Oh, Barbra

You either love her or loathe her - there's no sitting on the fence with Barbra Streisand, says Mark Bostridge. Now, after an eight-year break, she's back on the big screen. Should we cheer her return? Or run for cover?
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The Independent Culture

Singing occupied a large part of my childhood. As a boy treble from the ages of eight to 14 I sang in the school madrigal group and the church choir. My voice was tested for Westminster and St Paul's choir schools, and an elderly gentleman from the Royal College of Music came to listen to the piercing sound of my top C which he found "interesting". I was coerced into performing at the weddings of family friends. My nerves were bad on these occasions and I remember one embarrassing solo recital of Handel's "Let the Bright Seraphim" when my faltering delivery failed to keep pace with the treacherous sliding scale of notes.

By 14, shortly before my voice broke, I had had enough. I resigned from the choirs and never publicly uttered a note again. If truth be told, I had only pursued singing half-heartedly under pressure from my parents. It seemed wholly divorced from the intellectual pursuits, which, rather priggishly, I now wanted to pursue.

But there was another reason too. It wasn't a coincidence that at about this time I began to listen to a different kind of music, far removed from the polished cadences of the Bach, Handel and Haydn with which I'd become familiar. This music exhibited a wide variety of forms - Tin Pan Alley and the Great American songbook, Broadway standards, gospel, soft rock, disco, and romantic ballads with lush string sections - all located in the output of one soaring voice: Barbra Streisand's. To put one's finger on what makes Streisand's voice in its prime so distinctive and special isn't difficult. It lies most obviously in her reading of a lyric, in the colloquial ease with which she utters confessional intimacies, in her taste for high drama, and in the thrilling musical reach of her voice as it leaps from the lower register to the bell-like clarity of its top notes.

In time, Streisand did try her hand at a little classical repertoire. Classical Barbra (the cringe-making original title of the album was Follow My Lieder) was released in 1976, with a glowing endorsement by Leonard Bernstein, though Streisand's versions of songs by Debussy, Handel, Carl Orff have a pale and timid quality, lacking the passionate involvement of her mainstream work, and only in the Faure does her interpretation really catch fire. Still, the record was eventually certified gold and for a crossover album remains a creditable effort. In the Bostridge family, Classical Barbra has an odd, almost cult status. My brother Ian, who has a distinguished career as a lieder singer, claims that "bizarrely" the first time he ever heard songs by Schumann and Wolf was in renditions by Barbra. I have always felt that this is something for which he can't quite forgive me.

"I'm a Streisand freak and make no bones about it," wrote the great classical pianist Glenn Gould in an article in which he called the Streisand voice "one of the natural wonders of the age," and stated that, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, "no vocalist has brought me greater pleasure or more insight into the interpreter's art." Sharing this particular brand of freakishness may bring mockery and disbelief in its tow. The Independent's theatre critic Paul Taylor has written of the embarrassment of his children at having a father who is a professed fan of such a gay icon (Streisand started her singing career in New York's gay clubs and has an enormous gay following. Once when asked why she appeals so strongly to homosexuals, she replied "I suppose because I'm different.")

But to love Streisand, who's 63 in April, is not necessarily to love every single aspect of her career, nor to resist criticising her. How could it be when, in the course of more than four decades in showbusiness, her horizons have proved so limitless? As Taylor notes, "she is, par excellence, living proof that you can't be truly prodigious without also being a touch preposterous." Singing was merely the preliminary to being accepted as an actress and from that point she set out to conquer the worlds of producing, directing, songwriting, film scoring. She has won Oscars, a Tony, Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, something called the Peabody Award. She has her own charitable foundation to help the environment and combat Aids.

She is a veteran supporter of the Democrats, having been on Nixon's list of political enemies and prominent as an FOB (Friend Of Bill's) when Clinton was elected to the White House. In 2004 she was the most widely vilified member of Hollywood's liberal elite, a result of being at the forefront of the film community's attacks on President Bush and the war in Iraq.

Streisand has always invited widely divergent responses, about her looks - she's been called one of the most beautiful women in the world as well as an ugly duckling - her talent, and her position as one of Hollywood's most powerful women in a traditional bastion of male dominance. In the 1970s - at a time when she was the top-grossing female at the box office with hits like The Way We Were and A Star is Born - a studio conducted a poll to find out who was the most popular film star. Streisand came top. At the same time, a poll was also taken to find out the name of the least popular star. Streisand topped that as well.

