Who is Barbra Streisand?
Streisand’s distinctive appearance, her personality and her skill have been a fascination and an inspiration for me for over 45 years. This article describes the most important stations of an evenly unusual and glamorous career and may succeed in explaining my respect for her, but also the joy that this actress has brought into my life.
“Talent is Beauty” or: Who is Barbra Streisand?
Summer, 1960, New York: Barbara is eighteen. She is standing on the stage of a small club called “The Lion” and starts to sing faint-heartedly. And when her voice starts to gather power and ferventness, slowly the gateways to the world of success, wealth and appreciation open for her.
Barbra Streisand 2004: Her charismatic singing, flawless from the faintest nuances to the glorious augmentation, lends individual beauty to melody and words of each song. After 40 years of constant usage, voice and singing of Streisand are still unique. Especially in the last ten years through the preference of the great Broadway ballads she cultivated Belcanto singing more than ever before. And one will find it difficult to surpass the words of Stephen Sondheim with which he reasoned the handing over of the “Grammy Legend Award” to Barbra Streisand: “She is the joy of every composer whose dream it is that his song is performed better in reality than it is performed in his own fantasy.” In this way, the name Barbra Streisand manifested itself in the entertainment industry over the years as a synonym for vocal arts.
It is apparent that she was rewarded well for her long presence in showbiz and movies. A stunning list of awards and tributes lends her career the air of an exclusive awards show. In addition, there are her fans who are at her feet. With devotion, you could almost say with resignedness, she is loved and adored by millions of fans from all over the world. Maybe, part of the explanation is that Streisand up to this day continues to produce such great artistic results which were not quite to be expected in spite of the exuberant praise she received during her starting years. What is more, and this is crucial, through her fascinating artist personality she has been satisfying a so-called aspiration of identification on part of her fans for many years. The person Streisand is very close to the fan, because what goes beyond mere recognition is the elementary importance of the own emotional world of the fan in relation to the beloved star. That’s why not journalists, but the fans help to elevate their favourite performers to the ranks of Movie Goddesses, myths and legends. Examples are Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Sinatra, Elvis or Barbra Streisand, too.
Her achievements as a singer and actress, her work as a director, producer, composer and screenwriter made her one of the most constant and artistically most diverse icons of the entertainment industry. Barbara Joan Streisand was born on April 24th, 1942 in Brooklyn. As she said herself, she was confident in becoming a star once since her early childhood years. Primarily, though, she thinks of the personification of dramatic woman characters on the stage and in the movies. The great actress Sarah Bernard in her tragic roles is her exemplar. The circumstance that she has a very good singing voice appears to be rather normal to her and is given no special attention. As early as 1957 she was acting tiny roles in stage plays that often didn’t lift the curtains for a second time after the first night.
She learns of a singing contest and at the young age of eighteen she performs at the New York gay club “The Lion” on the evening of 6th June, 1960. Her memorable looks is very individualistic, just to avoid saying “flashy”, nonetheless entirely “natural”. “A Sleepin’ Bee”, the song she performs is unusual as well. It was composed by Harold Arlen who had already immortalised Judy Garland with the classic “Over The Rainbow”. Arlen is to become one of Streisand’s favourite composers. On the back cover of Streisand’s first solo album (1963) he envisions a “smashing” future for Barbra with enthusiastic words. The text of “A Sleepin’ Bee” stems from the gay enfant terrible Truman Capote who some time later commented somewhat impressed on Barbra: She is one of the true phenomena of our time”
Eighteen year old Barbra stands on the small stage right next to the pianist with a strange mixture of defiant self-confidence and fear. Intuitively, she notices the scepticism or even the derisive rejection on part of the lurking guests. She does not contemplate about it. She knows she just got to sing this song. And she knows that all she got to do is open her mouth and the voice will take control over her. And she knows something else: There is only she, she alone, just HERSELF. And when she is in the middle of the song, when she whispers and cries this overwhelming youthful longing into the room she senses a feeling of power. The audience in the shaded room has gotten silent. The people are listening to HER. She senses this indefinite pact of identification, which she can control by the power of her performance. Barbra does not have a message for the people yet, but she has almost everyone in the room filled with that almost personified longing, with that appetite for everything and thereby she has compelled the audience to total attention.
