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.”
What pushed her forward wasn’t a hunger for fame as much as a desire to be accomplished, brilliant, and beautiful — words that hardly described her life growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn, where her family hadn’t even owned a couch. The first 25 years of Streisand’s life were indeed spent in an unswerving pursuit of fame — where the kooky kid of PM East was largely a publicist creation to get her noticed — but her vaunted ambition was never simply an engine to accumulate fans. Instead, it was the means by which she could prove that she had talent and appeal — that she mattered — to a father who had never known her, a mother who hadn’t cared, and a world that had felt she was too different to be successful. And she had no patience for paying her dues. “It was right to the top,” she said, “or nowhere at all.”
The paradigm of the gifted child whose parents were either missing or blind to their offspring’s gifts, who then grows up determined to be seen and affirmed by as many people as possible, has become one of the more familiar of the last century: Katharine Hepburn, Madonna, Bill Clinton, to name just a few. But it is Streisand who provides the clearest example. Even at 7 years old she was determined to prove the naysayers wrong. From that age onward, she was possessed with what she called “an uncontrollable itch,” an impulse that sent her shouldering and elbowing her way out of Brooklyn and into the world beyond, leaving her mother and all the limiting conventions of her childhood behind. “It just had to be,” she said. “There was no other way for me.”
Her narcissism, a trait that would characterize her life and create a vocal minority of detractors among her many admirers, proved a key ingredient of her success — perhaps even as essential as her ample talent. Greatness cannot be achieved, after all, without a corresponding belief in one’s own greatness. Streisand possessed a single-minded egoism that others resented or simply could not comprehend. Rosie O’Donnell, an ardent Streisand devotee, once pressed her on whether she too had had idols in her youth. There was a long pause, in which Streisand seemed to struggle with the very concept. “I don’t think so,” she said at last. Of course not: It had always been just her.
The flip side of narcissism, of course, is self-doubt, and for Streisand, the two have always gone hand in hand. Good reviews were always quickly forgotten, but the bad ones she could recite nearly verbatim, because part of her thought they were the only ones telling the truth. “That goes so deep,” she said — right back to those days in Brooklyn when her mother withheld praise and the girls at Erasmus Hall High School turned up their considerably smaller noses at her.
Yet the very fact that Streisand was always questioning herself, that she was never satisfied with her work (or, frequently, with the work of others), ensured that she never settled for anything less than the best — though sometimes she seemed to overshoot the best and expect perfection, especially from herself. Part of the reason she didn’t have pierced ears, Streisand explained to Oprah Winfrey, was because “each ear is a different length, so how could you possibly put a hole in exactly the same place on different ears?” But this insistence on precision has always been worn as a badge of pride: “I really don’t like being called a ‘perfectionist’ as if it’s a crime.” And why was it, she has asked, that only women are ever criticized for demanding the very best from themselves and others? Even her detractors concede she has a point on that score.
Every album she frets over, and this latest one will surely be no exception. When Love is the Answer came out, she worried that the world had moved on, that maybe she’d been around too long. “It’s the next person’s turn,” she said. “I could believe it if nobody came to see me.” She was right to wonder. Showbiz has become a very different world than it was when she started out. Now it’s less about a desire for excellence than it is a lust for notoriety — the complete inverse of Streisand’s approach. In a world of Kardashians and Snookis and drunken Real Housewives, Streisand represents a time when talent mattered, when the pursuit of greatness, not infamy, was rewarded.
The kids might know her as the mother from the Fockers movies, from the Duck Sauce riff, as Lea Michele’s inspiration on Glee. But people of a certain age — especially gay men, who once felt as outside the gate as she did — remember a time when the newness and difference of Barbra Streisand changed everything and rewrote all the rules. With her unyielding pursuit of virtuosity over vapidity, it seems she is still bucking the trend.
[See several of the quintessential Streisand performances on the following pages.]
William J. Mann is a journalist and author of numerous books, including Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn. His next, Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, is due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.
One of the most legendary moments in show business: Streisand's famed 1963 duet with fellow icon Judy Garland solidified her status as "the new belter."
Streisand's electrifying performance of "My Man" in the 1968 film version of Funny Girl helped win her an Academy Award as best actress.
Streisand's powerful delivery of Alan and Marilyn Bergman's wistful lyrics made "The Way We Were" (performed here on a 1975 TV special) one of her most enduring hits.
Streisand's stirring rendition of the yearning ballad "Somewhere" from West Side Story on her Broadway Album in 1986 helped revitalize her music career.
Streisand discusses her lush new album What Matters Most with close friends, songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman.