Streisand, Barbra (1942—)

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Streisand, Barbra (1942—)

Since she first got her break on the Broadway stage in 1962, Barbra Streisand has elicited extreme reactions from her public and from critics. Either adored or detested, the Streisand persona has, almost from the beginning, been larger than life. Indeed, it has almost overshadowed her considerable talents as singer, actress, director, producer, and writer. Though she has often been confused, frightened, and angered by both the homage and the vitriol heaped upon her, she has remained a strong personality, a productive artist, and a phenomenon in the entertainment field.

Born Barbara Joan Streisand in 1942, in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish working-class parents, Streisand's father died when she was 15 months old. Within a few years her mother had remarried. Streisand's stepfather was an emotionally abusive man, who her mother described as "allergic to children." Her mother was undemonstrative, calling her daughter "ugly" and ridiculing the young Barbara's aspirations to be an actress. Streisand, however, was not to be deterred and as a young girl she sang in the halls of her Flatbush apartment building, learning to appreciate the sound of her own voice as it echoed off the walls. As a teenager she began taking acting lessons and haunting the theaters and clubs of Manhattan's Greenwich Village, seeking an entrance to the stage.

She moved to the Village in 1960. Although she wanted to become an actress, friends who heard her sing encouraged her to enter talent night at a local club, and soon she embarked on a career as a cabaret singer, dropping the middle "a" from her name so that it would stand out. Her vibrant soprano soon won Streisand a loyal local audience, mostly of gay men. Working in the Village she also met the drag queens who worked the clubs and learned from them the campy flamboyance of the diva, which she used to cover her insecurity on-stage.

Her big break came in the 1962 show I Can Get It for You Wholesale, when she was cast as the frumpy Miss Marmelstein. Making the most of a small part, Streisand impressed critics and audience, and, when she sang her one song, she stopped the show. The following year, The Barbra Streisand Album was released and won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.

In 1964, she was cast in the leading role of the new play Funny Girl, playing comic and singer Fanny Brice. The role could have been made for her, as Brice too was a Jewish girl, not conventionally pretty, but with a powerful talent and an intense will to succeed. The play was a success—23 curtain calls on opening night—and overnight Streisand became a star. The girl whose mother had recommended she give up the stage and seek a secure secretarial job was on the cover of Time and Life magazines, and on television. My Name is Barbra, the first of many Streisand television specials, won an Emmy in 1965.

Streisand's voice has always been her most dependable asset. Most comfortable singing show tunes and popular classics, she has sung everything from Christmas carols to rock 'n' roll. Since 1964, she has sold more than 60 million records. Thirty-eight of her albums have made the top 40, and at least 24 have sold one million copies, more than anyone except Elvis Presley and the Beatles. She has won eight Grammy Awards, was named a Grammy Legend in 1992, and won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. But she never lost her insecurity about performing on stage, and after she received death threats before a concert in New York's Central Park in 1967, she stopped giving public concerts. It was almost 30 years later, in 1993, that she performed for an audience again, doing what she called her last concert tour.

As an actress, Streisand's work has been less universally acclaimed. After starring in the movie of Funny Girl, for which she won the Academy Award for best actress, Streisand went on to make many films; some successes like The Way We Were in 1973; and some failures, like The Main Event in 1977. Many, like A Star Is Born (1976) were critical flops, but did well at the box office, proving the loyalty of Streisand's fans.

Often accused of trying to control production in the films she appeared in, Streisand wanted to direct films herself. In 1983, she realized her dream by becoming the first woman to co-write, direct, produce, and star in a feature film. Yentl was the story of a Jewish girl in eighteenth-century Russia who disguised herself as a boy so that she could go to school and gain the education that was forbidden to girls. The project was close to Streisand's heart and she was hurt and angered by the mixed critical reception and the almost total snubbing of the film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She went on to direct and produce other films, but continued to be ignored by the Academy. Even when her film Prince of Tides was nominated for Best Picture, she did not receive the Best Director nomination traditionally given to Best Picture nominees.

The motion picture establishment and many critics have been hard on Barbra Streisand. Even audiences have been polarized, some loving her ethnic looks and Brooklyn accent, others finding her abrasive and ugly. Her reputation in Hollywood ranges from hardworking perfectionist to neurotic narcissist. She has defended herself against accusations of egotism by citing the sexism of the Hollywood system. "A man is forceful," she has said, "a woman is pushy … He's assertive—she's aggressive. He strategizes—she manipulates."

As a young singer, Streisand's raw emotion, ineffectively masked by awkward brashness and affected diva mannerisms, touched a chord with audiences. They identified with her endearing insecurity, respected her refusal to change her nose or her accent, and admired her drive to succeed and be respected. Streisand's response to the adoration of her fans has been complex. Stunned and overwhelmed by her sudden popularity after Funny Girl, she called the crowds that mobbed the stage door "the crazies," and slipped out alternate exits to avoid them. As she has achieved the success she sought, Streisand has become more polished. Her speech has softened, and, while she has still not changed her nose, in part fearful of affecting her voice, her face and body show the effects of expensive care. She treats her fans with respect but still keeps aloof. Her fans, who have seen her progress flamboyantly through three decades of fashion and ideology, seem to welcome each transformation.

Unlike many performers who got their start before gay audiences, Streisand has never tried to distance herself from her gay fans. She has remained an icon among gay men and cheerfully acknowledges the connection, joking on-stage about being outdone by a group of Barbra drag queens, and even hiring a Barbra impersonator to fool her friends at a party. In a serious vein, she has raised money for AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) research, made a television movie about the career of lesbian coast guard officer Margarethe Cammermeyer, and spearheaded a celebrity boycott of Colorado after anti-gay legislation passed there.

Politically liberal and wealthy (in 1997, her worth was estimated at $100 million), she created the Streisand Foundation, which donates money to such causes as civil rights, AIDS, and the environment. With the election of Bill Clinton as president, she became a frequent visitor to Washington and an active fund-raiser for the Democratic party. Though she sometimes drew ridicule for speaking about politics, she insisted on the rights of artists to free expression, and on respect for liberal traditions.

Though her career, like her persona, has often been controversial, and though she has not always lived up to the expectations of critics or fans, Barbra Streisand accomplished what she intended from the beginning—she became a star. "I always knew I would be famous… I was never contented… I wanted to prove to the world that they shouldn't make fun of me."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Edwards, Anne. Streisand: A Biography. Boston, Little Brown, 1997.

Kimbrell, James. Barbra—An Actress who Sings. Boston, Branden Publishing Company, 1992.

Riese, Randall. Her Name is Barbra. Secaucus, New Jersey, Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Streisand, Barbra. "The Artist as Citizen." New Perspective Quarterly. Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 1995, 36.