Barbra Streisand: A star is reborn

Dustin Hoffman has been boasting of his success in getting Barbra Streisand's juices flowing before shooting saucy bits together as a bohemian married couple in the new comedy film,
Meet the Fockers, the highly lucrative sequel to
Meet the Parents. He resorted to straightforward flattery, commending her on the splendour of her boobs. "I whispered to Barbra, 'I love your breasts. They look great today.'" It worked, he says, because Streisand "loves her breasts". Meanwhile, he has been spilling the beans on something she told him on set - that she and her husband of six years, the actor James Brolin, enjoy sex six times a week. (Hoffman, 67, is apparently satisfied with just once.) It's a good thing it is Hoffman pulling these tricks, because only a star almost as big as Streisand could get away with it.

Dustin Hoffman has been boasting of his success in getting Barbra Streisand's juices flowing before shooting saucy bits together as a bohemian married couple in the new comedy film, Meet the Fockers, the highly lucrative sequel to Meet the Parents. He resorted to straightforward flattery, commending her on the splendour of her boobs. "I whispered to Barbra, 'I love your breasts. They look great today.'" It worked, he says, because Streisand "loves her breasts". Meanwhile, he has been spilling the beans on something she told him on set - that she and her husband of six years, the actor James Brolin, enjoy sex six times a week. (Hoffman, 67, is apparently satisfied with just once.) It's a good thing it is Hoffman pulling these tricks, because only a star almost as big as Streisand could get away with it.

In fact, almost no one in Hollywood gets even close to the 62-year-old actress and singer for sheer celebrity power. There are the 70 million records she has sold over four decades, the bookcases of trophies, including two Oscars and assorted Grammy, Tony and Emmy awards, and the sheaves of films she has either starred in, produced, directed or all three. Add to all that her political passion - loved Bill Clinton, abhors George Bush - and her well-known diva disposition (only photographs showing her left profile may be published) and you have the quintessence of a modern entertainment icon.

It is no wonder that her almost slapstick role as an ageing sex therapist in the Meet the Fockers, which broke Christmas holiday records in the United States in spite of a lukewarm critical reception, has attracted so much attention, never mind the indiscretions of Hoffman. The film, which stars Ben Stiller as the hapless Gaylord Focker, and Robert De Niro as his uptight future father-in-law, is her first celluloid appearance in eight years. Instantly, everyone wondered: are we witnessing an autumnal resurgence of La Streisand?

After all, we also know that Barry Gibb, formerly of the Bee Gees, is right now writing songs for a new Streisand album. Everything seems to point to another decade of intense work for someone who over the years has never hidden her need to achieve. And when a film draws as many fans as Meet the Fockers already has, it is hard to imagine any performer, even one in her 60s, not getting the taste for more of the same. Babs, you can hear them cry from the stalls, is back!

That remains to be seen. Even icons change and Streisand herself seems anxious for her fans not to get their hopes up. The girl who would have done anything in the early 1960s to escape the traumas of her Brooklyn childhood and get her name in lights, the young woman who happily drove her early co-stars and directors into states of virtual nervous breakdown with her argumentative outbursts and inability to show up anywhere on time (no wonder she loved Clinton) and the one-time siren whose first marriage was to Elliott Gould and who romanced a Canadian former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, has apparently mellowed.

In the few public appearances she has made promoting the new film, she has made it plain that the limelight has become almost distasteful to her. And certainly too much effort. She would rather be hanging out in her Malibu home with Mr Brolin, painting and gardening and designing her clothes. In a press conference with foreign journalists in Hollywood recently she spoke with more enthusiasm about matching her flowers outside with her fabrics inside than about acting. And forget about Saturdays - that is the day of the week when James and Barbra don't even get up. Well, they get up, but they don't get dressed.

"I don't have the same kind of drive I used to," she explained. "It's because I'm in a good marriage. When I was in between relationships, I had to work so that it was almost a sublimation for love. Now I'm happy and contented which is why I've made very few movies. I'm a homebody. I stay in my home. I'm currently designing a house, which to me is like doing a movie. It has taken me five years already, working on every detail."

That drive was spawned in part by the troubles of her early years. Streisand was born in Brooklyn on 24 April 1942 to blue-collar Jewish parents Diana and Emanuel Streisand, a teacher. When she was just 15 months old, she lost her father to complications from epilepsy. He left the family penniless and living in the home of Diana's parents. Seven years later, her mother remarried and had another child, Barbra's stepsister, Roslyn. Barbra, it seems, resented the presence in her home of the stepfather, Leo Kind, and of Roslyn. Escaping the apartment to sing to herself on the stoop and on landings of the apartment building, she caught a virulent bug - a dream that one day she would run away from it all and become famous.

She has described her mother as someone who gave little encouragement to her show business aspirations and, in fact, provided scant parental guidance of any kind. "Emotionally, my mother left me the same time as my father," she once remarked. The absence of maternal discipline may have left a mark. "My husband sometimes says I'm like a wild child because I didn't learn things and I wasn't taught manners," she confessed in her Hollywood press conference. "When I was a child, we never ate around a dinner table together or had conversations. I never had rules or regulations and I didn't have to be home at a certain time. I remember teaching my mother how to smoke when I was 10."

