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“I am not a diva,” Barbra Streisand, the legendary singer, songwriter, actress, producer, writer and director, says as we sit down on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where she has been re-editing her 1976 film A Star Is Born ahead of its upcoming rerelease on Netflix, to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Streisand, of course, is a diva, in the traditional sense — she’s a famous female singer, maybe the most famous of all time — but the 76-year-old is referring to the slangy sense that has been used by some to disparage her, over the decades, as someone who is difficult to work with. She believes that this idea took root because she was one of the earliest examples of a woman in Hollywood who expected — no, demanded — creative control over her work, as had many men before her in a male-dominated business. As she puts it, “They weren’t used to someone like me — who had opinions, by the way.”
However one labels Streisand, the effectiveness of her way of doing things is undeniable. She is one of the 10 best-selling music artists in history, having sold 145 million units. She has had the most top 10 albums of any female recording artist in history, 34; the most No. 1 albums of any female recording artist in history, 11; and is the only singer in history, male or female, with at least one No. 1 album in six consecutive decades. Of her albums, 53 have gone gold, 31 have gone platinum and 14 have gone multi-platinum — all records for a female performer. She also is one of only 18 people of either gender to achieve an EGOT — winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — if you count honorary awards, like her special Tony from 1970, along with competitive ones, in her case four Emmys; eight Grammys, on top of two special ones; and two Oscars.
And she’s still going strong: One evening’s performance during her 2016 blockbuster 13-city concert tour, in Miami, was filmed and later edited into Barbra: The Music… The Mem’ries… The Magic!, a variety special that she co-directed with Jim Gable, which is now streaming on Netflix and is in serious Emmy contention.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Click here to access all of our 221 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Jerry Seinfeld, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Natalie Portman, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Alicia Vikander, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Brosnahan, Tyler Perry, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Mandy Moore, J.J. Abrams, Emilia Clarke, Jimmy Kimmel, Jane Fonda, Bill Maher, Claire Foy, Michael Moore, Amy Schumer, RuPaul, Jennifer Lopez, Robert De Niro, Lena Waithe, Ryan Murphy, Emma Stone, Ricky Gervais, Kris Jenner, Michael B. Jordan & Elisabeth Moss.
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Streisand was born in Brooklyn during World War II. Her father, a teacher, died when she was just 15 months old, leaving Streisand’s emotionally devastated mother, a housewife, to raise her and her older brother in a cooped-up little apartment that they shared with her mother’s parents. Streisand “was a lonely kid,” even after her mother remarried, as her step-father, who came to the family with a daughter of his own, had little time for her. “It was a bit dysfunctional,” she acknowledges, but reasons, “It all makes you who you are.” One thing, though, was clear from an early age: She had talent. “We used to gather around on the stoop in Brooklyn,” she recalls. “I was known as the kid on the block with no father and a good voice.”
Streisand’s world was small — she never even ventured into Manhattan until she was 14 — but her ambitions were big. “I lived in my imagination,” she says. “I read movie magazines and dreamed.” Contrary to popular belief, her greatest dream was not to be a singer, but to be an actress. “I wanted to be in the theater,” she recalls. “I wanted to be a classical actress.” So she began taking acting classes at 14 — “I was babysitting for my lessons,” she says, while a classmate, Dustin Hoffman, was working as a janitor for his — and also dabbled in summer stock.
It was her voice that first caught the attention of others. In 1960, at the urging of a friend, 18-year-old Streisand entered a talent contest at The Lion, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, sang a song, blew away the audience and won. She was then encouraged to audition for a bigger club nearby, the Bon Soir, which quickly hired her. Along the way, she dropped an ‘a’ from her first name; won the admiration of the married songwriters Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, who were brought to see her by Jule Styne, all of whom would become close collaborators; and became well known enough to begin touring area nightclubs. “I didn’t want to be a singer,” she emphasizes, “but, I thought, when I sang in those nightclubs, I could use my acting experience, and that’s what I did on stage.”
In 1960, Streisand landed a manager, Marty Erlichman, who helped her to grow her name beyond New York. She became nationally known as a singer through a 1961 appearance on The Tonight Show, but still wanted to focus on acting. She signed up to make her Broadway debut in 1962’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale, in which she played a fiftysomething secretary and made a huge impression with “Miss Marmelstein,” a song, named after her character, that she sang from a chair on wheels. “That number stopped the show,” she recalls with a chuckle, and propelled her to a Tony nomination. During that show’s run, she also married her co-star, Elliott Gould, and signed her first recording contract, with Columbia — winning, with Erlichman, complete creative control over every aspect of her music and its promotion. “I’m not gonna do songs that people tell me to sing,” she emphasizes.
Shortly after a 1963 duet with Judy Garland on The Judy Garland Show that marked something of a changing of the guard in the world of music, Streisand embarked on the project that would start her on the road to international stardom: Funny Girl. She had craved “a meaty part” in “a dramatic musical,” and was offered one as Fanny Brice in the 1964 Broadway production, during which she got to display her comedic abilities and sing songs that have since become classics, such as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” en route to another Tony nom. (She also made a dear friend in the rehearsal pianist, Marvin Hamlisch.) By the end of her time with the show, at the end of 1965, she was clearly on her way to great things, so much so that she made a TV special — her first, 1965’s My Name Is Barbra — that also became something of a phenomenon. “I loved film, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to be a movie star,” she explains. “This was like film to me.” It won five Emmys.