Earlier in her career, she could in many ways be her own worst enemy: appearing shy and insecure, sometimes arrogant or standoffish, and deeply suspicious (not without reason) of the press. Even today, diva-like pronouncements can give the impression that she has left the ordinary realities of life far behind, and invite an inevitable irreverent response. On the other hand, the only occasion that I have seen her in the flesh, at one of her sell-out concerts at Wembley in 1994, at the outset of her record-breaking concert tour (her first in over 25 years), she was appealingly self-deprecating, and showed both a touching fragility and genuine gratitude at the audience's overwhelming response.

But superstardom at this level - and Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor are perhaps the final major-league survivors of the old-fashioned studio system - needs careful nurturing and protection. Streisand seems to have coped with all the attendant problems extraordinarily well, helped no doubt in part by the fact that she has had the same manager, Martin Erlichman, for most of her career. She conquered her fear of singing in public a decade ago, and although she admits that her concern early on that she couldn't possibly match the expectations of the public forced her into therapy, she has never exhibited the slightest tendency to go down the slippery road of self-abuse like those other singing legends, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli or Diana Ross. (Streisand's only weakness has been compulsive shopping, though some of her collections, of Art Deco, for instance, have long since gone under the hammer in the sale rooms.)

But if her fans sometimes feel frustrated or disappointed by the choices Streisand has made in music or film, how must she feel about the limitations that commercial considerations have effectively placed on her acting career? There are those who believe that Streisand has never fulfilled her potential as an actress, or that Hollywood never allowed her to (John Huston, for one, thought she had been badly used, and that she would have made a much better Cleopatra than Elizabeth Taylor). Others argue that her reputation for being "difficult" has increasingly discouraged A-list directors from offering her parts in their films (though she had to turn down Woody Allen's offer of the role of the wife in Small Time Crooks in 2000 because of concert commitments). Having made only 17 films since her arrival in Hollywood in 1967, starting with her Oscar-winning debut in Funny Girl, and including the three she directed and starred in, Streisand now confesses that she rejected too many good roles down the years. The films she passed on include such classics as They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Klute (the parts in both of these eventually went to Jane Fonda), The Exorcist, and Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (though Streisand in the Ellen Burstyn role of the smalltime saloon singer hardly seems to fit).

However, when Streisand attempted to extend her range in 1972 in Up the Sandbox, the first film produced for her own production company, the public stayed away in droves. Yet in the part of Margaret Reynolds, the Manhattan housewife married to a Columbia lecturer, who tries to face up to her conflicting desires about female independence and being a good wife and mother, Streisand gave her most realistic and convincing performance. Pauline Kael, always one of Streisand's staunchest champions, argued that, as Margaret, the actress had a "blunt purity" that made her "the greatest camera subject on the contemporary American screen," and further claimed that Streisand was "a complete reason for going to a movie, as Garbo was."

On the weird nether world of the Streisand internet fansites it's possible to see the kind of obsessive star worship that she must tolerate. Everything gets discussed and paraded here: a countdown of the exact number of days, hours, minutes until the release of the new film or album, or anxious reports on the condition of Streisand's health after her recent operation to remove a benign polyp from her colon. Fans send in their wishlists: that Streisand record some Brazilian songs, for example, or that (God forbid) she stars in a remake of Mame.

In the unlikely event that Streisand actually ever reads them, she might want to call to mind Pauline Kael's remark that there is a danger for any female musical-comedy star that "she will begin to give her screaming fans what they want, not realising how much malice and how much bad taste are mixed in with their worship."

Barbra fans are happy at present because, after an eight-year absence, Streisand has returned to the screen in Meet the Fockers, the sequel to 2000's Meet the Parents. Streisand plays Roz Focker, wife to Dustin Hoffman's Bernie and mother of Ben Stiller's Gaylord Focker, who is a senior citizens' sex therapist (cue the scene in which Roz gives Robert De Niro a sexual massage and is accused by her son of "riding him like Seabiscuit"). Roz is only Streisand's second supporting role (the first was with Gene Hackman in the 1981 flop, All Night Long), and it's hard to see what it was about the film's infantile situations and crude humour that dragged her out of semi-retirement. However, since Christmas Meet the Fockers has grossed a massive $200m in the United States and has remained at number one for three consecutive weeks. Reviewers have been sniffy, but many have gone out of their way to praise Streisand for her comic timing and for her most relaxed performance in decades.

American critics - especially the male ones - have always preferred Streisand in comedies, like the screwball What's Up Doc?, where she appears unthreatening, and where her undoubted comedic talents place her in a tradition of great screen comediennes going back to Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert and Jean Arthur. There's no doubt, though, that Meet the Fockers will introduce Streisand to a younger generation of moviegoers previously unaware of her, and that its success might tempt her into future character roles where she doesn't have to carry the weight of the production.

