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Barbra Streisand on Hollywood’s Double Standard: “What Does ‘Difficult’ Mean, Anyway?”

The iconic performer (and Sherry Lansing Leadership Award honoree at THR's annual Women in Entertainment event this morning) reveals how 'Yentl' turned her into an activist, why she admires Taylor Swift and how far Hillary has come: "At first she was a bit stiff."

A version of this story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Back in 1983, when Barbra Streisand made Yentl, the first of the three films she has directed, no one in Hollywood was talking about the paucity of female directors and the obstacles they faced. Only one woman, Lina Wertmuller, the Italian director of 1975’s Seven Beauties, ever had been nominated for the best directing Oscar. And while such male stars as Warren Beatty and Robert Redford had moved behind the camera to acclaim, the notion of an actress taking the reins was greeted skeptically by many. While Yentl was received warmly — Roger Ebert praised its “great style and heart”; it grossed $40 million domestic ($95 million today); and it received five Oscar nominations, three of them for its music and songs — Streisand herself was shut out. She was criticized for having demanded too much control over the movie and, at the same time, suspected of having had to turn to established male filmmakers for help. That decades-old charge was recently recycled by Maureen Dowd in her New York Time Magazine article “The Women of Hollywood Speak Out.” Dowd wrote, “Men in Hollywood still joke that Barbra Streisand conferred over each frame of Yentl with everyone from Spielberg to her gardener.” Observing that male directors often routinely show their works-in-progress to each other, Streisand notes, “It seems that only when a woman shows her film to a male director, the assumption is she needs rescuing!”

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In any event, Yentl, in which Streisand played a young Jewish woman who masquerades as a boy in order to study the Talmud, played a critical role in the life of the Broadway balladeer turned actress, filmmaker and member of the coveted EGOT club (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). After that film, the Brooklyn-born dynamo became even more involved in politics and social issues. She will be recognized for her career, activism and philanthropy with The Hollywood Reporter‘s 2015 Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, to be presented Dec. 9 by Robert Redford. Streisand, 73, who lives in Malibu with her husband of 17 years, James Brolin, now is in the midst of writing a memoir, due in 2017, and was in a reflective mood recently as she looked back on how that film impacted her work and her larger sense of mission. “It all started with Yentl in a sense,” she says, “because my interest in gender discrimination came from the question, ‘Why?’ Why were women like Yentl not allowed to study? Why wasn’t a woman equal to a man? The point is, for me it raised the issue of why women are still second-class citizens. Why aren’t their minds respected?”

Streisand decided to helm Yentl only after the other filmmakers it was offered to — including French director Claude Berri — turned down the project.

It was scary. It was harder for me being an actress directing than even if I had just been a writer directing. The idea of the archetype of the actress bothers me. The actress is supposed to be vain and not financially responsible for anything, and flaky. All they’re interested in is makeup or beauty products, clothes. I think that was a hard one. Probably another count against me directing it.

The star acknowledges she also had to contend with a long-standing reputation for being difficult — a label she argues often is unfairly put on women. Despite the early success she’d enjoyed playing the lead in Funny Girl on Broadway and with her TV specials and first few hit albums, her introduction to the film industry hadn’t gone smoothly.

You see, I committed a sin when I came to Hollywood [in 1967]because I came with a contract for three pictures, and I had never had a screen test. So if there is such a thing as envy or jealousy, everybody was like, “Huh? Who is she?” I wasn’t a proven factor. Nobody knew what I would look like onscreen or anything like that. [Producer] Ray Stark held a party for me, and Marlon Brando was there, and I think John Wayne and all these movie stars, directors and producers were there. I was late because I was scared. I sat in a corner, and I wasn’t charming. But what does “difficult” mean anyway? If a man on a set says something — “I want to change this shot” — they do whatever he says. Now, if a woman asks…

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Filming Yentl in England went smoothly, though. She remembers that, given her reputation, people were surprised she spoke so softly, never raising her voice.

They were great because they were all respectful, and I made them all part of my dream. I realized why they were so wonderful — they had a queen, and they had Margaret Thatcher as prime minister at the time. They didn’t think it was such a big deal that I was the director. When I came back to America, it was completely different. I was stunned.

With director William Wyler in 1967 during a break on ‘Funny Girl.’ “Willie and I adored each other,” recalls Streisand. “He invited me to watch dailies with him and cared about my opinion.”

Streisand cites a Los Angeles Times story that appeared in advance of Yentl’s opening as being particularly upsetting. She had told the article’s writer how, after finishing postproduction, she’d shown the movie to Steven Spielberg, who told her, “Don’t change a frame,” and asked her to make a film for his company. But she said her first thought was, “Oh my God, I’d have to do this all over again?” Then she collected herself and answered, “Yes, I guess I could do another one for you.”

That was the conversation. But they cut out, “Don’t change a frame.” And it said, “Steven Spielberg gave her some advice on editing.” And it — I have it here — it says, “I got panicked, I shook. I thought, ‘Me, direct it?’ ” It doesn’t even make sense. And when I got to Europe [to promote the film], one of the questions was, “So Steven Spielberg was your mentor?” I said, “What are you even talking about?” It was as if they were trying to say, “Woman, stay in your place.” It was as if it took the most powerful, famous male director [to get the film made]. How could she have done this by herself? It must have been a trick. I was very hurt, and I didn’t direct for eight years after Yentl.

