Barbra Streisand (Weekend, November 24, 2018)
Barbra Streisand at 76 has come up with an album of songs that she wrote as a protest against President Trump and his regime. It’s her first album of original songs for over a decade. The songs could be love songs although the album Walls is a mixture of love and anger.
She’s wearing slinky black flares, black suede boots, a black fluffy jumper and a vintage lace collar. Around her neck is a beautiful miniature of her now departed dog Sammy, a Coton du Tolear. The white curly fluffy dog went with her to every interview, every concert and recording session.
Streisand mourned her passing “as if it was a child.” Sammy had an “oddball personality,” so it could have been her actually genetic child. She identified with her intensely. So much so that two of her new dogs Miss Scarlet and Miss Violet are clones of Sammy and a third, Fanny is a distant cousin.
We meet in a studio just across the road from her house in Malibu – the one with the rose gardens and her collection of dolls houses. The dogs didn’t join us. “Because there are three of them and they would take over. The two dogs are made from Sammy. They’re her DNA. They are clones. This is the technique – how they make clones which is used in cancer research. The pet fund wrote me a letter that said thank you for doing this. Cancer is very prevalent and growing in both cats and dogs because of the pet food industry, the pesticides etc… Nobody had to die to make a clone. They took a cell from the inside of Sammy’s cheek and another from the outside of her tummy right before she died. You don’t know if you’re going to get a dog. You can get none, you can get five and I got two.”
Presumably she went via the clone route because she loved Sammy so much she wanted to replicate her so are the puppies like her?
“Not in personality but they look just like her. They’re curly haired like her. The breeder told me she was a rarity because she was a runt. If these dogs are for shows they have straight hair. Sammy was at my last show in New York – it was such a rarity to get a curly haired one so in order to have a curly haired dog I had to clone Sammy.”
It’s easy to conjure the image of Streisand with her tight curly perm in A Star Is Born. Perhaps Sammy reminded her of herself in that. Samantha is now around her neck close to her heart forever. I tell her I have my cat Mr Love’s fur in my locket.
“Uh huh. I have a lock of her hair in my other locket.” It’s a bonding moment. We have both got dead pets round our neck. “It’s unconditional love,” she says “and you know love in sickness and health, curly or straight.
Momentarily she seems vulnerable. You want to reach out to her, hug her even. You feel you know her. You’ve known her songs all your life and her voice has touched you, slipped inside of you so easily. But despite our bonding she bristles as my arm touches her by accident. It goes back to her mother. She wasn’t a hugger and was always very critical, yet somehow despite this she found self-belief and drive. She’s been a star for a lifetime yet still she doesn’t like being photographed. She changes the subject back to the record.
“You’ve heard the album,” she says, eager to talk about it. Every time I meet her I think it’s going to be the last tour, the last show, the last album yet this work feels very fresh. It has a new and different energy to it. You can tell that she’s written a lot of the songs and the ones she hasn’t she sings in a new way. Her voice is fierce, not thin, not old. It cracks into your heart. Oddly even though it’s not about a man woman love struggle it’s passionate.
“That’s exactly right. That’s what it felt like creating it, that it had a different energy.” She has written or co-written 7 original songs which appear on the album including Walls – that keep you in as well as keep you out. It’s a plea to unite a divided country. It’s about physical walls and emotional walls.
The single Don’t Lie to Me has the lyrics “How do you win if we all lose?” She sings it like a diva. The truest sense of the word.
She includes the Burt Bacharach classic What the World Needs Now Is Love, originally written as a Vietnam protest song but equally valid if not more so today. The album ends with Happy Days. It’s a song she’s sung often at the end of her concerts and also for the Clintons at President Clinton’s inauguration and as a celebration of democracy. This time it’s sung with an irony so piquant you can feel her tears.
Lady Liberty is about “how they came from different lands, different religions, languages and culture, all seeing the American dream. The subject of immigration is complex and requires deep contemplation not knee jerk reactions. Now if you look at her face you’ll see tears falling from Lady Liberty’s eyes. Love Is Never Wrong is about love being the most powerful force in the universe. It transcends race, religion and sexual orientation – something I’ve always believed everyone has the right to love whoever they want to. I tell her the record is raw.
“Raw,” she nods. “I’ve never thought of that word for it.” Indeed, you don’t normally associate raw with Streisand. You think smooth or perhaps silky and soaring, definitely comfortable but not this. I tell her when I first heard the album, it was the first time I felt relieved that I wasn’t on Prozac because I was able to feel the full experience.
“Oh!” she says excited now. “Will you say that in the article because that’s very funny? I bet you won’t say that right. But you’re right. Prozac dulls your senses. When my mother was on it she forgot to be angry. She had dementia as well and she forgot that she was always very angry but that pill really helped.”
Maybe it was because of the dementia she forgot to be angry? “No, it was those pills.”
I told her I had a male friend who said he liked me much better on Prozac because I wasn’t angry. I kept on with it longer than I should have. “The guy or the Prozac?” Both.
She was clearly not on Prozac when writing this album because there’s a lot of anger in it. “Oh yes there is. I believe in truth and I believe if I’m truthful in what I’m singing about that comes across as being passionately upset with what is happening to my country.”
Her expression of dissatisfaction with the current president began with a series of very smart Tweets – an eloquent counterpart to the Trump potty mouth outbursts . Then she wrote articles for The Huffington Post (The Fake President and Our President Cruella de Vil) and then came the songs. They are cleverly written. They work on two levels. Love songs that can be interoperated as personal and protest love songs for the world.
“That’s right, that’s right,” she says excitedly. “I’m so glad you get this.” This is why you let me come back. Because I get it.
“Last time you brought me cake. This time I get nothing. But that’s good. I’m on a diet. It’s good you forgot.” I didn’t forget, I was told that she was trying to diet so I didn’t bring the cake “OK, but this President did make me anxious and hungry for pancakes. Buckwheat pancakes. I had to put butter on them and maple syrup to ease the pain. People don’t realise what food does for you. It makes you feel good. My son brought me pancakes at my last recording session from a great place. They’re made of oatmeal but obviously they have sugar in them and that’s why they taste so good. They’re very soothing to the brain.”
Pancakes are very American. It was as if she was eating the most delicious, the most American food to savour it, as if it too was in jeopardy.
“I live in a house that’s filled with Americana. American art, American furniture. I really love my country and it’s painful to see democracy being assaulted, institutions being assaulted and women being assaulted.”
We digress to the painful topic of women’s abortion rights and the possibility of women no longer being in control of their own bodies and having the long fought (in the early 70s) right to choose.
“Can you imagine…?” she says darkly and then, “There’s a war between people who want to live in the future and look forward to the future and people who want to live in the past. Imagine women who after forty-something years who have had the right to choose, now, perhaps won’t.”
President Trump was elected by a small majority but women certainly voted for him. Why would women vote for a man who does not let them control their own bodies? Why would women vote for misogyny?
“It’s a terribly complex thing. A lot of women vote the way their husbands vote. They don’t believe enough in their own thoughts so they trust their husbands. Maybe that woman who is so articulate, so experienced and so presidential (Hillary), so fit for the presidency, was too intimidating for some women. Perhaps she made women feel unsuccessful. Women are competitive and so forth. All of this was so devastating to me and I was heartbroken and very sad so I wanted to write about it, sing about it and deliver an album and it was perfect timing (as synagogues are being blown up and bombs delivered to any luminary who has had something bad to say about President Trump). I just did it.”
I’m not sure she realizes how brave it is to stand up and stand out and I wonder if she ever wanted to take it further – to be that woman who was articulate and presidential and could talk passionately and open people’s eyes. Surely there’s a situation vacant in the Democratic party that she may want to fill?
“No. I don’t want to go into politics. I don’t think I’m articulate enough and it’s too late for me. Maybe when I was younger but not now. I like my garden too much. I like staying home. I like privacy. I like writing my book…sort of.”
She’s still writing that autobiography? “Yeah, four years already. I’m trying to convince the publisher to do it in two volumes so I could stop the first volume with my Harvard speech.” She is very proud of this speech. “It was in a book called The 100 Greatest Speeches of the 20th Century. But they edited it without showing me and that was not nice. I like manners. People in England have manners. They are always very nice to me.”
Streisand comes across as a woman of power, a woman unafraid of being criticised because she’s in control. A woman that feels being seen as controlling isn’t a negative attribute. It’s been an interesting journey to get to that point.
In 1976, as producer and lead actress of A Star Is Born she had final cut of the movie. The ultimate control which is very rare and much sort after but she gave her power away. She cut out some of her own scenes because she didn’t want to be criticised for being a producer and having too much screen time. Why? She shakes her head.
“I love constructive criticism. It helps me learn something but I didn’t want to be … just criticised. “ Maybe this is a deep seated fear locked in by her super critical mother. There is anxiety in her eyes as she talks.
“A woman writer in the New York times criticised when I performed at the Clinton’s inauguration. She attacked my suit. It was a man’s suit and I wore great diamonds with it and a waistcoat. I like the combination of masculinity and femininity. I liked the feminisation of masculinity. I’m fascinated even in furniture, I like strong architectural lines covered in pink velvet. I like men who are masculine but have a feminine side. I like men who cry at movies and they like soft things. It just makes them complex and that’s interesting. So this woman criticised my suit with diamonds. This woman was talking about my sexuality because I was wearing a low cut vest and the legs of the trousers had a slit. I have a passion for design and that criticism was unfair.
It always seems to me unfair that she was never acknowledged as a beauty. Today she has a mesmerizing presence and her skin glows and not in an artificial way. She doesnt look fake. She has a lioness quality.
In the mid seventies people in Hollywood weren’t used to a woman being in control. She was producing ASIB for First Artists – a company originally set up for Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and herself. In exchange for no salary up front they could make their own film with full creative control and a piece of the back end which they only got if the film was a hit. Her budget was $6,000,000 and any penny spent over that had to come out of her own pocket.
“I was completely responsible for the money and the content.”
She updated the film from the Judy garland original (1954) to reflect the changing of the times.
“I wanted her to write her own songs. I wanted the character played by a liberated woman yet I gave away the title of producer and took a lessor one and I even cut out certain scenes of mine so I would have less screen time.”
Instead of being praised, she was vilified.
“I was put on a magazine cover bald and the title was ‘A Star Is Shorn’ They made me bald. Why? Because I was a woman in control and they wanted…” her voice trails. They wanted her to look horrible. “That’s right. So I got scared and I gave them power. But when I directed Yentl I had power artistically but I had a completion bond on my shoulder so I couldn’t go overbudget. I went only a tiny bit overbudget which was fine. I got an award for directing and I said it’s wonderful not to have to raise your voice because people are finally listening when you are the director. So… I’m going to direct another film and I won’t give power away in the way I did earlier.
“ When I’m directing I do give power away to make people feel they’re needed. I would make sure my understudy felt involved. ‘Why don’t you work with the cinematographer while I’m working on the script. Why don’t you measure distances for the lens and show me what marks I need to hit.’ In other words, empowering people. I want everybody to feel needed on the set.
“I enjoy working in England, perhaps because you have a Queen and you have a woman Prime Minister. I think they are less intimidated by a woman with power.”
Perhaps that just because she doesn’t live in England.
Is she acting as well as directing in the new movie?
“I can’t really talk about it. We’ve signed contracts but until I know more… I can tell you I’m not acting. I don’t like acting. I don’t like make believe. I like real life.”
That’s a shame. She’s so good at it. “I’m crap at it.” It always surprises me when she’s self-deprecating. Its part of what makes her an icon. The ability to take herself seriously and not seriously at all
The Way We Were still moves me – the ultimate impossible love story – she as the archetypal jew and Robert Redford as the archetypal WASP. It won her an Oscar nomination. She’s always played characters who had an uneasy vulnerability – you don’t expect that of her in real life. You do expect that she is a fighter, a campaigner for love, for truth, for dogs.
Its easy to feel powerless – that’s why she’s so compelled now to stand up to Trump – to grab back the power.
I just saw the new version of A Star Is Born. Whether it’s better than the previous version, divides the nation. Did she think Lady Gaga was channelling herself in some parts?
“I don’t know. Did she say anything about that? I haven’t seen it but I know they used the nose thing.”
The original movie, written by Joan Didion, made a reference to Streisand’s nose. At the time she was considered kooky looking, a prominent noise was not seen as a bonafide glamour-puss movie star nose. In the Gaga/Bradley Cooper version they overplay the nose with several references to Gaga’s nose and a lot of nose shots. At the time Streisand’s nose was considered not beautiful and she had to fight to keep it untouched in movies, on record covers and refused any nose jobs in real life. Gaga is not known for her nose but none the less the movie makes a big deal of it.
Streisand shrugs. “I haven’t seen the whole movie but I saw the beginning and it looked like mine. Bradley (Cooper) showed me that and the beginning started with the same concert and then singing in a little club.”
I note the new A Star Is Born has the same producer as her version – Jon Peters – her hairdresser who became her boyfriend and thereafter a big deal producer – with her help. Perhaps that’s why there are some of the same nuances. Because of the same producer.
“Well he was the one I gave the credit to.” Does she mean gave her power away to. “That’s right.” Because he was her boyfriend too?
“Because I wanted him to have respect on the set. He had good ideas. The first time I walked into his house he had crude burnt wood frames paired with lace curtains at the windows. He understood masculinity and femininity. He was complex. I liked that.”
I am sure she still likes Jon Peters although she does not like being reminded that she gave her power away to a man because she feared criticism for being overbearing.
It’s a complex thing, she likes strong men but not bowing down to them . She has the right balance with her husband of 20 years James Brolin
“My husband has the perfect forehead, the perfect jaw, the perfect teeth. Even when he makes me angry I still get a kick out of his symmetry”
She is also immensely loyal – she has had the same manager – Marty Erlichman for 52 years.
Someone else who works with her is waving their hands in a panic. “I have to get out. I have to go.” One more thing. “What?” she says suspiciously. A picture. Streisand has famously and repeatedly said no to impromptu pictures. She’s still afraid of a bad shot, of criticism? She says -she’s going to do it.
It takes bravery and a little bit of control. “I’ll do it but not with your phone. With mine so I can have power to delete.” She directs the way we’re sitting, tells the assistant with the phone, “you’re going down too low.” I move closer to her, so close I’m almost touching her but of course we’re not going to touch. I feel that’s making her uncomfortable.
Her hair sweeps long beyond her shoulders. It’s beigey blonde the colour of a lions mane. It even mingles with mine. I can smell her hair. It smells of roses, perhaps from her own garden. It’s a heady smell. She makes me promise that I won’t put the picture in the paper and before she goes I read her a message from my friend Nancy who grew up with a criticising mother, like Streisand’s, and wanted me to let her know, “She’s helped me throughout my life. She’s my secret mother. I love her. I love the way she sings with skill and abandon. I love what she’s doing today. It shows the spirit of women and it shows that I was right to love her. No one else is sticking their neck out politically and she’s on the right side of history.”
She’s taken the picture and she’s taken the compliment and she likes it very much that she’s on the right side of history.