Barbra Streisand: Sacred Cow
Joe Queenan took on a lot of sacred cows in his Movieline columns. In the August 1991 issue, Queenan took on the iconic singer, Barbra Streisand. This is typical Queenan take-down; insightful but arguably mean-spirited. The columnist hits the nose jokes pretty hard as anyone familiar with his writing would expect. But in the end, it’s hard to argue with his thesis that Streisand’s movie career would have been more memorable if she had stuck to making comedies instead of pursuing vanity projects.
In Barbra Streisand’s very first movie–a perky Broadway play successfully translated to the silver screen in 1968–the filmmakers immediately address the subject of the actress’s unconventional physical appearance, most particularly her obtrusive nose.
“So she looks a bit off balance; she possesses golden talents– or is that a pill too bitter to digest?” inquires her mother, and, by extension, the people bankrolling this project, who were justifiably concerned about the public’s digestive capacities. “You’ve got to face facts,” a backer counsels Streisand, playing the youthful, ungainly Fanny Brice. “You don’t look like the other girls.” Streisand, in one of the final moments of modesty in her career, agrees, conceding, “I’m a bagel on a plateful of onion rolls.”
The movie was the appropriately titled Funny Girl.
In Barbra Streisand’s very last movie released–a gloomy Broadway play unsuccessfully translated to the silver screen in 1987– The filmmakers do not directly address the subject of Streisand’s physical appearance, instead allowing the actress to share the screen with the only living thespian whose schnozzle can give hers serious competition: Karl Maiden. This time out, the audience is asked to believe that Streisand–same eyes, same nose, same general facial contours, with 20 extra years on the odometer–is a $500-an-hour call girl capable of “taking your body to heaven and sending your mind south,” and of “spoiling you so bad you’ll hate every other woman you touch.” The film was the appropriately titled Nuts, which Streisand, director Martin Ritt, and everyone else associated with this dotty project quite clearly were.
It took Barbra Streisand a quarter-century of remorseless self-infatuation to get to the point where she would make the ridiculous Nuts, but that she finally arrived at her destination should come as a surprise to no one. For as long as anyone can remember, Barbra Streisand has been defying gravity, beguiling audiences into suspending disbelief for anywhere between 88 and 155 minutes and accepting the premise that this intoxicatingly plain-looking, self-absorbed Tartar could pass herself off as:
1) A passionately committed communist organizer on an American college campus during the 1930s;
2) A teenaged Polish Jewess masquerading as a yeshiva boy in pre-World War I Eastern Europe;
3) God’s gift to Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Yves Montand, Omar Sharif, Kris Kristofferson, and, by extension, all living males.
Millions of her fans have been willing to ignore the overwhelming physical and intellectual evidence and swallow the Streisand schtick whole, while the less impressionable among us look on in utter disbelief, wondering, “How the hell does she do it?”
Well, assuming that she isn’t doing it with pure luck, or with an ineffable charm that has heretofore gone undetected, she must be doing it with brawn and determination and chutzpah, and with an indisputable, but invariably misdirected and abused, talent. Clearly, Barbra Streisand is a talented, some might even argue great, singer who has recorded a handful of fine albums. She is also a competent director, and an accomplished actress who has starred in a handful of halfway decent films. She has won every acting and singing award worth mentioning, some of them more than once, and has been a legitimate superstar since John F. Kennedy was in office. Save for Goldie Hawn and Jane Fonda, she is the only actress to work continual box-office magic in the past two decades, to bring in the kinds of dollars that Meryl Streep and Glenn Close and Jessica Lange and a host of other more gorgeous, more gifted, more gregarious actresses can only dream of. She is, and always has been, a force to be reckoned with.
So what? Neil Diamond is a force to be reckoned with. So are Kenny Rogers and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Barry Manilow and dozens of other MOR acts who probably seemed jaded and tired way back in the maternity ward. It isn’t as if America doesn’t have a tradition of rewarding its hokey old showbiz troupers. It’s just that America doesn’t reward all of them and it doesn’t reward all of them equally. In fact, it’s kind of fickle. It picks an Andy Williams over a Vic Damone, a Dean Martin over an Al Martino, a Hulk Hogan over a Rowdy Roddy Piper, a Merv Griffin over a Mike Douglas. It decides that it will accept Madonna for canonization, but will banish Debbie Harry to cultural purgatory; needs Dick Van Dyke, but doesn’t need Jerry; wants the Judds but doesn’t want Judd Nelson. It says “Yes” to an infantile band like the New Kids on the Block, “No” to a juvenile band like the Bay City Rollers; “Golly, gee!” to a comeback by Belinda Carlisle and the four Go-Go’s, “Hell, no!” to a comeback by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fortunes have been won and lost trying to figure out which specific load of horseshit America will buy next.
