In a poignant interview with Chrissy Iley, Barbra Streisand reveals the vulnerable side to a very successful career and her love for beautiful men.
her love for beautiful men and why women can be many things
Malibu. Not quite at Barbra Streisand’s house, but at a studio just down the road from it. She’s been doing TV interviews. Lights are set up, so bright I have to peer to see her face. Her eyes stare out – pierce me even. She’s wearing a soft drapey black dress, multiple long gold chains and strappy sandals that have spikes across the straps. Dark red toe polish. These are feet you don’t argue with – dominatrix – while the rest of her is a contrasting soft. But then Barbra has always loved that kind of juxtaposition, masculism meets feminism, strong meets vulnerable.
Truth is, I want to hug her hello. This is Barbra Streisand! Barbra, whose songs I’ve known all my life, whose voice has been a comfort in its complete emotional empathy. Whatever I’ve felt or whatever you’ve felt, we know Barbra’s felt it more and she’s showed us. That’s part of her charm, part of what makes her vulnerable yet an icon.
In for the hug then, but I remember her telling me before, hugging doesn’t come naturally to her. Perhaps it stems from the complicated relationship she shared with her mother, who was so full of fear that her daughter might fail, and always discouraging. She told Barbra her voice was too thin. And her mother definitely was not demonstrative. “For a long time, touching felt alien,” says Barbra.
“But I owe her my career. I was always trying to prove to her that
I was worthy of being somebody.”
Of course, there’s less angst about Barbra now, more composure, more polish. I abandon the hug and in its place I deliver her a cake instead, one made from the same recipe used by her favourite bakery in Brooklyn (Ebinger’s, which closed in 1972).
It’s a mocha almond cake and more powerful than a hug or a kiss! If Barbra was a little wary, a little suspicious, she’s overcome by that other emotion, the sense of taste – food is love.
She’s always loved food a little too much, always on a diet, although she’s never been fat. She once used a cake on stage to make her cry. “It was a chocolate cake and it was put on the stool where I could see it. It wasn’t that I had to cry,” she corrects. “I love details about truth. It was that I was supposed to be in love with the actor, but I couldn’t feel anything for him. I didn’t even like him, so I put the piece of cake in the wings so I could pine for the piece of cake.” We laugh.
A real, proper laugh, the composure gone.
Barbra is still thinking about the piece of cake in the wings. “It was a piece of chocolate cake, a slice the perfect size to fit in the mouth. I would have preferred it with some vanilla ice-cream, but that would have melted on the set,” she gushes. “It was a good enough tool. Use something that’s real for you.”
That’s the thing with Barbra Streisand – she always seems real and not afraid to be herself. I remember the story of when she was asked to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. The real-life Brice had had a nose job. “She cut off her nose to spite her race,” quipped Dorothy Parker. It almost cost Barbra the part. They worried that she looked too Jewish to play a Jewish star with a nose job.
You think of Barbra Streisand being all about perfection, control, but she’s more about not being afraid of who she is. Vulnerability and fearlessness are always an intoxicating mix. She loves her Jewishness. She loves to eat like a Jew, even if she can’t cook like one, although she has told me that recently she studies recipes.
The new album, Encore, is absolute in its Barbra-ness. The songs are all rediscovered classics with rediscovered artists. Any Moment Now with Hugh Jackman paints a scene of a relationship falling apart; I’ll Be Seeing You, which she sings with Chris Pine, is simply a revelation; and Jamie Foxx singing Climb Ev’ry Mountain is so soulful it’s probably the best version of the song ever. “Good, because I don’t really love the song. I wanted to make it stand on its own rather than just something from The Sound of Music,” says Barbra, approvingly. “We improvised some of the new lines. Some of them weren’t in the original. I knew he had a good voice, but he surprised me with an even better voice and he sings from his heart.”
There’s also a duet with Anthony Newley (probably his most famous song Who Can I Turn To?, which he wrote with Leslie Bricusse) from the 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. It’s the one song where the other half of Barbra’s duet has a voice more distinctive than hers.
“I’ve heard David Bowie was very influenced by Tony Newley. I was doing Funny Girl and he was doing The Roar of the Greasepaint and I met him that year, and thought he was fantastic.
Then we became friends,” she says, casually. Sacha Newley, his son, once told me about a song his father wrote, Too Much Woman. It was about Barbra, who, according to Sacha, his father was in love with. Newley loved women. One can say they were his addiction, but for him, Barbra stood alone, the unconquerable “too much woman”.
