One must learn to compartmentalize, if one would appreciate the artistic gifts of Barbra Streisand, in spite of Streisand's, er, challenging personality.
There are four kinds of people who hate Barbra Streisand—anti-Semites, philo-Semites, non-lefties and lefties.
But she has no one to blame but herself. This relentlessly obnoxious person could never stick to what she did best—singing and directing. She had to impose her will and opinions on everyone, which made her occasional charm offensives, when she was promoting a new picture, look all the more phony.
And what a phony! Several years ago, after Streisand, an avid “environmentalist,” who had lectured the public on its need to conserve energy, sued environmentalist-photographer Kenneth Adelman for $50 million, claiming he’d violated her privacy. Adelman had taken aerial shots of the entire California shoreline, including Streisand’s Malibu, California mansion, as part of a project recording the present shoreline, in order to chart possible future erosion. The pictures showed that Streisand’s Malibu home alone—replete with six chimneys—used enough energy for at least ten families, and she’s got a Manhattan triplex, as well. She practiced none of the energy conservation practices she lectured and hectored other people about. Her petty, frivolous lawsuit drove home not only her hypocrisy, but what a bully she is. A judge dismissed the suit in 2003.
I could come up with 1,000 examples of her pettiness. To read about Streisand, is to read about a narcissistic diva. But I am not here to bury Barbra…
The best and wittiest put-down I ever heard of Streisand came from the director of Funny Girl, William Wyler. Never mind that Streisand was making her first picture, and three-time Oscar-winner Wyler, though at the end of what is still one of the most brilliant directorial careers in movie history, was still in full command of his powers. She acted as if she were the director! Wyler quipped, “You’ll have to forgive Barbra; this is the first picture she's ever directed.”
She lent herself so readily to parody that over 40 years later, I still remember the Mad magazine comic spoof of her—or, at least, the title—“On a Clear Day, You Can See a Funny Girl Singing Hello Dolly Forever,” which managed to squeeze together the titles of her first three pictures. I seem to recall that the Mad spoof included a send-up of “People,” then her biggest hit.
In middle age, Streisand developed into an excellent director, in spite of herself, and in 1991, made a masterpiece, The Price of Tides which, for my money, should have won her two Oscars—for Best Picture and Best Director. Alas, Tides lost Best Picture to a lesser movie, the entertaining serial killer flick, The Silence of the Lambs, and Streisand wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, which was won by the inferior Jonathan Demme for Lambs. Why the snub, from people who were as leftwing as she was, many of whom were her fellow Jews? Need one even ask? They hate her, they really hate her!
Streisand once was a decent actress, and gave two great performances, in Dolly, as Fannie Brice, and in Sydney Pollack’s 1973, communist propaganda period piece, The Way We Were. Streisand won the Oscar for Best Actress, in a tie with Katharine Hepburn (in The Lion in Winter) for Dolly, and was nominated again for TWWW, but lost that time to Glenda Jackson, for A Touch of Class.
However, the criticism that Streisand’s comrades unfairly leveled against John Wayne—that he always played the same character—was much truer of her than of him. She was always the obnoxious, New York City Jew, except for when she really went out on a limb artistically, in the movie version of Hello Dolly, where she played matchmaker Dolly Levi, an obnoxious Jew from New York City’s Westchester suburbs. In Yentl, she played the obnoxious Jew from New York’s Polish suburbs.
And yet, when she sang, she was beautiful. Her ability to paint the broadest emotional canvas imaginable was already evident with “My Coloring Book,” on The Second Barbra Streisand Album, in 1963.
Around the same time, she had the inspiration to take the frenetic, 1929 chestnut, “Happy Days are Here Again,” slow it down, and make it new and melancholy and better than it had been originally.
In the closing scene of the movie version of Funny Girl (1968), as vaudeville legend Fannie Brice, she transformed Brice’s soap opera of a song, “My Man,” into a show-stopper of a torch song.
In The Way We Were, her moving rendition of the late Marvin Hamlisch’s title song won it the Oscar for Best Original Song, and earned her yet another Number One hit.
Hollywood used to know how to make beautiful music, but all those great old tunesmiths are up in songwriter heaven now.