For a while, actual film stardom was elusive, so concert touring made sense. However, a 1967 performance in Central Park that attracted 150,000 people proved a scarring experience, she says: “I forgot the lyrics to one of my songs and it just so threw me. Things were going wrong. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I am so vulnerable.'” As a result, she didn’t tour again for the next 27 years. Fortunately, she didn’t have to. In 1968, Streisand was hired to make her film debut in an adaptation of Funny Girl under the direction of one of Hollywood’s most venerated directors, William Wyler. People at Columbia flocked to see what this unusual prodigy was all about, and upon the film’s release, so did the public. Around that same time, several Jewish men were breaking out of character parts, to which ethnic-looking people had always been confined, to become full-fledged stars — among them, Hoffman, Gould (whom Streisand would divorce in 1971), Woody Allen and George Segal — but Streisand was the first Jewish woman to do so. Some had urged her to change her nose, and remarked on her being “a little cross-eyed,” but she wouldn’t change a thing. “I was always confused about how I looked,” she says. “One minute I thought, ‘Awful,’ and the next minute I thought, ‘Yeah, pretty good, girl.'” She continues, “I wasn’t conventional-looking, but something about me caught on.”
Indeed it did. Streisand’s Funny Girl performance was recognized with the best actress Oscar, in a tie with The Lion in Winter‘s Katharine Hepburn, making her one of only four women who have been awarded that prize for a big-screen debut. And she was immediately a superstar hired to lead other pictures. Among them were Gene Kelly‘s Hello, Dolly! (1969), the most expensive movie musical ever made up to that point (she tried to get out of it because, she says, “I thought I was too young for the role”); Peter Bogdanovich‘s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), which showcased her as madcap comedienne; and The Way We Were (1973), a heartbreaking love story that paired her, the ultimate Jewish leading lady, opposite Robert Redford, the ultimate WASP leading man. (For The Way We Were, she was again nominated for the best actress Oscar, and the title song, which the Bergmans and Hamlisch wrote for her, won the best original song Oscar.)
By the time A Star Is Born came along in 1976, Streisand craved the same sort of creative control over her films that she had long had over her music. So, in partnership with Jon Peters, the hairdresser-to-the-stars who was her boyfriend at the time, she produced one of her starring vehicles for the first time. Critics savaged the movie, but the public made it the third highest-grosser of the year, and Streisand and Paul Williams won best original song Oscars for its love theme, “Evergreen.” Streisand was hooked. “I loved the whole creative process,” she says, “and I realized I had to direct.” (As an aside, she notes that she recently saw footage of the upcoming Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version of A Star Is Born: “It wasn’t finished yet, but it’s a lot like mine.”)
For the next seven years, Streisand fought to bring to the screen — as writer, producer, director and star, a first for a woman — a romantic musical drama called Yentl. “It was hard to get it made,” she acknowledges, “maybe because [men in the business questioned], ‘A woman is going to do this? A woman can be financially responsible?'” (In the meantime, she turned down multiple roles that brought other actresses invites to the Oscars — among them, Klute, for which Jane Fonda won best actress.) Yentl proved a triumph. Hailed by no less than Steven Spielberg as the best directorial debut since Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane, Streisand won the best director Golden Globe and fell in love with directing. Seven years later, she helmed The Prince of Tides (Peters was by now running Columbia and made it when no other studio would), and five years after that she directed The Mirror Has Two Faces. Performers from each of the three films she has directed received acting Oscar nominations — Amy Irving for Yentl; Nick Nolte and Kate Nelligan for The Prince of Tides; and Lauren Bacall for The Mirror Has Two Faces. “To get the best performances out of the actors — that’s really my job and it’s what I love to do,” Streisand says.
It’s been 22 years, though, since Streisand last directed a narrative feature film. She says this is partly because she is very picky — “I read scripts and I turn them down [because] it has to be magical to me” — and partly because she isn’t always offered the ones she does want to direct, like Hidden Figures, which was made in 2016. Does she think she will ever direct again? Yes, she emphasizes, and then breaks some news: “As a matter of fact, I just signed a contract to do my next film — to direct.” Streisand won’t reveal further details at this time. (As for acting, she has long held out hope that she will get to play Mama Rose in a big-screen adaptation of Gypsy: “I really wanted to play that part, I must say. That would have been my farewell on screen. It was a bookend, to me, to Funny Girl, written by Jule Styne; and I love Stephen Sondheim‘s work; and I know that character because my mother was kind of like that.”)
In 1994, Streisand, still haunted by the 1967 Central Park performance, reluctantly returned to concert touring. “Twenty-seven years later,” she says, “I decided, ‘I have to challenge myself and get back on stage and perform.'” Over the years since, she has given additional concerts only sporadically — “I have done, since 1963 ’til now, 100 dates,” she notes — for reasons that might surprise her fans. “I just don’t enjoy singing live,” she states frankly. “It’s a different experience. I’m having such fun recording now with headphones on — I don’t care how I look, I don’t care how I dress, I don’t care, it’s only about me and the music in my ears.” Streisand further confesses, “I just get tired of singing the same songs.” But one wouldn’t know any of that from watching Barbra: The Music… The Mem’ries… The Magic!, which is a beautifully shot, rollicking trip — running less than two hours — through songs from each of her No. 1 albums (plus other selections like “Pure Imagination”), during which she appears to be relaxed and having fun, banters with the crowd, changes outfits, cuddles with her dog Sammie (who has since died and been cloned into two other dogs) and blows the roof off of the arena. Giving a concert isn’t all bad, Streisand grants: “I love the audience, meaning, I love being appreciated, of course, you know? And I love the fact that it pays well and I can buy paintings — I did my last tour for a painting. A little woman by Modigliani.”