Meet the Fockers' one inspiration may have been to cast Streisand with Dustin Hoffman. They go back a long way, to acting classes in New York at the beginning of the Sixties, but have never appeared together in a film (Hoffman was at one time going to star opposite Streisand in the 1987 courtroom drama Nuts, but the part of the lawyer subsequently went to Richard Dreyfuss). Hoffman has a clear memory of the first time he heard Streisand sing, at a talent contest at The Lion, a crummy bar on 9th Street. It was the summer of 1960, and Barbra Streisand - she had recently removed an "a" from Barbara - was 18. She was dressed, according to one biographer, "like a bird of paradise", with a hairpiece stuck on top of her head for extra height. As she waited for silence from the audience, she took the bubblegum she'd been chewing out of her mouth and stuck it under her seat. "It was quite provoking," recalled Hoffman, "and suddenly, out of this amiable ant-eater, came this magic."

Streisand and Hoffman became big Hollywood names - she as the Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice in the film of her Broadway hit Funny Girl, he in The Graduate - at the end of the Sixties when the American status quo was beginning to disintegrate; in their appearance and ethnicity, both presented a challenge to Wasp stereotypes. Streisand's prominent nose and large irregular features were an implicit riposte to the banal prettiness of other film actresses of the time ("Is a nose with deviations such a crime against the nation?", sings the mother in Funny Girl).

In her essay, "Brooklyn Nefertiti", Camille Paglia comments that "The Nose, which [Streisand] refused to change, was so defiantly ethnic. It was a truly revolutionary persona." (In fact, Streisand did briefly consider altering her nose by surgery early on, but was put off the idea when she was told that it might affect her voice.) Throughout her career, Streisand has worn her Jewishness like a badge of honour, in a way matched by no other major star or studio executive. The finale of the first half of Funny Girl celebrates this when Streisand sings one of her signature tunes, "Don't Rain on My Parade", as she sails triumphantly past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on a tugboat.

The roots of this pride lie inevitably in Streisand's Brooklyn upbringing, and in the figure of her father Emanuel, a high-school teacher with a Ph.D in Education from Columbia, who died in 1943 when she was just 15 months old. But it's there even further back in the story of Emanuel's father, a tailor called Isaac who emigrated in 1898 from a small shtetl in the village of Bryezany, Galicia, on the Austrian side of the Hungarian border, to New York's Lower East Side ghetto where he set up a fish stall. These threads - the dead father and the Jewish heritage - came together in Barbra Streisand's finest film, Yentl, based on the short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer about the young woman who, after her father's death, dresses as a man in order to study the Talmud.

In 1982, on location in Czechoslovakia and London, Streisand finally stepped before the cameras as star, director, co-producer, co-writer (with Jack Rosenthal) of Yentl, a richly conceived "film with music" (she was also the singer of all the film's songs, many of them presented in the form of interior monologues). It took her almost 15 years to bring this labour of love to the screen as she battled to convince studio heads that a woman could direct and that a tale of an Eastern European cross-dressing yeshiva student was commercially viable. Released in 1983, Yentl received many plaudits, not least for its direction (Steven Spielberg called it the most dynamic directorial debut since Orson Welles and Citizen Kane), and made a solid profit. But, testimony to her unpopularity in Hollywood, Streisand personally received no Oscar nomination in any category (nor would she receive a director's nomination for her 1991 film, The Prince of Tides, a decent though schlocky effort, even though it was nominated for Best Picture).

For a while now Streisand has been saying that she's working on her autobiography, though she also admits that her desire "to live in the present" has unhelpfully blocked out some memories from the past. Hers is a story that's rich in the components of the American dream, and Streisand has been embellishing and retelling it to interviewers for years. The fatherless child living in poverty in Brooklyn ("we weren't poor, we just never had anything"), the unsympathetic mother, Diana, who marries again, introducing a hostile stepfather into the household. Then, the astonishing rocket ascent to fame: a recording contract with Columbia Records, a hit show which makes her the toast of Broadway, and the move to Hollywood because, as Streisand said, "being a star is being a movie star". James Spada, an early chronicler of this extraordinary rise, saw it as the epitome of "the homely, awkward, lonely outsider with pent-up talent ... whose determination and faith in herself keep her going until she makes it to the pinnacle of success."

The real wonder remains, of course, her voice. In those first records, you can hear Streisand's yearning for an indefinable something, just as you can spot the dramatic flair which made her own definition of herself as an "actress who sings" beyond dispute (though Truman Capote, lyricist of an early Streisand standard, "A Sleepin' Bee", once complained that she turned every song into a three-act drama).

