Barbra Streisand: Moving in a new direction

Barbra Streisand is known as a diva. But that might be because she knows what she wants and how to get it. In a rare interview at her home in California, she tells Richard Barber how love and gardening are her new preoccupations
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The Independent Online

She's been a global star for four decades. She's the only person to have won a Grammy, an Emmy, a Tony and an Oscar. The Movie Album, her 60th, is out on Columbia. For once, the word "icon" seems entirely appropriate when applied to Barbra Streisand. But then, so does the word "diva". Or that, at least, is the perceived wisdom.

Our interview is to take place beneath a sky of cerulean blue, in the garden of what is known as Grandma's House, one of many buildings scattered across Streisand's Malibu estate in California. As wooden structures go, they don't come much more down-home than this. There are real roses growing around the door of the single-storey building, its slats painted red and green and decorated with faux- naïf flowers. It is from here that Streisand conducts her business.

While waiting for the interview to begin, thoughts turn to the correct way to address a diva. Streisand married the actor James Brolin six years ago. Would it be best to address her as Mrs Brolin, or to go for broke with a simple "Babs"? This makes Barbra's people very nervous.

There has grown up around Barbra Streisand an irritating aura that invites a bit of pretension-pricking. The three-octave vocal range, the two-inch nails, that perfectly modulated hairdo that appeared able to move independently of the head on which it sat: here was a woman - an enormously gifted woman, true - who was overly in control of her own life and anyone who came into its orbit.

The pronunciation of the surname is a case in point. It's not "Stry-sund", with the accent on the first syllable, explains the panicky PR. It's "Stry-sand", the two syllables stressed equally. Little wonder that we British hacks have occasionally resorted to bouts of childish leg-pulling.

And then the door of Grandma's House is suddenly open, and there she is. A stumbling attempt to get the surname sounding something like it did in rehearsal is met with a gracious: "I'd prefer it if you called me Barbra."

It is the first of many surprises. At 61, Streisand looks somehow softer than in all those meticulously art-directed, airbrushed publicity shots. The hair is cut in a simple bob. The nails would have little trouble negotiating a computer keyboard. The famous hooter remains endearingly bumpy (and this is California, remember). The oversized lumberjack shirt is worn outside the plain blue trousers. But it's more than that. As she settles contentedly into the high-backed wicker chair, there might as well be a neon sign attached to the top of her head. Mimicking one of her most enduring hits, it would flash: "I am a woman in love."

For all her seamless success, personal happiness has been a bit more elusive. She has a son, Jason, from her famously tempestuous marriage to the actor Elliott Gould. And there have been many high-profile love affairs along the way: Andre Agassi, Ryan O'Neal, Don Johnson - all have been mentioned in dispatches.

She met Brolin (to be seen now on television in The West Wing) in 1996 when she was mixing the music for The Mirror Has Two Faces, the film she directed and in which she starred, alongside Jeff Bridges and Lauren Bacall. "That movie," says Streisand, "was a deliberate attempt to break the pattern of all those others - The Way We Were, Funny Girl, Funny Lady, The Prince of Tides - in which I never got the man."

She smiles. "Well, you know what they say? Fake it till you make it. And, as it turned out, that movie was almost a rehearsal for life. Because it's true: life can imitate art - something, deep in my psyche, I truly believed. But who'd ever have thought it?"

She had been in the habit of consulting an astrologer. "I kept being told that I was going to get married the next year. I thought, 'What do you mean? I haven't been married in years and years. And I haven't met anyone I've wanted to marry.' But the astrologer turned out to be right, because that's when I met Jim."

Brolin started coming to watch Streisand at work in the studio. "He loved the whole experience, and kept bringing me cups of tea. That's how the relationship bloomed. So the film laid the groundwork for my life. Now, I feel that, in some strange way, my getting married again came out of playing the woman in the movie who got the guy."

Choosing the tracks on this latest album suddenly looks less than accidental. "I can't sing anything if I don't share its sentiment," Streisand says. "And anyone who's ever been through a failed relationship, and then is lucky enough to find love again in their life, will appreciate the lyrics of 'The Second Time Around'. Love is lovelier the second time it calls. I know because, from the time I first met Jim, my life has been all about discovering the joy of finding love again, a real bonus at that stage, at that age."

Even so, why make yet another album? She arches an eyebrow. "Oh, I'll sing until my voice runs out or fails me in some way." What she's less keen on is doing it in public. "But I love to make records because it's just me and the orchestra. I don't have to get dressed up and wear high heels and fancy make-up. I'd never again do concerts the way I used to, 30 songs a night and walking around the stage. I didn't even have an opening act, it was just me. It was too much."

