Barbra Streisand (August 21, 2016)
I’m in Malibu. Not quite in Barbra Streisand’s house but at a studio just down the road from it. She’s been doing some TV interviews. Lights are set up, so bright that I have to peer to see her face. I sit opposite. Her eyes stare out, pierce me. She’s wearing a soft drapey black dress, multiple long gold chains and strappy sandals that have spikes across the straps. Dark red toe polish. The feet are very maitress – dominatrix even, the rest of her soft. She’s always loved that kind of juxtaposition, masculism meets feminism, strong meets vulnerable.
The TV light is shining so brightly, so harsh it floors me for a second. I want to hug her hello. This is Barbra Streisand whose songs I’ve known all my life, whose voice is so familiar to me, whose voice has been a comfort in its complete emotional empathy. Whatever I’ve felt or whatever you’ve felt, Barbra’s felt it more and she’s showed us. Unlike any other performer she acts out her songs so we feel them. That’s part of her charm, part of what makes her an icon.
My arms are in a clumsy outreach and I remember her telling me before hugging doesn’t come naturally. She had a complicated relationship with her mother who was perhaps so full of fear for her that she might fail, was always discouraging – she told her her voice was too thin. Her mother wasn’t a toucher. She never hugged her. “For a long time touching felt alien.” Now she can just about do it, touch that is. She could never please her mother. “But I owe her my career. I was always trying to prove to her that I was worthy of being somebody.”
Of course there’s less angst about Barbra now, more composure, more polish. Instead of a hug I deliver her a cake, one which was made from the same recipe as her favourite bakery in Brooklyn (Ebbingers which closed in 1974).
My friend’s grandmother was the manager. He has all the recipes It’s a mocha almond cake and more powerful than a hug or a kiss. If Streisand was a little wary, a little suspicious, she’s overcome by that other emotion – food is love.
She’s always loved food a little too much, always on a diet although she’s never been fat. She once used a cake onstage to make her cry. Didn’t she have a girlfriend waiting in the wings with a cake so that she could feel yearning? “That’s right,” she says. “It wasn’t a girlfriend, it was someone from the production. It was a chocolate cake and it was put on the stool where I could see it. It wasn’t that I had to cry,” she corrects. “I love details about truth. It was that I was supposed to be in love with the actor but I couldn’t feel anything for him. I didn’t even like him so I put the piece of cake in the wings so I could pine for the piece of cake.” We laugh. A real proper laugh, the composure gone. “The play was Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent.”
I tell her I know the play. It’s an awful play. I too acted in it and had fallen out with the lead actor. I could have done with a piece of cake. Perhaps that’s why my acting career plummeted. I love that we were in the same awful play.
Streisand though is still thinking about the piece of cake in the wings. “It was a piece of chocolate cake, a slice the perfect size to fit in the mouth. I would have preferred it with some vanilla ice cream but that would have melted on the set. It was a good enough tool. Use something that’s real for you.”
That’s the thing with Streisand. She always seems real and not afraid to be herself. I remember the story of when she was asked to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Real life Brice had had a nose job. “She cut off her nose to spite her race,” quipped Dorothy Parker. It almost cost Streisand the part. They worried that Streisand looked too Jewish to play a Jewish star with a nose job.
You think of Streisand being all about perfection, control but she’s more about not being afraid of who she is. Vulnerability and fearlessness is always an intoxicating mix. She loves her Jewishness. She loves to eat like a Jew, even if she can’t cook like one, although she has told me that recently she studies recipes.
The thing that gets you about her album Encore is its absolute Barbra-ness. I wonder has she improvised some of the words of the songs. For instance in At the Ballet her character is told to bring it down. Did anyone tell her that in an audition? “No. They could have but they didn’t. It’s in the play.” It seems like she wrote it. “I know,” she nods, “that’s good writing.”
The songs are all rediscovered classics with rediscovered artists. Any Moment Now with Hugh Jackman paints a scene of a relationship falling apart, with details that seem so graphic it’s painful. I’ll Be Seeing You which she sings with Chris Pine is a revelation and Jamie Foxx singing Climb Every Mountain is so soulful it’s probably the best version of the song ever. “Good, because I don’t really love the song. I wanted to make it stand on its own rather than just something from The Sound of Music. We improvised some of the new lines. Some of them weren’t in the original. I knew he had a good voice but he surprised me with an even better voice and he sings from his heart.”
Foxx and Streisand seem an unusual juxtaposition, but somehow she brings out a softness in him that she couldn’t have imagined and he brings out a certainty in her that is properly moving.
There’s also a duet with Anthony Newley, probably his most famous song Who Can I Turn To which he wrote with Leslie Bricusse from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint and the Smell of the Crowd. It’s the one song where the partners’ voice is more distinctive than Streisand. Newley in his shaky cockney tones sounds like David Bowie Laughing Gnome period. “I’ve heard that David Bowie was very influenced by Tony Newley. I was doing Funny Girl and he was doing The Roar of the Greasepaint and I met him that year and thought he was fantastic and then we became friends,” she says casually. I tell her that at one point I was friendly with Sasha Newley, his son and briefly we worked on a musical about his father’s life and in the course of that I uncovered a song called Too Much Woman. It was a song that Newley wrote about Streisand who, according to his son, he was completely in love with. Newley loved women. One can say they were his addiction but for him Streisand stood alone, the unconquerable too much woman. Did she ever know about this song he wrote for her? “Tony Newley sent it to me when he was dying and I thought wow.” She sings it to me, “I heard you on the radio today…” She sings it in a Newley style voice. It’s a wonderful song. I love that song. Her voice is slightly shaky now. She smiles. She wasn’t expecting that I knew about that song but she’s far from floored by it, or the idea that for all these years he held a candle that was more than a candle, that he was deeply in love and she was too much woman for him.
“Well you have exclusive knowledge for your article don’t you because it has never been written about. I’m proud of that song. I’m proud that he wrote it for me.” What does she think of the concept of being too much woman? Surely she as one of the ultimate women could never feel there is such a thing. We have a woman Prime Minister in the UK for which both left and right seem grateful that she’s sensible and safe. Isn’t this a new age where there’s not such a thing as too much woman?
“I don’t know much about your Prime Minister. She’ll probably have more balls than the old one.” Is Hillary Clinton too much woman for the United States? “I hope not. I really hope not but I think the British have always been…..” her voice trailed off. “I might have told you this before but when I made Yentl as a first time director I made it in England. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minster and you had a Queen, so powerful women were no big deal. I think this country we still think of powerful women as suspect, you know like they’re too ambitious or they’re control freaks which is such a shame.”
Does she think it’s the end of the glass ceiling and it’s a world power moment for women? “I hope so. I pray that we will have Hillary as our President and I think that informed, smart people are going to vote for her, at least I hope. I’ve met a lot of people who are powerful and smart like Michelle Obama.” On the day we meet, Donald Trump’s wife had stolen most of Michelle Obama’s speech. Streisand looks irritated. “They are that stupid? Golda Meir,” She says suddenly. “She was one of the first women to head a country (1969-1974 when she resigned). I had a conversation with Golda Meir when it was the 30th anniversary of Israel and that shows you all that women can be. She could declare war on one hand and say ‘would you like a Danish with the coffee?’ with the other. She was the grandma – a very warm, sweet lady, yet a powerful leader. Women can be many things, angry and forgiving, have PhD’s and manicures.”
Streisand always has a beautiful manicure. A little defiant touchstone. Her mother told her to cut her nails and learn to be a typist. Of course you can type with nails and if you’re Streisand you probably have a super power to type and have good nails. I have none. She looks at my fingers and looks a little mournful but it’s because she’s distracted. I’m thinking that we’d segue way from God Meyer into racism, hate crimes and what it means to be a Super Jew but she’s like, “Can we talk about Newley some more? What happened to this musical? Why are you not working on it anymore? Did you disagree?” Not really, he just went off me. “Why was that? What year was that? Is that why Sasha was calling me and I could never find out exactly what it was that he wanted? I’ve met Sasha. I’ve seen his artwork. He came to my house with this kids and his mum. The little girl wanted to see my dolls houses.”