The legend is that, aged just 18, the headstrong Streisand won a talent contest at the now-defunct Lion Inn in Greenwich Village and never looked back. It was then that the "a" in her birth name - Barbara - was discarded, almost as a gesture of leaving her family behind. A national tour of small clubs was followed by a recording contract with Columbia Records, each album more successful than the one before. And soon she was acting, appearing first in a not very successful Broadway musical in 1962 called I Can Get It for You Wholesale. In an early example of her sometimes wayward demands, Streisand insisted that her programme biography listed her as having been born in Rangoon and raised in Madagascar, for exoticism's sake. The management objected to the bold-faced lie, but eventually let her get away with it.

The musical closed within months, but audiences went crazy over Streisand. Indeed, she managed to eclipse the leading man, Elliott Gould. But he didn't seem to mind too much - they fell in love and were married by the spring of 1963. Their marriage lasted only until 1971, but they had one son, Jason Gould, who was later to co-star in one of the films she directed and starred in, The Prince of Tides (1991).

Two years after her Wholesale romp, Streisand was cast in the wildly successful Funny Girl, which again saw her winning rapturous reviews. "Barbra Streisand sets an entire theatre ablaze," gushed The New York Times. "She is the new girl of the theatre season." Funny Girl was then transferred to celluloid, giving Streisand her first big film break. Even though it was her first film, it won her an Oscar. After that, aged just 27, Streisand won the lead role in the film version of Hello, Dolly!, alongside the already veteran star, Walter Matthau. Evidently, the two did not get on. "I found it a most unpleasant picture to work on and, since most of my scenes were with her, most distasteful," Matthau recalled later.

Difficult though she may have been, there was no stopping Streisand's growing fame. Over the following years her film repertoire grew to include the hugely popular What's Up, Doc? with Ryan O'Neal and the romantic drama The Way We Were with Robert Redford. By the mid-1970s, she had formed her own company and was producing and directing also, beginning with the 1976 romantic weepie A Star Is Born, which she produced, and, in 1983, the epic Yentl when Streisand was in the director's chair. She had produced and directed most of her films since, including the most recent until now, 1996's The Mirror Has Two Faces with Lauren Bacall and Jeff Bridges.

And all along, her singing career has never flagged: she has achieved a number one album in each of the past four decades. Streisand remains the highest selling female recording artist ever. That partly explains how her fame, in spite of her becoming a virtual recluse over much of the past decade, remains undiminished.

In recent years, however, part of what has kept her in the spotlight has been her political views. A frequent visitor to the White House during the Clinton years, she is a fervent Democrat, who last June made a rare concert appearance in Los Angeles for a benefit for Democrat presidential runner John Kerry, raising $5m for his campaign. When conservatives talk disparagingly about liberal bias in Hollywood, one name they surely have in their minds is Streisand's.

Uncompromising in her political tastes, she again emphasised her distaste for the sitting president earlier this month. "What about the lies of this administration about the Iraq war?" she asked. "Lies, lies and more lies. To me, that's high crimes and misdemeanours, leading people into war unnecessarily. Why doesn't Bush step down?"

Fans hoping that Meet the Fockers will mark a new run of Streisand films should know that she claims not to have enjoyed making the film at all. "It was not fun," she flatly told the Hollywood journalists. "Fun for me is not getting up at 5am, being made up, putting on a wig and working in the heat. No, it's not fun. The days I didn't have to be there were fun."

As for what Hoffman tells us about her apparently rapacious sex life, Streisand insists she is not quite like the character in the film. (There is one scene of a daytime romp with Hoffman half naked and smothered in whipped cream.) "I am more priggish and more prudish," she said, but added about her and husband: "We both have an appreciation of love and sex at the later stages of life. We believe that it doesn't have to die and people can have fun and be free and really enjoy life and sex in our later years." So now we know.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 24 April 1942 in Brooklyn, New York. Daughter of Diana and Emanuel Streisand.

Family: Was married to the actor Elliott Gould 1963-1971; one son, Jason, born 1966, also an actor. Has been married to the actor James Brolin since 1998.

Education: Beis Yakov School, and Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn.

Career: Started singing in New York nightclubs in the early 1960s. Broadway debut in 1962 in I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Debut album in 1963 won her two Grammys. In 1964, she starred in Funny Girl on Broadway. In 1968, the film version won her an Oscar for Best Actress. Also starred in Hello, Dolly! (1969), and A Star Is Born (1976), the theme song for which ("Evergreen") she co-wrote and won an Oscar. Directed and starred in Yentl (1983), The Prince of Tides (1991) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).

She says...: "Not only is he poisoning our air and water - he's poisoning our political system as well." - on George W Bush

They say...: "She is a great artist, period. I'm telling you, when you're working next to her, you are working with someone you only see every 100 years, or 150 years." - Dustin Hoffman

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