When Barbra finishes her song the audience of the “Lion” is electrified. The audience grasps that it has just attended a “moment of truth”. Barbra had performed her song so brilliantly and lived so intensely through the story of the song that the whole performance had become an astonishing mini-drama. In these few minutes she laid the foundation stone of what she pushed as “her trademark” undeviating, masterfully and also obtrusively-ambitious later on. Obtrusively, because she repeats it constantly, albeit with intelligent variation. For she has impressed generations with it to this day: Concentrated intensity, great vocal range, authentic performance and energy, by all means a bit of emotional kitsch and, thankfully, last but not least a big portion of self-reflexive ironical humour.
On this evening, she wins the first price – which was in a retrospective very symptomatic for her talent: For she won the “Grammy” for her first album, the “Emmy” for her first TV-special, the “Oscar” for her first film appearance and the “Golden Globe” for her debut as a director (Yentl).
Barbra Streisand reached the highest heights of the entertainment genre in a stunning speed. She is the “new sensation”. In 1962, she signs a record deal with “Columbia”, America’s most important label, by which her records are released till this day. The record deal with Columbia is spectacular: The 20 year old newcomer claims all rights and artistic decisions for the recordings for herself and even gets them! After three solo albums she starts to play the role of the legendary US comedian Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical “Funny Girl” in 1964. The role became her second identity and all reviews were overwhelming. The “New York Times” writes: “While other stars only illuminate their time Streisand sets alight the whole theatrical world”. Her portrait appears on the covers of world-famous magazines like “Time”, “Newsweek”, “Life” or “Vogue”. The Streisand-look with exorbitant eye make-up gets known as “proto Cleopatrá”. Thousands of young US women copy that style.
Streisand’s success becomes world-wide when in 1968 the film realisation of “Funny Girl” comes to the movies. Despite some sensational scenes (for example “Don’t rain on my parade”), the movie was just a bit above average. Antiquated-imitated staging of popular Cinderella stories were numerous at the Broadway or in the movies. But not in THIS form: Barbra’s performance was congenial and made the film itself secondary. How she represented “Fanny Brice”, how she furiously performed the songs of Jule Styne were her unmistakable Streisand attributes henceforth! It became clear in the movie “Funny Girl” that her vaunted stage presence would become even greater on the screen. And it was only now through the close-ups of the “unerring eye of the camera” that the glaring intensity of the Streisand-face became obvious. Now everyone had an idea of who Barbra Streisand was. A sudden encounter with an almost hypnotic indigenous authenticity. It was the hour of birth of the Streisand-fans!
Obviously, her first movie role is a stroke of luck. She is able to pull out all the stops of her talent: Dramatic art, comedy, intensity and the magic of her voice of course. Streisand, the “movie star”, who always brings up her unconventional appearance herself and whose big nose and squint and other shortcomings are all to avidly picked up by the press, received a splendid review by Pauline Kael. The most renown of all US-movie critics wrote on the new “movie star” Streisand:
“In “Funny Girl” we can grasp the message through Barbra Streisand that talent is beauty.”
A wonderful and all encompassing sentence about Streisand’s talent and charisma. This first decade of Streisand’s career is stamped by restless energy. She takes the almost improper hymns of praise as committing. Where there is so much praise, there is also grudge and gradually also massive criticism that purports that EVERYTHING done by Streisand would end in an “egotrip”. This was the ungracious and oversimplified catchword which should henceforth accompany her whole career. Streisand about reviews: “Of all reviews I only remember the bad ones…” It does not wonder that she developed slightly neurotic behaviour patterns and engaged in psychology and psychotherapy henceforth. Barbra should have listened to Marlene Dietrich who said about the matter: “If you want to stay a normal person, just don’t read any reviews!”
But Barbra Streisand with all her talents neither was nor is a “normal” person. She feels the urge to prove herself and engages in work like a maniac. That’s why she produced 23 LPs, 40 singles, 4 TV specials and 6 feature films in the first ten years of her career – and much of that stays first rate to this day. In addition, there are countless live performances in concerts and TV. Approximately 60000 people were expected to attend the free Streisand concert “A Happening in Central Park”. Instead 135000 people came! This, too, helps to make clear the magnitude of her popularity and esteem.