In Streisand’s actual home she has an annexe where she keeps dolls houses, old fashioned. I’m not sure if they’re vintage or modelled on vintage. She told me once that she didn’t have a proper childhood so that’s why she likes the dolls houses. She was bullied for looking too weird looking, too Jewish and constantly criticised by her mother Diana who was herself a soprano. Typical of Streisand to be able to play like a little girl when she feels most womanly. She tells me she’s happy with James Brolin to whom she’s been married for 18 years. Her manager Marty Erlichman she’s been with for 50 years and her assistant Renata Buser (43 years) somewhere in between the two. She’s a striver but she thrives on stability. Growing up there can’t have been much of that, her critical mother telling her she’d never amount to anything. It was a painful sharpening of her drive. Her father Emanuel died from complications after an epileptic seizure when she was only 15 months old. It was brought on when a hospital gave him a fatal dose of morphine to treat his constant headaches.
In her childhood the high point was cake from the bakery. Now at 74 she can still remember the cake and how she strove to find her father. She sees herself in two parts – the feminine that loves ruffles and lace and she sees her father. He represents her masculine side. “I found him during Yentl. I created him. I was the director, I was the one in control. I was the male figure. It was all very cathartic.”
She started off singing in clubs at 17 or 18. For her first record she agreed to take less money as long as she could have artistic control. “That’s right. That’s called a control freak but why would any man or woman not want to be in control of their own lives.” Now she belongs to a small coterie of luminaries who have collected Oscars, Emmy’s, Globes, Grammy’s and Tony’s.
Her white fluffy dog Samantha, a Coton de Tuléar , gives a yowl of appreciation or maybe it’s of desire because she’s just realised there’s a cake. She brings the subject back to Tony Newley. “He had a fantastic voice and he was so lovely and very handsome, yes. I loved his looks. He looked like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.”
Streisand’s always liked beautiful men. She told me once it was the one thing they all had in common. Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal, Don Johnson. “All attractive. I love beauty whether it’s in a piece of furniture or a man. My husband has the perfect forehead, the perfect jaw, the perfect teeth. Even if he makes me angry I get a kick out of his symmetry.”
She’s referring to her husband James Brolin. Her first husband was Elliot Gould who she married in 1963. They have a son Jason now aged 49. They divorced in 1971 I wonder if she was too much woman for him too. This was after her iconic performances in Funny Girl and Hello Dolly and I wonder if he felt in her shadow.
Even now she’s not terribly at ease with the interview process. “People make up stories about me. Maybe it’s more interesting.” She’s still working on an autobiography and says her relationship with work has changed. She says she’s become lazy. Although she told me once over the years the happier she’s become, the less she’s needed to work, she’s still a worker. There’s the album, a tour and soon she starts work on Gypsy in which she plays Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother.
I can’t understand why so much has been made about her never looking the perfect leading lady. I don’t think it’s a question of she grew into her face either. I think she carried around the sense that she was an oddball, a misfit and became a champion for other misfits. Because she believed it, other people believed it and when you look back at her in The Way We Were and Funny Girl it wasn’t just as critics said, her talent was her beauty. She was actually gorgeous. A proper star. She has used her stardom well. These days it means more to her to have her name on the Barbra Streisand Woman’s Heart Centre than in lights. More women die of heart attacks than breast cancer, yet more money is raised for breast cancer. Streisand is a lobbyist. She wants more funds. She tells me that recently she was given mice for a trial and she demanded all female mice. It is after all a women’s heart foundation with women’s hormones and physiognomies. “It was a fight,” she says. So in the day of potential female world leaders she still has to fight to get an all women trial, the next step after getting all female mice.
She doesn’t look exhausted by the thought of it, rather excited. She’s made me laugh, made me think. Would it be appropriate to hug her goodbye? Not really.