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When Yentl was shut out of the best picture and director Oscar categories, one explanation Streisand heard was that she’d been too “aggressive,” another word she questions when it is applied to women.

That word “aggressive.” That led me to write a speech for Women in Film about how language defines the problem of the way women and men are viewed. We’re just measured by a different standard. He’s “committed.” She’s “obsessed.” It’s been said that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Why can’t that be true of a woman? “Vanity” is another word they use for women. I saw it in a review of [Angelina Jolie Pitt’s] By the Sea; I haven’t seen the movie, but they call it her “vanity production,” because she’s doing the jobs I did. But [if a man does it,] it’s “how brilliant. He’s multifaceted, he’s multitalented, a multihyphenate.”

The years Streisand devoted to Yentl also contributed to her own consciousness about gender discrimination in every arena — leading her to become an advocate for more research into heart disease in women. In 2008, she gave $5 million to endow the Barbra Streisand Women’s Cardiovascular Research and Education Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. And as a co-founder of the Women’s Heath Alliance, she has traveled to Washington to lobby Congress and the National Institutes of Health.

The gender discrimination thing led me to hearing about women’s hearts. And I found out the research on women’s heart disease in the past 50 years has been done on men. On men! So I’ve gone to Washington. Women’s hearts are completely different than men’s hearts — the valves are smaller, their arteries and veins are smaller, so they get a disease called microvascular disease. Since 1984, more women have died from heart disease than men. Every time I tell this to somebody, they look at me dumbfounded. “More women die than men? But I thought it was an old man’s disease,” they say. If a woman has chest pains, or if she has jaw pain, or if she has a stomach ache [and] she goes to the ER, she’s usually sent home with a Zantac, and then they find her dead on her couch the next day because they didn’t take her seriously when she complained about her stomach. But when a man presents with a classic Hollywood heart attack — a tight chest and the left arm pain — then they give him a blood test. When a woman has a heart attack, 42 percent of women don’t live out the whole year, whereas 24 percent of men don’t. So that’s why I feel so strongly about bringing awareness to this problem.

With Nick Nolte in 1992 at the U.K. premiere of their film ‘The Prince of Tides,’ which she directed. The movie earned seven Oscar noms, including one for best picture, but Streisand again was denied a directing nom.

Over the years, Streisand has raised millions for Democratic candidates and has spoken out on issues from gun control to marriage equality. She is following Hillary Clinton’s candidacy closely.

At first she was a bit stiff, uncomfortable. But I know her in person, and she is warm and lovely and brilliant and speaks without notes. When I first saw her speak, she was using a teleprompter, which she doesn’t need. If you don’t know how to use it and make it real and add things in, it’s clumsy. So I think she’s now amazing. She has found her voice, which is her voice. Some women, at the beginning of our so-called “Women’s Revolution,” were trying to impersonate men. And it’s like, “No. Realize the full power of your being — the power of the feminine — and use that.”

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As for Donald Trump …

He’s funny. He says the same things over and over and over again. I mean, come on. Don’t you have to have a background like Hillary or Bernie Sanders has? When I listen to the things he says, I think, “This thing can’t be happening.” But it is happening, so I encourage women — we’re 52 percent of the population — we have to get out and vote. We need a woman’s sensibility. We do. And we need people who make common sense, people who’ve had experience, people who are articulate.

While Streisand has just signed to direct a new film, Catherine the Great, about the young empress’ rise to power, she’s also busy recording, working on her 35th studio album. She doesn’t listen to new pop stars, though she admires Taylor Swift for challenging Apple over royalties.

I loved it. By the way, she and I are the only people who had platinum albums last year. Isn’t that fun? I love that! But I don’t have time [to listen to new music.] Because I’m working on music now, I never even put music on in my car. I can’t. I listen to the news. The news interests me; what’s going on in the world, and especially about this election, which is so bizarre. It’s completely bizarre.

On the set of ‘Yentl.’ In one scene, she added a reference to Genesis, saying that woman was created from man’s side, not his rib. “The word in Hebrew means side,” she says. “And that means she’s equal in my world.”

Working on her music brings a special satisfaction.

I love doing my albums because I have a wonderful team that I work with. I have this idea for the album that I can’t talk about yet. But there’s no ego in it. It’s like, I’ll say something, they come up with something, and, “Oh! Ah! Go to the piano and try this!” It’s like doing a play.

But even when it comes to music, Streisand has had to overcome obstacles, like when she proposed 1985’s The Broadway Album.

Thank God Marty Erlichman, who has been my manager for 53 years, used to get me creative control, because when I said I’m going to do a Broadway album, they said, “You can’t do that,” and I said, “Yes I can because that’s the truth and I have the right.” But they wouldn’t pay me until it sold 2.5 million copies. And thank God it came out at No. 1. And then they paid me.

Read more essays from THR‘s Women in Entertainment issue:

Jessica Chastain Pens Essay From Female-Helmed Movie Set: No One Feels “Left Out or Bullied”

Patricia Arquette: What Happened After My Oscar Speech on Pay Inequality (Guest Column)

Ellen Pao on How to Fix the Pay Gap: I Eliminated Salary Haggling at Reddit

Camille Paglia Takes on Taylor Swift, Hollywood’s #GirlSquad Culture

Why Girls Who Love Fairy Tales Grow Up to Be Film Editors (Not Directors)