America, in short, has a virtually limitless appetite for schmaltz, and in the kingdom of the schmaltzeroonies, no one has enjoyed as long a reign as Barbra Streisand. For here is a performer who, until quite recently, has never lost sight of her real audience: Anyone who wasn’t at, didn’t want to be at, never claimed to be at, Woodstock. (People who were at Woodstock never go to see movies with the words “Pete,” “Funny,” or “Pussycat” in the title.) On the great Highway of Life, this is one gal who never wanders too far away from the median strip. And when she does make a mistake with a film project that goes awry, she quickly buries the incriminating evidence with a demographically satisfactory album. Basically, this is a judicious form of portfolio diversification.
Unlike earlier stars who demonstrated the same canniness–Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra come to mind–Streisand has never been able to achieve pre-death beatification, that gloriously transcendent moment when even your worst critics are willing to concentrate on your fabulous gifts as a performer and forget that you’re basically an unacceptable human being. That’s why we have The Two Franks–the one who menaces reporters and acts like a pig, and the one who delivers “I Have Dreamed” and The Manchurian Candidate–and The Two Garlands–the one who hits the sauce and self-destructs in public, and the one who sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and meets Louie in St. Louis. Streisand has never, and will never, achieve that status where critics instinctively separate the artist from the art. She’ll always be Streisand–you know, the one who romanced her hairdresser, which is one thing, and then turned him into a movie producer, which is another thing altogether.
And now for a terrifying civics lesson: there was once a time in the divine Miss S’s career when she actually was on the cutting edge of our culture. Yes, way back in 1963, in those final, horrid hours of the dark night before the British Invasion, Bob Dylan and Streisand were the brightest young stars in the musical firmament, holding out hope for those doomed to life in a universe dominated by Leslie Gore, Frankie Avalon, Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, and other names too scary to be printed in this, a family publication. But unlike Dylan, who managed to stay hot and hip for the better part of two decades, Streisand only remained on the cutting edge of American civilization for about two hours and 27 minutes.
As a film actress, she made her debut by appearing in a full-dress, big-budget musical at a time the idiom had all three feet in the grave (Funny Girl came out the year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the year of the Chicago riots, the year of the Tet Offensive). She then reprised that same role seven years later– scant months before the Sex Pistols showed up, scant months before disco–paying homage to an idiom that was dying when Fanny Brice was alive. Her comedies–The Owl and the Pussycat, What’s Up, Doc?and For Pete’s Sake all throwbacks to an earlier, simpler time, when people were simple, and well, earlier. Her one artistic experiment with something vaguely unconventional and timely was the tantalizingly dumb 1972 film the Sandbox which, cast as the unhappy spouse of a Columbia University professor, she daydreamed about joining a cadre of black subversives and blowing up the Statue of Liberty. Babs mans the barricades? Allons, enfants de la Patrie? Power to the people? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem? But I digress.
That Streisand cannot win the respect of serious film critics (not you, Roger!) must be a source of great consternation to her, because fundamentally this is a woman driven by two powerful drives: She would like to be a gorgeous sex object, and she would like to be taken seriously. Neither of these is possible– though the latter once was, before A Star Is Born and The Main Event and All Night Long and Nuts put an end to all that. The first drive was a hard sell from the word “go.” When you want to be a sex goddess, but Mother Nature never processed the requisition slip, you end up making an ass of yourself, as Streisand did in the vulgar aerobic sequences from The Main Event. When you want to end up being respected, you waste 15 years of your life trying to make monstrosities like Yentl, a bloated, cross-dressed version of Fiddler on the Roof, butchering what started out as a charming short story by the great writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. (Singer hated the movie so much he wrote an article in The New York Times saying how much he hated it. And Singer is a really nice man. Proving that in Streisand’s case, it’s the song, not the Singer, that’s at fault.)
Why does Streisand do all this heavy lifting? Probably because she has figured out that history is not in the hands of the people who make it, but in the hands of the people who write about the people who make it. And, unfortunately for Streisand, movie critics of any repute by and large have very little tolerance for her trashy Vegas sensibility. Streisand may rake in megabucks off abortions such as A Star Is Born and The Main Event, but surely she realizes that when the history of the 1970s and 1980s is written, it will be Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange and maybe even Susan Sarandon who will be remembered as the interesting actresses, while Streisand– if she is remembered at all–will be celebrated as the cinematic equivalent of Fleetwood Mac: a bedrock MOR act who made a lot of money and then went home.
