go back to school,
to find where she belongs without putting herself into a niche.
She doesnt want to be just a housewife or just a career woman."
Some people feel that Margaret made such a career out of daydreaming
that its a wonder she ever got any housework done. "Fantasies
can make a rich inner life," Barbra insists. "They can
lead you places. If I never had a fantasy about being an actress,
perhaps I wouldnt have become one. More than anything, I wanted
to be recognized. Thats why I started singing - so that
somebody would listen to me."
Now they not only listen, but they look and they touch. Does Barbra
ever yearn to gash her way out of the goldfish bowl? "Ive
lost my anonymity, but thats the price of fame. You cant
have everything, and the things I get in return for my lack of privacy
are worth it."
According to Barbra, the most worthwhile thing to come her way in
a long while has been her membership - along with Paul Newman,
Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier and Dustin
Hoffman - in First Artists, the production company
responsible for "Up the Sandbox." "This is the first
picture Ive done over which Ive had some control. Thats
why all those stories about my having so much power in the past
are so ludicrous. People who have been in films with me and have
had their parts cut short blame it on me, as if I had any say-so
in the matter. Its a case of peoples egos defending
Not that Barbra suffers from hyper-timidity. "Its true,
part of me is very self-assertive and part of me is also reserved
and unsure. In some ways it boils down to the old male-female stereotypes.
If a female is self-assertive with a man, particularly in a work
situation, she is said to be castrating, or some other equally old-fashioned
ridiculous term. But women have been castrated for years. And in
a professional situation where men and women come together as equals,
often this term is used as a mans excuse for his inability
to accept equality. It also tells far more about the man than it
does about the woman.
"After all, what is it that makes a woman whole? We all have
qualities of the other sex, organically as well as emotionally.
A man must have so-called female traits - sensitivity, gentleness,
vulnerability. But does that make him less a man? Does it make a
woman less a woman to be strong?"
phone rings and, for the second time, it is the man at the Sherry
Netherland desk insisting that nobody has registered for her suite.
"What do you mean, nobodys registered?" Barbra asks,
her hand on her hip and her foot beginning to tap. "This is
Barbra Streisand, and Im here, so I must be registered."
She hangs up with a shrug, and suddenly theres a knock on
the door. In an instant, lunch is being served. "I want to
make sure the meat is good," says Barbra, quickly jabbing a
piece of Jasons steak. Satisfied, she urges her son to eat.
"Thats the Jewish mother in me," she smiles, munching
her chicken salad on toast.
Barbras relationship with her own mother apparently runs both
hot and cold. When asked if Margarets meddlesome mom in "Up
the Sandbox" is anything like her own, Barbra doesnt
say no. "The family in the movie is partly based on my family,"
she admits. "That scene at the door when Margaret tells her
mother she doesnt want to see her today - Ive
played that scene with my own mother several times. But its
not really particular to my mother; its a general feeling
many people have toward their parents at one time or another. Im
not interested in doing things that are particular only to me."
Nor is Barbra interested in being typed in a particular role. "People
want to put you in a mold. They want you to play the same role over
and over again so that you can represent their idea of what they
think you are. In the old-time movies they used to do that all the
time. Certain stars could never step out of their molds. But that
can be stifling and I refuse to be put into a mold. As I try to
grow as a person, I must continue to try to grow as an artist."
Theres another knock at the door. This time its another
Sherry-Netherlander humbly requesting that Barbra sign the register.
More or less humbly, Barbra signs, while Jason spins through the
room chanting, "My name is Jason Streisand, my name is Jason
"Gould, darling, your name is Jason Gould," Barbra says
"My name is Jason Gould Streisand," he sings, merrily
skidding out of the room.
getting back to Barbras growth as an actress - will
we be seeing a brand new Streisand in "The Way We Were?"
"I play a college girl a radical political activist
who falls in love with a man who sees life from an entirely
opposite point of view. The film is about our attempt to make a
life together in spite of our differences. Its a love story
played against the political background of the late 1930s
through the early 50s."
Barbra herself does not claim to be a political sophisticate, even
though she campaigned for McGovern and is a close friend of Bella
Abzug, who visited the set of "Up the Sandbox" several
times to express the fervent hope that the movie would do its lib
bit. On the other hand, Barbra believes what she believes with an
"I cant understand the Nixon landslide. Maybe people
are afraid of change; its as if theyve grown almost
comfortable with corruption. I mean, Nixon is so obviously dishonest.
His promise to end the war in Vietnam was just par for the course,
wasnt it? I dont know its all so destructive,
"But then I believe the world is moving toward inevitable self-destruction.
Frustration is at a high point. I dont know why weve
gone to the moon, do you? Spending all that money to go there and
saying screw you to all the people who need to be fed
here. I say live life for today; feed the people on Earth, and then
worry about getting to the moon.
"Something has happened to this countrys sense of morality.
In 'Up the Sandbox,' for example, there is no violence and no blood.
But we received an R-rating. Why? Because a womans breast
is shown. There is nothing dirty about breasts! What kind of morality
do you have when people would rather have children see blood and
gore than a womans breast?"
Does it follow that Barbra would act in the buff in a non-violent
movie? "Thats an interesting question," Barbra says
after a moments meditation. "The answer is no. Like the
information about my love life, my body is not for public display.
Of course, its a social thing. If society would say to hide
your face and show your body, youd see me hiding my face and
showing my body. But thats me - one foot in the 19th
century, and one foot in the 20th."
Even though you wont be seeing all of Barbra on screen in
this century, youre sure to be seeing a lot of her. Shes
what she always wanted to be now - a mooooovie star.
"I dont want to return to the broadway stage, because
I dont like the feeling of being judged night after night.
When people all over the world are watching me in a movie, I can
be home taking a bath, but to have to stand out on stage every night
and bear the brunt . . . its exhausting."
Barbra shudders. "I played Funny Girl a thousand
times, and every audience was different. I could tell what their
personality was by the sound of the rustling as they were getting
into their seats and by how they responded to the overture. I knew
when they were there to enjoy themselves. The ones who came to enjoy
- the positive ones - were the ones I worked hardest
for. If they came openly to me, I felt the need to give. If I felt
negative vibrations, I held back."
But all the worlds a stage, not just Broadway, and its
possible that Barbra might one day try a little rep. "I am
interested in doing some of the classics. Ive always wanted
to play Juliet. And LAiglon and Camille and Medea. Id
also like to play Shaws Cleopatra, and - when Im
older - Shakespeares Cleopatra. Its challenging
taking a role people have seen played many times and bringing it
alive again. I like comparisons, I enjoy risks."
One thing Barbra does not enjoy is to hear people say that actors
have no brains. "Ive heard Truman Capote say all actors
are dumb and that maybe Marlon Brando is the dumbest of all. Well,
hes dumb for saying that. He was being provocative, but he
was doing it at somebody elses expense. Any actor worth his
salt is intelligent. As for Brando - my God, he has genius!
Brando is the only actor who ever really touched me."
Barbras right about Brando. And wouldnt it be swell
if he could play Caesar to her Cleopatra - once upon a time?