Did she ever know about this song he wrote for her? “Tony Newley sent it to me when he was dying and I thought, ‘Wow’.” She sings it to me, “I heard you on the radio today…” She sings it in a Newley-style voice. It’s a wonderful song. Her voice is slightly shaky now. She smiles at the idea that, for all these years, Tony Newley was deeply in love and she was too much woman for him.
“It has never been written about. I’m proud of that song. I’m proud that he wrote it for me,” she says. What does she think of the concept of being too much woman?
“When I made Yentl as a first-time director, I made it in England. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and England had a Queen, so powerful women were no big deal. I think, in this country, we still think of powerful women as suspect, you know, like they’re too ambitious or they’re control freaks, which is such a shame.
“I pray that we will have Hillary as our President and I think that informed, smart people are going to vote for her, at least I hope. I’ve met a lot of people who are powerful and smart like Michelle Obama… I had a conversation with Golda Meir when it was the 30th anniversary of Israel. She could declare war on one hand and say, ‘Would you like a Danish with the coffee?’ on the other. She was
“We still think of powerful women as suspect, like they’re too ambitious.”
the grandma – a very warm, sweet lady, yet a powerful leader. Women can be many things, angry and forgiving, have PhDs and manicures.”
Barbra always has beautiful nails; a little defiant touchstone. Her mother told her to cut her nails and learn to be a typist. In Barbra’s home, she has an annexe where she keeps doll houses, old-fashioned ones, because she once told me she didn’t have a proper childhood. Typical of Barbra to be able to play like a little girl when she feels most womanly.
She is happy with James Brolin, to whom she’s been married for 18 years. Her manager, Marty Erlichman, she’s been with for more than 50 years and her assistant, Renata Buser, at 42 years, is in between the two. Barbra is a striver, but clearly thrives on stability.
She started off singing in clubs at 17 or 18. For her first record, she agreed to less money as long as she could have artistic control. “That’s right,” she says. “That’s called being a control freak, but why would any man or woman not want to be in control of their own lives?” Now she belongs to a small coterie of luminaries who have collected Oscars, Emmys, Globes, Grammys and Tonys.
Her white fluffy dog, Samantha, a Coton de Tulear, gives a yowl of appreciation – or maybe it’s because she’s just realised there’s a cake. Barbra brings the subject back to Tony Newley. “He had a fantastic voice and he was so lovely, and very handsome, yes. I loved his looks. He looked like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.”
Barbra has always liked beautiful men. She told me once it was the one thing they all had in common. Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal, Don Johnson. “All attractive. I love beauty whether it’s furniture or a man. My husband has the perfect forehead, perfect jaw, perfect teeth. Even if he makes me angry, I get a kick out of his symmetry.”
She’s referring to James Brolin. Her first husband was Elliott Gould, whom she married in 1963. They have a son, Jason, now aged 49, and divorced in 1971. I wonder if she was too much woman for him, too. This was after her iconic performances in Funny Girl and Hello Dolly.
Even now, she is not at ease with the interview process. “People make up stories about me,” she says. “Maybe it’s more interesting.” She is working on an autobiography and says her relationship to work has changed. She says she’s become lazy. Although she told me once that, over the years, the happier she has become, the less she needed to work, she is still a worker. There’s the album, a tour and soon she starts on Gypsy in which she plays Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother.
I can’t understand why so much has been made about Barbra never looking the perfect leading lady. I don’t think it’s a question of she grew into her face, either. I think she carried around the sense that she was an oddball, a misfit and became a champion for other misfits.
Barbra has used her stardom well. These days, it means more to her to have her name on the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center than in lights. More women die of heart attacks than breast cancer, yet more money is raised for breast cancer. Barbra is a lobbyist and aims to raise more funds.
She tells me, recently, she was given mice for a trial and demanded all female mice. It is, after all, a women’s heart foundation. “It was a fight,” she says. Even in these days of female world leaders, she still has to fight to get an all-women trial, the next step after getting the all-female mice.
Barbra doesn’t look exhausted by the thought, rather, excited. The icing on the cake maybe.
OPPOSITE (clockwise from bottom left): Barbra’s portrayal of Fanny Brice in her 1968 film debut, Funny Girl, won her an Oscar. In the 1970 film, The Owl and the Pussycat. With her mother, Diana, and half-sister, Roslyn, in 1969. Hello Dolly! won three Oscars. She directed, wrote and starred in Yentl in 1983.
Barbra’s leading men (from left) Elliott Gould and Barbra were married for eight years and have a son. Barbra was also involved with What’s Up Doc? co-star, Ryan O’Neal, and Warren Beatty. She claims the one thing the men in her life had in common was their beauty.
Barbra and “perfect” husband James Brolin have been married for 18 years.