The tragedy of all this is that it could have been different. K-mart talents such as Sylvester Stallone and Julio Iglesias appeal to the same general, culturally petrified audiences as Streisand, but even if they had tried being something other than what they are, they would have failed. Kenny Rogers didn’t become Kenny Rogers because the Mick Jagger role was already filled; he became Kenny Rogers because he’s a two-bit lounge lizard who’s lucky he’s not lounging with an even worse class of lizards. Streisand, on the other hand, started out with talent, panache, and even a certain bohemian charm, then worked her way down to the over-night rental bin. The Streisand of Funny Girl, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Owl and the Pussycat, What’s Up, Doc? and even For Pete’s Sake, the Streisand who had not yet succumbed to her own self-delusions, could have been– in fact, was–a terrific comedienne, could have made a whole string of intelligent, entertaining, commercially viable comedies that would have won her the grudging esteem of the Woody Allen crowd, the revival house crowd, the post-collegiate artsy crowd. And yes, even the critics. Well, maybe.
But, as Shaun Considine makes clear in his encyclopedic and highly entertaining Barbra Streisand: The Woman, the Myth, the Music (which isn’t nearly as pretentious as the title would suggest), Streisand didn’t even like What’s Up, Doc? She thought it was small. She thought it was beneath her. In fact, it was one of the last great screwball comedies made in this country. Released just a few years before the film industry would single-handedly be nuked by the cheeseball, adolescent comedy of Murray, Chase, Aykroyd, Belushi, Candy, Moranis, Ramis & Waterhouse. What’s Up, Doc? is still a hilarious motion picture. “It really holds up,” as those of us born less recently than Sting say. Directed by the young and still gifted Peter Bogdanovich, and featuring the young and still gifted Madeline Kahn (her debut role, in fact), the young and still gifted (however briefly) Ryan O’Neal, and assorted other young and still gifted actors and actresses (Randy Quaid, Michael Murphy), the movie had a clever plot, snappy dialogue, a sprightly and civilized soundtrack, a terrific car chase, and a sympathetic, winning Barbra Streisand, who had somehow been cajoled into acting, and not turning into a one-woman wrecking crew. But Streisand never made another movie like that. She wanted to do important work. Important work like…A Star Is Born.
A Star Is Born is the most explicitly autobiographical of Streisand’s films, her ham-fisted attempt to abolish the 1960s, an era she was in, but manifestly not of. The ludicrous premise of this, one of her most commercially successful films, is that a good-looking, talented, yet self-destructive rock singer not unlike Jim Morrison would have fallen head over heels in love with an insipid cabaret singer not unlike Melissa Manchester. In the history of idiotic movies–and, indeed, in the history of idiotic movies entitled A Star Is Born–there are very few scenes more shamefacedly self-adulatory than the moment when Streisand, attending a benefit concert for American Indians, captivates a roomful of hard rock fans with her schlocky ballads. Such an occurrence does not square with my recollection of what was known in both the late 1960s and middle 1970s as Reality. If Barbra Streisand had appeared at, say, the concert for Bangladesh, and tried to upstage George Harrison or Bob Dylan, the fans might very well have used the money raised for the starving children of Bangladesh to buy up the world’s remaining food supplies and starve her instead. In a stadium filled with real-live, hard-core, rock ‘n’ roll fans, Barbra Streisand would have had a hard time upstaging Badfinger, much less Ringo Starr. Unless, of course, Streisand had sent all their bodies to heaven, and their minds south.
But I digress.
If Barbra Streisand is an artist who really and truly wanted to be taken seriously, how do we explain such odd career moves as the hopelessly retro Funny Lady of 1975, in which she tries to breathe life back into a form–the big-budget musical–that was already on its last legs when she was making Funny Girl nearly a decade earlier? How do we explain doomed salvage jobs such as All Night Long, in which Streisand, having turned down They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Cabaret, gamely subbed for then-rising star Lisa Eichhorn in a lame comedy starring that all-purpose cut-up Gene Hackman? Is the lure of easy money that powerful? Apparently.