In the early seventies, when she was an integral part of the “establishment” like Sinatra and other comparable entertainers already, she displays another, more modern musical part of herself. On several pop albums she performs songs of contemporary songwriters and musicians like Bowie, Lennon, Laura Nyro, Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, The Beatles and The Bee Gees. “Stoney End” is Barbra’s first rock single (1970) and greatest success chart-wise since “People” (1964). Barbra is also among the first to test the concept of pop duets, which proves to be very successful. By means of duet singles with Donna Summer, Neil Diamond or The Bee Gees her popularity rises markedly.
Glenn Gould writes in his thorough review of the album: “I am a freak for Streisand and don’t make a secret of it. With the exception of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf no songstress has delighted me more or given me more insight into the art of interpretation.”
Streisand’s most important milestone of her career to this day has been the movie “Yentl”. Her most energetic project and the one with most personal commitment was presented in America in the winter of 1983. After all movie companies had rejected the cinematic realisation of Isaac B. Singers’ unusual story Barbra overcame all fears and directed herself for the first time, wrote the script together with Jack Rosenthal, produced the film, played the leading part and sang all of the film songs. The avid aspiration to realise Yentl wasn’t an egocentric show of strength of Barbra, but the realisation of a long fostered and deep desire of the heart. She dedicated the movie with love and memento to her father. He died when she was only fifteen months old and Barbra, who still frequently talks about that in interviews, can hardly accept the loss till this day.
In 1996, she made her sixteenth movie and for the time being her last one, but with the two movies “Funny Girl” and “Yentl” Barbra reached the greatest identification and homogeneity of all her appearances in movies. “Yentl” wouldn’t end in a disaster like movie moguls had thought, but instead became an artistic as well as a commercial success. Although “Yentl” earned only one music Oscar for “Best Film Score” and missed the other important categories, the movie won two Golden Globes: One for “Best Director” and the other one for “Best Motion Picture” (Comedy or Musical). Greatest respect is due to Michel LeGrand and the authors Alan and Marilyn Bergman for their splendid score. Every song is conceived as an “inner monologue” of Yentl and accompanies in a very empathetic way, text, harmony and mood of the respective scenes of the movie.
Barbra interprets these romantic, completely “un-American” melodies with all possibilities of her artistic expression and enchants the viewers through their own unconfined empathy. The most popular song of the movie “Papa, Can You Hear Me” became not only a popular Streisand song, but developed to be a classic with the years that was added to the repertoires of interprets as diverse as Jessey Norman and Nina Simone as well as many others. For Barbra herself the “Yentl-recordings” became a special highlight within her musical work just like her Broadway album from 1985.
In September 1986, she reappeared on stage for a single evening after a long hiatus. But she gave this special tribute concert “One Voice” not on a public stage, but in her private park of her estate in Malibu. She invited many VIPs from film, culture and politics and the invitation was transmitted by an audio cassette on which she spoke herself. The admission was $5000 per couple. On April 26th, the nuclear catastrophe had happened in Tschernobyl and Streisand decided to give the concert in order to raise her voice publicly. In this first live performance after many years, she sang her most popular songs, but furthermore she repeatedly addressed the audience with private assessments on environment, racism and wars. These political statements made it clear that Barbra is against nuclear power plants engulfing the whole world, armaments industry and nuclear missiles.
This evening yielded 1,5 million dollars. In this very moment, the Barbra Streisand foundation was born. Since that day the foundation has been donating millions of dollars to welfare organisations, environmental concerns, antinuclear activities, human rights, cancer and aids research. This foundation does not advertise Barbra Streisand. Barbra works continuously in the background rather. Yet, on elections Streisand repeatedly and unmistakably does “advertising” with songs and words for her stance as a liberal American who will always support the Democratic Party of the USA
One year after that, Barbra plays the role of the call-girl Claudia Draper in Martin Ritt’s court drama “Nuts”. With unkempt hair and wearing a prison smock for the most part of the movie, she especially shines in the last scenes of the film. In a desperate final speech she practically adopts her own defence. This performance is the most dramatic one that Barbra had ever shown on screen. In her best moments you feel reminiscent of the intensity of the legendary italian actress Anna Magnani. As a bold fighter for her rights she even impressed the famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer so much that Schwarzer had a scenic photo of Streisand as cover of “Emma” magazine and did a review of the film on several pages.
