Is it really over fifty years since I sat in a darkened cinema in Paris and found myself falling in love with the amazing talent that is Barbra Streisand? The movie was of course Funny Girl and, in the way that teenagers sometimes have of trying to swim against the tide, I had gone into the cinema determined not to like her. By the time she had finished singing I’m the Greatest Star I believed her. Her personality just burst out of the cinema screen and surely she has been the greatest star ever since and rightly now considered Hollywood royalty. Without doubt she is one of the few stars to whom the epithet living legend can be applied.
Born in 1942, Streisand’s rise to fame was positively meteoric. Still only 18, she started out singing at various nightclubs in Greenwich Village, and by the time of her final engagements at the Bon Soir in 1962, she already had amassed an enormous (mostly gay) following. Never one to stick to the rules, her set would be a mix of eclectic songs, ranging from Arlen’s A Sleepin’ Bee (often her unconventional opener) to her crazy version of Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf. She always considered herself an actress who sings, rather than the other way round, and in 1962 she made her Broadway debut in the musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale playing the minor role of Miss Marmelstein. Though the show flopped, she garnered great reviews, and around this time she was also signed to Columbia records, with whom she has remained ever since. Even back then Streisand, convinced she would be a star, was only going to be a star on her terms. Her recording contract, unbelievably for a newcomer, gave her complete artistic control over the material she recorded. Her first album gave her the first of her 15 Grammy awards!
Never conventionally pretty, most would have thought her destined for a career in character roles, but she knew that she was leading lady material. Though she was advised to fix her nose, to change her name, she never did, and the only concession she made was dropping the second ‘a’ from her name. Barbara became Barbra. She had a reputation for being difficult even back then, but, it is no doubt her uncompromising belief in herself, that propelled her to stardom. She knew she was different and she was determined to stay different.
In 1964 she appeared on Broadway as Fanny Brice in the musical Funny Girl, and the rest, as they say, is history. When the show became a movie, it was a foregone conclusion that Streisand would be its star, not often the case when a Broadway show becomes a movie. In between Broadway and Hollywood she had played Fanny Brice in the West End production of Funny Girl, made three TV specials, the first of which, My Name is Barbra, won five Emmy Awards, and even became a mother. (She had married her first husband, Elliott Gould, her co-star in “Wholesale”, in 1963). Inevitably, in 1969 she went on to win her first Oscar for Funny Girl. There was no stopping her.
With sales exceeding 150 million records worldwide, Streisand is one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), she is the highest-certified female artist in the United States, with 68.5 million certified album units
At the height of her fame, Streisand was the highest grossing female star in Hollywood and the only woman in the top ten box office attractions. Her co-stars have included some of the biggest heart throbs in Hollywood, amongst them Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, Ryan O’Neal and James Caan. She was also the first woman ever to produce, direct, script and star in her own movie. Never one to suffer fools gladly, she acquired a reputation for being difficult, a bitch and a ball breaker, though she would always aver that, if she were a man, she would simply have been called tough. A perfectionist, she would go over a scene a hundred times if she thought it wasn’t right, and this no doubt contributed to that reputation, though many of her leading men found her a joy to work with.
After Funny Girl she went on to play Dolly Levi in the hugely expensive Hollywood version of Hello Dolly. She was no doubt too young for the role, being uncomfortably matched with Walter Matthau, with whom she did not get on, but, seeing the film now, she is hilariously funny and touching as the meddling matchmaker. On A Clear Day You Can See Forever is, in my opinion, an underrated classic, and has she ever looked more beautful than she did in Cecile Beaton’s period Regency costimes?
Other highlights would include the zany Peter Bogdanovich comedy, What’s up, Doc? with Ryan O’Neal, the wonderful political romance The Way We Were with Robert Redford and of course her 1970s remake of A Star is Born with Kris Kristofferson, which were some of the highest grossing movues of the 1970s.
She and Elliott Gould split in 1971, and post her marriage, she was romantically linked with many high profile figures including the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, Don Jonson and Andre Agassi, before finally settling down with James Brolin, to whom she has been married for the past 24 years. Her unconventional looks never seemed a barrier to her attracting some very attractive men.
Stridently political, she is an outspoken supporter of equal civil rights, which include gay rights. In 2007 she helped raise funds in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Proposition 8 in California. She also has publicly raised $25 million for various organisations, both political and charitable, through her live performances. Her only son, Jason Gould, is gay and she very publicly supported him when he came out. They evidently enjoy a close relationship and, in her most recent tour, he appeared on stage with her, singing in duet.
To understand what made so many gay men respond to Streisand in her early years, you really have to listen to some of those early records. Her recording career roughly breaks down into three different periods. In the early stuff, up to around 1969, she sings mostly standard repertoire, songs you might have heard sung by Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Julie London, but still puts her own inimitable stamp on them. With the Richard Perry produced Stoney End in 1971, she started to sing more contemporary music (she was, after all, only 29), and this change of musical direction broadened her appeal even further. Her most successful album, Guilty was a collaboration with Barry Gibb of The BeeGees. In 1985, she returned to her Broadway roots with The Broadway Album, which was another massive hit. That said, it marked another change in direction and, in my opinion, none of her subsequent albums has had the impact of her earlier work. They seem to have settled into a more comfortable, middle of the road, easy listening bracket. Her early records may well have been usually found in the “Easy Listening” section of a record store, but listening to Streisand at that time wasn’t always that easy. She demands attention. The bitterness with which she spits out the lyrics to such songs as Free Again or Cry Me A River, the pain and heartache enshrined in her rendition of My Man, at the end of the movie of Funny Girl, the vocal sparring with Donna Summer in the disco hit No More Tears (Enough Is Enough), the way she belts out the Laura Nyro classic Stoney End; if you only know Streisand from the stuff she has recorded from the 1990s onwards, then you really need to listen to these classics.
You also need to see the film that made her a superstar, Funny Girl. When Streisand sings I’m The Greatest Star, falteringly at first, then growing in confidence, believe me, by the end of the song you will have no doubts. Streisand was, still is, and no doubt will be long after she has left us, the greatest star.