Since this article is being written by a man, a legitimate argument can be made that the author has a genetic indisposition toward Streisand the Emasculator. Indeed, Streisand’s most enduring contribution to our civilization could be as a feminist role model: the Ugly Duckling who makes it big by chewing up and spitting out men. In this sense, she has much in common with Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi, certified ballbusters all, who didn’t get where they got by being kewpie dolls. Conversely, they would have probably chosen better roles than The Main Event and A Star Is Born. And avoided unflattering scenes involving leotards.
Continuing this thought, let us recall that, while blazing her way across the silver screen, Streisand has had the help of an extraordinarily docile group of male and maleish co-stars who apparently did not mind getting bent, torn, folded and mutilated by their leading lady. Her list of victims includes such professional pretty boys as Omar Sharif and Ryan O’Neal, a pair of post-Watergate sensitive guys (Kris Kristofferson, Robert Redford), and even a few would-be mensches (Richard Dreyfuss, George Segal, Mandy Patinkin) who simply don’t have the firepower to compete with what is less a living, breathing human being than a force of nature. With the exception of Walter Matthau, who apparently loathed working with her on Hello Dolly! (as he gamely told anyone who would listen), Streisand makes mincemeat out of this gang. This is particularly true in the case of Kristofferson, who caps off his desecration of Jim Morrison’s memory by climbing into his sportscar, putting the pedal to the metal, replacing one of his dreary tapes with one of hers, and then committing suicide. Faced with a choice between suicide and having to listen to “Evergreen” again, I think he made the right decision. (For an even more monumental hoot, catch the lighter sequence at the end of A Star Is Born, as well as the scene where Kristofferson tells Streisand that hearing her sing was like “hooking a marlin.” Which, in many ways, it was.)
Moreover, in what has to be depressing news for plain-looking women trying to make it big in Hollywood, Streisand’s success does not seem to have spawned a subsequent generation of Streisands. (One Bette Midler does not a generation make.) Unlike Dustin Hoffman, whose success opened the door for a lot of other short guys who don’t look like Charlton Heston or Leslie Howard, Streisand has not institutionalized her success. While the ranks of male movie stars abound with actors sporting unconventional looks, the female stars of the 1970s and the 1980s are still pretty much the same as female stars of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s: babes. Plus, of course, Meryl Streep.
When all is said and done, Streisand’s is one of the truly weird careers in the history of show business. Much of her appeal lies in the very fact that she embodies everything that is tacky and cheap and hopelessly corny and unsophisticated about Middle America. Consider the memorable scene in A Star Is Born when Streisand, deftly fingering a “serious” piece of classical music on Kristofferson’s piano, tells him that the composition is an original piece that “people think will be a sonata when it grows up.” In fact, the treacly composition is a rip-off of the “Moonlight Sonata” by Ludwig van Beethoven, who, though deaf, was never dumb. The piece Streisand plays is Beethoven after he’s been put through the Muzak meat grinder. It’s high art the way low rollers imagine it.
This is, in fact, the key to all of Streisand’s work. A Star Is Born is the 1960s the way the Hello Dolly! crowd imagined it. The Way We Were is the McCarthy Era the way the Funny Girl crowd imagined it (bear in mind that the folks lefty Streisand was handing out leaflets for included Josef Stalin). Yentl is Eastern Europe, circa 1904, the way Western Hollywood, circa 1983, imagined it: more songs, fewer pogroms (the educationally deficient Barbra, according to Shaun Considine, was not aware that the Nazis had destroyed the Warsaw Ghetto, a fact which, we might add, made it all but impossible to shoot “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” there). All of these films are stupid, crass and false, an insult to anyone who ever grew up in any of these places, or lived through any of these eras. Or died in any of them. Obviously, all of them made money.
Let’s face it: Streisand should have stuck to comedies, where she had the knack. She could have been hilarious. Instead, in seeking to carve out what she imagined would be an even larger place for herself, she made herself into a figure of mirth. By the time she blew her wad on Nuts, with the scenes of her flashing her money maker at a perplexed and perhaps even terrified Richard Dreyfuss, offering to autograph cheesecake photos, and slugging her attorney, Streisand had completely lost touch with reality. Her mind had gone south.
My favorite moment in any of Streisand’s films is the hilarious scene in The Way We Were where Streisand tries to talk Redford out of selling his novel to a Hollywood studio because he’s “too good” to work in the movie business. Barbra Streisand trying to talk Robert Redford out of going to Hollywood because it would compromise his artistic integrity7. What planet did this conversation take place on?
Beam me up, Scotty.
Joe Queenan wrote about Woody Allen in our May issue.