Finally, in the mid-1980s, Streisand got the crazy idea of resurrecting a demo tape she’d cut at 13 of the wartime standard, “You’ll Never Know,” re-recording it, and splicing together the two versions, as a self-duet, as part of her four-disc box set, Just for the Record. It was narcissistic, it was vain, and it was risky, but it worked gloriously as a case of voices of innocence and experience, as the callow young girl begins, and the experienced, middle-aged woman finishes. She opened Disc I with the 1955 version, and closed Disc IV with the self-duet version. (I suppose, after cutting that record, if anyone ever told Streisand to “Go bleep yourself!,” she could respond, “I already have, thank you very much.”)
But now, Streisand’s pipes are rusted; the old flexibility is gone. Several years ago on the radio, I heard a new recording played by DJ Jonathan Schwartz that sounded like it was by Lena Horne, who was then still alive. Now, Miss Horne, may she rest in peace, was an excellent singer, but Barbra Streisand didn’t become the world’s greatest girl singer by sounding like Lena Horne, or anyone else. A husky, distinctively mezzo-soprano voice with an almost operatic range that later developed, I believe, into a contralto, an unequaled emotional and dramatic power, and perfectionism made the young Barbara Joan Streisand the successor to Ella Fitzgerald, a position she held for approximately 30 years, and one which for the past 10-15 years has lain vacant.
But on New Year’s Eve, 1993, in a concert at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Hotel, in which she sang Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton’s song, “As if We Never Said Goodbye,” from their Broadway musical Sunset Boulevard, she still had “it.”
The song, set in 1949, is the declaration of love to her fans of a pitiable, delusional, psychopathic, silent film star. For over 20 years, Norma Desmond has lived in seclusion in her Sunset Boulevard mansion, re-watching her old movies with family retainers, including her valet/ex-husband Max (who, the joke goes, looks like Erich von Stroheim, because he is Erich von Stroheim). She thinks she’s making a comeback at 50, playing the 16-year-old Salome, and hires a hack writer to fix the unfixable script she’s written for her triumphant return to the silver screen… and be her gigolo.
(I’ve seen the picture, but not the show.)
Having repeatedly gotten calls from Paramount Studios, where she once reigned as queen, Desmond assumes that her old producer-director, Cecil B. de Mille, wants to film her return, using her script. And so she triumphantly returns to the lot, where no one under 50 knows who she is anymore. As Max comes to realize, but withholds from her, the reason for the calls was an executive’s desire to rent her classic limousine to use in a picture. But for a moment, at Sound Stage 18, during a break in de Mille’s production of Samson & Delilah, an ancient stage hand who knew her way back when, flashes the spotlight on Miss Desmond, and extras and crewmen look on as she sings her comeback theme.
The movie on which the eponymous Broadway show was based, was Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece of masterpieces, based on his own original screenplay (co-written with Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr.), and which starred a real silent film star, Gloria Swanson, with a mere 31-year-old but already anciently cynical William Holden as Wilder’s gigolo-hack alter ego, von Stroheim, and Nancy Olsen as Holden’s would-be prince in shining armor. (All the aforementioned performers would be nominated for Oscars; none would win.)
The song’s power is in the counterpoint between reality and Norma Desmond’s delusions.
But that’s not the dynamic of the song, as Streisand sings it. The music is the same, the words altered to fit a singer but with the same character, yet this is no delusional dame addressing invisible devotees who have all died off, forgotten her, or moved on to new objects of adoration.
Streisand is addressing a theater full of her devoted fans—in the original meaning of fanatics—who paid a fortune to watch her, some of whom could barely contain themselves to let her sing. The middle-aged fans and the diva had, indeed, been “young together.”
After starting out as a teenaged cabaret singer in Greenwich Village, graduating to eight-show-a-week Broadway stardom in Funny Girl, and then a movie star who cut a few albums a year and gave live TV concerts every few years, Streisand increasingly deserted the faithful fans who hungered to see her live. (She had claimed to suffer from stage fright.) Now, in a triumphant comeback, with the late Marvin Hamlisch conducting, and direction that goes from pan shots to intensely framing her, to both give the immediacy that so many filmed stage performances lack and indulge in her ugly duckling narcissism, Streisand takes ironic lyrics and makes them powerfully, emotionally literal.
With that line, there could not have been many dry eyes in the house.
No other singer on the face of the earth could make that song so moving. And that’s why music lovers must compartmentalize their souls, so that they can love the musical magic of the otherwise very unlovable Miss Barbara Joan/Barbra Streisand.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.