Profile; Unfunny girl does it her way - for a cool $10m; Barbra Streisand

Gerald Kaufman on an uncompromising star who knows what she's worth
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The Independent Online
IN HIS scalpel-wielding anatomisation of Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) Goldman said of Barbra Streisand: "She doesn't choose to do television anymore ... she doesn't choose to play Vegas anymore."

That was in 1983. Now, Streisand has chosen to play Vegas again. On New Year's Eve, 1999. For $10m. For the one night.

With Streisand, it isn't only the money (though it certainly is the money, of which she possesses oodles, well over $120m or pounds 75m). It is the power to choose.

In her earliest days in show business, Streisand, now 56, was the chosen rather than the chooser. She also had the ability not to take herself seriously. She was inspired as a teenager to go on the stage after seeing, of all things, The Diary of Anne Frank. In 1962, aged 19, in a minor role in a worthy but dour Broadway musical called I Can Get It For You Wholesale, she stole the show with a comic number, "Miss Marmelstein."

In her biographical sleeve note on the original cast LP, which came at the bottom of the last column of text, Streisand discarded her Brooklyn origins with the declaration that she had been "born in Madagascar and raised in Rangoon". Even more iconoclastically, she disclaimed any connection with Actors' Studio, the most modish thespian institution of the day.

There were definite indications of a self-mocking sense of humour here. These indications soon vanished, never to reappear.

A couple of years later, hijacking the role from the Oscar-winning actress Anne Bancroft, Streisand scored a major success in the title role of Funny Girl, a showbiz musical about the Jewish entertainer Fanny Brice. At this time she was simply a one-hit Broadway star. Yet she had already decided that she mattered more than anyone else. In 1966, the Broadway and Hollywood director Joshua Logan threw a star-studded bash in Manhattan for Princess Margaret. Every guest was expected to do a party piece. Every guest complied; except one.

Logan recalled: "There was someone sitting in the back of the dining- room, spooning food into her mouth as fast as she could. It was Barbra Streisand. Several of us went over and asked if she'd sing, but she kept on eating and just shook her head. She didn't come there to sing, she said, she came to eat." She was 24 years old.

"A minor revolution broke out when the guests who had entertained learned about Barbra," said Logan; but then Streisand has been causing revolutions, minor and major, among showbusiness colleagues ever since she acquired the power to do so. In Funny Girl she sang, "I'm the greatest star". It was just a song in a show but she transferred it to real life.

Garson Kanin, who directed her in Funny Girl on Broadway, later wrote a novel, Smash, said to have been based on the production. In it the Streisand character tells the Kanin character: "Don't butter me up, buster, I'm not a piece of toast." During the filming of Hello, Dolly! a commentator reported: "She was said to be backseat driving director Gene Kelly out of his wits." Co-star Walter Matthau said of her: "I had no disagreements with Barbra Streisand. I was merely exasperated at her tendency to be a complete megalomaniac." Ryan O'Neal, one of the blond heartthrobs this "slightly cross-eyed" Jewish lady has commandeered as co-star and who worked with her on What's Up Doc? and The Main Event, said Streisand was the most pretentious woman the cinema had ever known.

An electrician working on a Streisand TV special sighed: "Give me Julie Andrews any day." Yet he got Streisand, because Streisand was what the public wanted; and certainly not because Streisand prostrated herself to win their affection. A Jewish girl with a big nose, she spurned the idea of a nose job. Judy Garland, with whom Streisand has been much compared, began life as Frances Gumm. Apart from the dropping of the second letter "a" from her first name, Streisand has never contemplated changing her very Jewish name. She has always confronted the producers and public on her own terms.

Garland was a waif. Imagine Streisand as a waif. Garland was a gay icon, needing the adoration of her fans. Streisand - though very pro-gay and an active supporter of Aids charities - is nobody's icon except her own; and nobody would dare to adore her.

With the exception of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, hardly any of Garland's screen partners were glamorous or even frontline stars. In her movies, Streisand has demanded and achieved the presence of some of the handsomest gentiles, preferably blond like O'Neal, to assert and emphasise her power in Hollywood. The apotheosis was Robert Redford, in their huge hit The Way We Were; though a critic said of her performance: "Were she to collide with a Mac truck, it is the truck that would drop dead."

Moreover, Streisand's range is way beyond that of any female entertainer, before or since. She conquered Broadway. She made hugely successful TV spectaculars. She captured the cover of Vogue. She was the top woman box-office star in Hollywood for years. She has sold millions of record albums. The upmarket Stephen Sondheim, who regards the words of his songs as sacrosanct, readily rewrote lyrics to suit Streisand's convenience.

Whereas Garland lay in a hospital bed waiting in vain for the Oscar for A Star is Born, Streisand won one for composing the music for just one song in her much-reviled (some people retitled it A Bore is Starred) but hugely successful rock remake of the film. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her first film, Funny Girl. That she shared the award with Katharine Hepburn made the victory even sweeter: the young Jewish newcomer from Brooklyn on a par with a 60-year-old grande dame of American acting. She also received a Broadway Tony award as "Actress of the Decade".

She believes she has been sexually discriminated against for not winning the Best Director Oscar for Prince of Tides or Yentl, in which she sang every song. Yet Streisand has gained not only huge sums of box-office cash from the customers but admiration from serious reviewers. Pauline Kael, the doyenne of American film critics, wrote: "The 'message' of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl is that talent is beauty.... Barbara Streisand is much more beautiful than 'pretty' people. The end of the movie ... makes one intensely, brilliantly aware of the Star as performer and of the Star's pride in herself as performer. The pride is justified."

And she has endured. Garland's period as a superstar lasted 10 years; she died in poverty and squalor at the age of 47. Streisand's dominance has lasted more than 30 years. Columbia commissioned a poll to find the nation's most popular star, and Streisand won; on the other hand she also topped another Columbia poll for the least popular star. Garland ended up scrabbling for roles. The film historian David Thomson has written: "Someone would have been ready to make The Godfather as The Godmother, if Barbra Streisand had said yes, and the songs were right."

Although, starting with her childhood in a broken home, her private life has been messy - two husbands, one divorce, one son, and a string of lovers (including Warren Beatty and Pierre Trudeau) - it has been a good deal less messy than that of, say, Elizabeth Taylor. And it is she who is in charge of it and will remain in charge of it. When she came to Britain for four concerts in 1994 (for which all 26,000 tickets sold out in hours), she demanded that Wembley Arena be fully carpeted because otherwise it would be too drafty.

A genuine left-winger, who was on President Nixon's Enemies List, she has consistently campaigned for liberal causes. She sang at Bill Clinton's inaugural gala and has supported him over the Lewinsky affair. Her contacts with Democratic presidents go back a long time. When President Kennedy invited her to the White House, her first words to him were: "You're a doll." She even claims to read the Economist.

Garland (as did Elvis Presley) died sitting on the lavatory. We can be sure that no such tawdry ending awaits Streisand. But, if it did, we can be sure that, as becomes a well-brought-up Jewish girl, the knickers around her ankles would be clean (and expensive).