Peter Bogdanovich on Barbra Streisand: 'Funny, Cute and Kind of a Wiseass'

Barbra Streisand Peter Bogdanovich Doc - H 2013
Everett Collection

Barbra Streisand Peter Bogdanovich Doc - H 2013

On the eve of her Film Society of Lincoln Center honors, the "What's Up, Doc?" helmer says comedy came too easily to the Oscar-winning actress/singer.

This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Barbara saw The Last Picture Show when it was still a work print, and she loved it and wanted to work with me. Warners had a picture they wanted me to do, but I didn't care for the script. John Calley, who was then head of production, called me into his office and said: "Look, Barbra really wants to work with you. If you were going to make a picture with Barbra Streisand, what kind of picture would you do?" I said: "Oh, I don't know, kind of a screwball comedy, something like Bringing Up Baby: daffy girl, square professor, everything works out all right." He said, "Do it."

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It was the fastest I've ever had a movie come together. I was sitting in John's office, and before I left, I said, "Can I produce it?," and he said, "Sure." So I left the office, producing and directing Barbra's next picture even though nobody knew what it was except for the fact I'd told John it would be a kind of screwball comedy.

Barbra was enormously cooperative and fun to work with on the picture. It wasn't her favorite kind of material. She wanted to work with me, but she wanted to do a drama with me. She was disappointed that we did a way-out comedy. But she was very responsive and really didn't give me a hard time at all. She did everything I asked her to do. At one point, long before we started to shoot, she said, "You know, I've never really been directed." I said: "Really? No one's ever directed you?" She said, "No, never." So I said, "Well, I'll direct you because that's what I do." So whenever there was a problem, and she said, "What the hell are you doing?" I said, "I'm directing you."

She's so good as a comedienne that it was easy for her. That's why she didn't want to do comedy that much -- it was too easy for her. She knows timing; she's just really good at it. Basically, I tried to get the best of how I saw Barbra -- as funny and cute and charming and kind of a wiseass at the same time.

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I was on a plane during that period, and I heard Ethel Merman's rendition of Cole Porter's "You're the Top" on the airplane. I just thought it would be a good opening number, and it would be fun to have Barbra sing it. Since we had Barbra Streisand, we should have her sing at the beginning and end of the movie. I was there when she recorded it; she's very intimate with the mic. It's all about her and the mic. I was standing about 10 feet away, and I could hardly hear her.

When the film opened, the reaction to it was great. It was phenomenal. We broke the 30-year house record at Radio City Music Hall. I think it's a pity that Barbra didn't do more comedies like that. It suits her.

President Clinton will present Barbra Streisand with the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 40th Chaplin Award at the Film Society's Annual Gala on April 22 at New York's Avery Fisher Hall.