Why Barbra Streisand Matters
BY William Mann
August 23 2011 4:00 AM ET
In 1962, whenever a teenage singer from Brooklyn named Barbra Streisand appeared on the television talk show PM East, gay bars all across the country turned off their music so their patrons could watch. Streisand was unpredictable. When host Mike Wallace asked her what she was going to sing next, she replied, “The Kinsey Report.” With her perfect figure, prominent nose, and two-inch-long fingernails — and a voice that one critic called a “natural wonder of the age” — Streisand was gate-crashing her way into the big time, at a time when beauty and talent were measured by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. For gay men, Streisand was fabulousness defined. And, as always, what the gays first identified as special eventually became the thing everybody wanted, and it wasn’t long before Barbra Streisand was the biggest star in the world.
Nearly half a century later, Streisand is suddenly cool again. At the clubs, Duck Sauce’s irrepressibly catchy mix, “Barbra Streisand,” rules the dance floor. There’s barely an episode of Glee that doesn’t feature Streisand’s music, name, or image. Funny Girl, the show that launched her Broadway stardom in 1964, is being revived, and next year her road-trip comedy with Seth Rogen, Guilt Trip, is set to hit theaters. Also next year, if the showbiz gods are kind, Streisand will star in a new version of Gypsy. And this week she releases a new album, her 64th, What Matters Most.
The unlikely fame that Streisand grabbed for herself 50 years ago has endured. When she released her last album, Love is the Answer, in 2009, hundreds of fans thronged a private concert she gave in New York’s Greenwich Village. Grown men cried when they caught a glimpse of her. But Streisand has never been an extrovert performer — a Liza Minnelli — thriving in the spotlight. Instead, from the beginning, she took fame on her terms. Excellence had been the goal — not the adulation that came with it, not grown men bursting into tears. And that is why, in a world where the spotlight is too often the raison d’être for celebrities, Streisand still matters.
When she was very young, hunched down in a Brooklyn movie theater, watching Gone With the Wind, she wasn’t dreaming of being a glamorous movie star in the “usual sense,” she’d explain. She didn’t want “to be a star having to sign autographs or being recognized and all that,” she pointed out. Instead, she wanted to become an actress, and a successful one, where she could choose parts that would allow her to flee an unhappy childhood and become somebody else. “I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara,” she said, explaining the distinction, “not Vivien Leigh.”