Then, in 2002, she sang for the Democrats, as she puts it. "I needed to raise money for them. I sat on a stool, I did nine songs - and it wasn't horrible." She has recently read of a pill that counteracts the stage fright, which has increased as she has grown older. "It stops the adrenalin rush, so that your heart doesn't beat so fast and your voice doesn't shake." All of which means that she might, just might, consider hitting the concert trail again, albeit strictly in non-stadium venues.

If she does, the UK would certainly be on her route map. "I love England," she says, and not just for my benefit. "The audiences are wonderful." Her The Essential... album topped the charts here last year. "I was totally surprised," says Streisand, before embarking on a paean of praise for all things British.

"There's such respect there, such discipline. The British believe in doing what they say they will do." She cites the fascinating example of a visit to a British health spa. "Everyone was so polite. If I asked a question about, say, the wallpaper, there'd be the name of who had bought it, who'd designed it and how much it had cost - and all within an hour. There's so much professionalism, efficiency, competence. I just love it. That's the way I like the world to be." And a modus operandi, you would have thought, more traditionally associated with the American work ethic.

Certainly, Streisand is no stranger to hard graft. "I've worked since I was 11 years old, making my own money to buy my own clothes and go to acting school and all that stuff." She remembers the time when she was standing in the doorway of her tiny apartment in New York, all but next door to where she took acting lessons. "I hated making my bed. And I thought, 'I've got to become successful in order to have someone else make my bed.'"

She's lived for many years now on America's West Coast but, for all her current contentment, she can't entirely eradicate the native Brooklyn sassiness, nor the unapologetic acknowledgement of her innate ability. Ask her if that young girl was somehow certain that she'd be able one day to afford a bed-maker - whether, indeed, she had any notion of the journey she was embarking upon - and she barely pauses. "You know, I kind of did. I can't tell you why I did, but I had an inkling. I read a book at the time by George Bernard Shaw, and there was a line in it that has stayed with me all my life - 'Thought transcends matter.' I've always seemed to get the things I really wanted."

What she originally wanted was to be an actress. "I was not having a happy childhood with my stepfather, so I'd escape by going to the movies. I'm still not sure whether I wanted to be the actress or the part she was playing; in other words, Vivien Leigh or Scarlett O'Hara. Probably a bit of both. These women, real or imagined, seemed to live such exciting lives."

She still remembers making the rounds as an aspiring actress and feeling utterly discouraged and humiliated by casting directors who insisted that they had to see her work. "I explained that they couldn't see what I was capable of doing unless they gave me a job." There was the audition, for example, to play a beatnik. "I looked the part, and I could have been a lousy actress, but that wouldn't have mattered because it was a non-speaking role."

But the vicious circle of having no experience proved intractable, and Streisand left the room muttering that they'd be sorry. By chance, she bumped into the same casting director a couple of months later in a shoe shop, the day after Streisand had appeared in her first television role. "I just couldn't deal with the silliness of it all." At one stage, she toyed with becoming a clothes designer or perhaps a milliner. Either way, she never did the rounds again.

As it happens, she didn't have to. Perversely enough, Streisand eventually broke into acting through winning a singing competition. She gravitated, first, to the Broadway stage, where her first-night performance in Funny Girl was rewarded by 23 curtain calls, and then came Hollywood. But by the time she reached LA, it is said, she had acquired that "big star" reputation. She sighs. "All I've ever wanted is to be the best I could be."

Moreover, there is, she thinks, a feminist issue at stake here. "If a man is a perfectionist, he's seen as commanding. In a woman, it's deemed demanding. He's assertive. She's a pain in the ass. It's not a level playing-field. Women are supposed to be quiet, to know their place. When Margaret Thatcher was your prime minister, I had the easiest time making Yentl in London. And I'm convinced that was because there was a powerful woman running the country." By the time she returned to the UK in the 1990s, when John Major was running the show, it was, she says, quite different. "It had reverted to being a boys' club."

The same would seem to be true in the United States. Discussing what might be her next film venture, she says that she's more likely to tackle whatever it turns out to be either as an actress or a director, but not both. "It would just be easier. I've been criticised too often for trying to do both at once." And she cannot help adding: "Not that I'm aware of Kevin Costner or Warren Beatty attracting similar comments."

What about 10 years from now? "It's a meaningless question. I can think about tomorrow, but not much beyond that. One day at a time: that's what I believe. But have as good a time each day as you possibly can. And always try to do something positive."

For example? "I have 1,200 species of rose on this estate. Gardening is another of my passions." Wednesday, I'd been told, is the day Streisand earmarks for gardening, but whether this involves trowel in hand and trug over arm was not made clear. "I'm always on the look-out for a new species. There is still beauty to be found," Barbra Streisand says, "in this chaotic, often ugly world." And with that, she returns to her business affairs in Grandma's House.

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