The nineties were once more a very active decade of Streisand’s work. In 1991, she releases a work exhibition on three decades of her musical career on four sound storage mediums. Along with that comes a booklet of 96 pages in large format that naturally is like a banquet for her fans. She directed two movies in which he also starred. Her production company „Barwood“ realised more ambitious projects for TV than Streisand movies for cinemas and gained numerous awards. Barbra made two concert tours which were instantly sold out despite the highest ticket prices that were paid for a single artist ever. Two out of numerous new CDs reach the top of the billboard charts instantly. Barbra Streisand is soon to be in her late fifties, a so-called veteran performer, but still each album (there are 60 now!) attains “gold” or “platinum” status.
In the nineties, she becomes more active in politics and she repeatedly performs on electoral events of the Democrats. In 1992, she is awarded the “Commitment to Life Award” by the “AIDS Project Los Angeles”. In 1995, she gives a well attended speech on the topic “The artist as a citizen” at Harvard University. In the same year, she received her “doctor honoris causa”.
In 1998, she marries fellow actor James Brolin and bids farewell to live performances with her last and enthusiastically received “Timeless” concerts. She reports having spent so much time of her life with her career that now the time would have come to realise other aspects of life and to spend some time with her family instead.
Barbra Streisand did not do another movie after her last one in 1996 “The Mirror Has Two Faces”. I think that after forty years of this incomparable career the sixty-two years old artist would even have deserved doing nothing at all anymore. Naturally, the fans are longing for a new movie or her autobiography. She released many CDs in recent years and she will certainly continue with that for some years to come. And some critics will undoubtedly continue trying to stigmatise Streisand’s Belcanto singing as kitsch. Barbra’s deep sentiment in her expression, her measured melodious sound with which she almost moulds the notes, or the orgiastic dramatising so typical of Streisand seem to be too antique or obsolete for many critics today. One could go on without mentioning these one-sided, oversimplified assessments, but I deem it important to make mention especially of these ones.
Because contrary to that it is interesting, important and enjoyable that Barbra Streisand gets greatest laud from the musical specialists themselves. Musicians like Glenn Gould or Leonard Bernstein, interprets like Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Whitney Houston and many other vocalists repeatedly mentioned their greatest appreciation for Streisand’s incomparable artistic skills. In this respect it should be possible and helpful to quote some comments from other great vocalists: Ray Charles, who worked with her in 1973, remarked: “Barbra Streisand is fantastic. I heard her sing things behind the stage – funky, nasty, swinging things – which she never would have recorded on LP. I wish she would.” Years later he emphasized again: “She is the greatest white songstress! She doesn’t sing mere notes. She SINGS emotions.”
Another jazz legend, Carmen MacRae on Streisand: “One of the most fantastic singers to come along in years. I like this kind of singer because she’s trying to tell you something. If you don't get the message, you're a complete idiot. And she has musicianly quality and sings ‘IN TUNE’: pure, well adjusted – in harmony. Let us not forget to include that!” The most amusing praise of Barbra Streisand does not originate from a vocalist. Bette Davis said in 1966 after a live performance of Streisand: „I have fallen in love with Miss Barbra Streisand. I just sat there with my mouth open!“
Awards and successes in the charts aside, Streisand matches all important criteria of an excellent artistic personality: Self-reliance, quality, creativity and steadiness for over forty years. This way small Barbra from Brooklyn became a permanent American event. She became BARBRA, “The Living Legend”.
And in another fashion than Madonna, only due to the ongoing quality of her work, she is a megastar of many generations to date. If you look at Barbra Streisand’s oeuvre you can even justify: She is among the most fortunate musical discoveries of the last sixty years. A phenomenon like “Streisand” will hardly happen again.
In fall 2003, Barbra Streisand released an album with movie melodies which had been announced long since by her. “The Movie Album” attained platinum status in the USA, but sparked controversies within her fan community and evidently became the most polarising album of her career.
In 2004, Barbra surprisingly returned to screen. Alongside such top-class fellow actors like Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro she comes to unfold her comedian talent in an effusive manner. Dustin Hoffman and Barbra pulled out all the stops as old hippie couple “Focker”. The movie “Meet the Fockers” became one of the most successful movie comedies ever and was a number one box office hit world-wide.