Since 1998, Barbra Streisand has been married to the actor James Brolin (her marriage to Elliott Gould, by whom she has a son, Jason, now 38, ended in 1971). After years of flings with a long list of eligible suitors including Pierre Trudeau, Omar Sharif, Warren Beatty, Richard Gere, and Andre Agassi - and a tempestuous live-in relationship with hairdresser-turned-film producer Jon Peters - Streisand has announced that she has at last found true contentment and happiness with Brolin, who's best known as one of the leads in the American TV series, Marcus Welby MD.

Meanwhile, the old career drive has diminished. She would still like to direct a movie in which she doesn't have to act, though the project she felt most passionately about, a film of Larry Kramer's Aids drama, The Normal Heart, foundered a while back. After singing last year in support of John Kerry's campaign, she has also talked of a return to the concert stage, though not in any major production, "just a stool and a microphone". And there are also plans afoot for her next album, her 61st, which will reunite Streisand with Barry Gibb, producer of her 1980 record Guilty. This was Streisand's biggest selling record to date, and perhaps, with all the interest generated by Meet the Fockers, the sequel is set to duplicate its success.

But most of all, Barbra Streisand likes nothing better now than to relax. From her recent comments about how sex improves with age and how she and Brolin spend every Saturday in bed, it may be that there's a lot more of Roz Focker to Streisand than meets the eye.

'Meet the Fockers' is out on 28 January


'It was difficult being into the Sex Pistols and Streisand - but I managed'

Simmy Richman

Remember that bit in The Blues Brothers where the band turns up to a cowboy bar and the owner informs them that his clientele likes both kinds of music: country and western? It's a scene that reminds me of growing up in north-west London in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, pretty much anyone of a certain age who owned records would be guaranteed to possess albums by two singers:Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand.

This was our parents' generation, you understand. We were into everything, from prog to proto-punk, and we'd scoff at Diamond and Streisand as the kitschy cabaret acts we believed them to be.

But then, just as the Pistols/Grundy fiasco was about to burst into our living-room that fateful teatime, something unbelievable happened. Through the girl next door (who looked very much like Barbra) I fell in love with the soundtrack to A Star is Born.

That her voice, with its glass-shattering clarity, could also be as raunchy as Kris Kristofferson's, was a rock revelation to me. As I (secretly) investigated Streisand's back catalogue, I discovered what the older generation had always known: this woman has stop-you-in-your-tracks, God-given talent.

That she has often squandered this talent or warbled it into Whitney territory, is not in question. The point is that you don't judge, say, the Rolling Stones, by the sad act that takes to the stage today. Neither should we judge Barb by the cabaret icon she has undoubtedly become.

This is the top-selling female artist in history with 60-million record sales in the US alone. And if you want to know why, listen to those first few albums or the Star is Born soundtrack. As Barbra herself might say: remember her for the way she was.

'You're forced to listen to her songs in a state of submission - I loathe that'

Nick Coleman

I'll give her this much: with Barbra you never lose the song. Look over there, there it is - Good Lord! - unmissable as a multi-storey carpark or suspension bridge or football stadium in the alleys of the brain, technically marvellous and bright and hard as modern materials will allow: a construction to take the breath away. No wonder songwriters want desperately to get the Barbra treatment. Barbra makes songs into edifices.

But I loathe her singing. I'm made to feel slightly ill by it, much in the way that great heights make me queasy, and hard, shiny surfaces that don't modulate make me want to have a little sit-down in a meadow. Does that make me a weak person? Possibly. But I can live with it because I do not believe that the primary job of music is to make listeners feel like little people, awed by the perfection of its musicianly execution, diminished in the glare of the musician's selfhood.

Compare Streisand to another singer who never loses the song: Ella Fitzgerald. Now, her phrasing is no less controlled than Barbra's, her tone no less phosphorescent, and there are many adjectives you'd use to describe her vocal presence before you got to "warm". But Ella has a sense of proportion, a sense of outreach. She brings the song to you. She makes you an offer, not a deal. And, of course, she swings. Her "Songbook" explorations of the works of the great 20th-century writers (Porter, Gershwin etc) are exemplary not only because her interpretations are subtle, intimate, articulate and clear as mountain air, but also because she puts herself at the service of both the song and the listener.

You don't get that with Babs. Streisand is a big building, which a song, if she's to sing it, has to fill to its highest corners and which you have to enter humbly and in a state of submission, having first wiped your feet. Me, I'll stay outside and take the air, thanks.