From the moment she burst on the Hollywood scene in Funny Girl, winking as she uttered the immortal “Hello, gorgeous” to her mirror image, until the release of her 1996 film, The Mirror Has Two Faces, there was and has been no one quite like Barbra Streisand.
She was born off-off-off Broadway, in Brooklyn, the second child of Emmanuel and Diana (Rosen) Streisand, on April 24, 1942. Fifteen months later, Emmanuel Streisand died of a cerebral hemorrhage and the family immediately plunged to an economic level just above poverty. Diana Streisand took a job as a bookkeeper to support her daughter Barbara Joan and son Sheldon, leaving her little time for her children. The situation was only exacerbated when, in 1949, she married Louis Kind, who was, according to Streisand, “allergic to kids.” The couple had one child together, Rosalind (later changed to Roslyn). They then separated, reconciled, and finally divorced.
Streisand graduated from Erasmus High School in 1959 with a love of the theater and an impressive A average. Her formal education may have ended in Brooklyn, but her academic rewards are ongoing. In May 1995, she received an honorary doctorate from Brandeis, and earlier that year she had delivered a lecture at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
As soon as she graduated from high school, despite her mother’s protests, she left home to pursue her chosen career in Manhattan. Streisand worked odd jobs while preparing for stardom. She tried to enter the famous Actors Studio, but failed, so she took acting lessons from a friend, Alan Miller, instead, working hard at perfecting her craft. She then moved in with another actor friend, Barry Dennen, who steered her toward singing, helping her shape a song into a theatrical event. Streisand’s first venue for this combined approach was the weekly talent show at the Lion Club, one of the premier gay clubs in New York.
The underground bar scene fostered a sense of self and a sense of humor that readily warmed to Streisand: The kooky outsider finally found a place where her persona was appreciated and applauded. Journalist Shaun Considine recalls, “with the release of the final note from the song she was treated to her first ovation; and to her first victory.” Hired for a one-week engagement, Streisand stayed at the Lion Club for three, building an idiosyncratic songbook and perfecting a wacky delivery style of impromptu one-liners. By word of mouth alone, the Lion Club was mobbed every evening to hear Streisand. She had become a gay icon overnight, and has remained so ever since.
Following her success at the gay cabaret, Streisand was offered a job by the nearby Bon Soir club, to double her weekly salary. Once again, her engagement was quickly extended, from three weeks to thirteen. She was working hard on her act, and the audience responded appreciatively wherever she was booked: New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis. In 1961, she made her television debut on The lack Paar Show, but it was her role of Miss Marmelstein in Broadway’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale at age nineteen that put Streisand on the fast track to superstardom.
The part of Miss Marmelstein was enlarged for her, and new songs were added. The show ran for nine months, garnering much praise. Streisand won more than rave reviews for Wholesale -- she also won the heart of the male lead, Elliott Gould. The two married in 1963. In 1966, they had a son, Jason Emmanuel. In 1969, they separated, and in 1971 they divorced, although they later hosted Jason’s bar mitzvah celebration together.
Although Streisand’s show-stopping turn as Miss Marmelstein gave her national media exposure, it took months for Columbia Records to sign her to a contract. She was, it seems, too much of everything for their taste: too Brooklyn, too Broadway, too Jewish, too special, too eccentric, too unattractive. Her songs were too old and too obscure, and her style was too homosexual. Finally, in the spring of 1964, The Barbra Streisand Album was released and made history: it remained on the charts for nearly eighteen months, establishing Streisand as one of the most popular American singers of all time.
The path from Barbara to Barbra, Manhattan to Malibu, has been neither linear, nor always successful. Following her astounding movie breakthrough in Funny Girl in 1968, Streisand snatched Hello, Dolly! from Carol Charming, who had made Dolly Levy a household name. Playing a middle-aged matchmaker was not a wise career move, however, and the film flopped. Its album peaked at number forty-nine on the chart, a dismal placing for a star. Having won an Oscar for Funny Girl, Streisand was not even nominated for Hello, Dolly! Her next film, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, was nearly not released, and the soundtrack sold poorly--until the release of The Owl and the Pussycat in 1970 made it almost look passable.
Then came What’s Up, Doc? with Ryan O’Neal (they would team up again in The Main Event — and jump-start the fitness craze). She was back in orbit. In 1973, The Way We Were would bring her not only more money, fame, and fans, but also her first number one hit song. By then, she had also participated in her first political fund-raiser, for George McGovern (an act that would place her on Richard Nixon’s enemies list). By the end of the 1970s, Streisand had starred in a rock remake of A Star Is Born with Kris Kristofferson and collaborated with singer-songwriter Barry Gibb on her best-selling album Guilty. She was on her way to superstardom.
In September 1981, idolized and iconized, Streisand recorded “Memory” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit show Cats. According to Considine, then at Columbia Records, she declined to record “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita because Eva Peron “was a fascist.” The album Memories went platinum even though it featured only two new songs.
But her next project took a lot of chutzpah, and won for her both accolades and condemnation. Streisand both directed and starred in the film version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story Yentl. Even though the movie made money, garnered good reviews, and inspired women’s groups, she did not receive an Academy Award nomination (the film did win an Oscar for its music). Nor did Singer find the film treatment faithful to his original text.
Briefly crushed, Streisand was soon back in the limelight again, in her own way, on her own terms, with The Broadway Album. The first cut on the recording is Streisand speaking with two advisers, who tell her the record won’t sell-yet it peaked at number one on the charts and won two Grammys. In 1991, she tried her hand again at directing and starring (as well as producing) a film, Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. And again, despite the movie’s good reviews and box office success, Streisand was snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She turned her energies to helping elect Bill Clinton. In November 1996, she released another film in which she starred as well as directed and produced, The Mirror Has Two Faces. The movie was a hit with the fans, but the reviews were generally unfavorable.
To date, then, Streisand has appeared in sixteen movies, mastering each genre — comedy, drama, musical — in turn. Whatever the plot, however, Streisand is decidedly, defiantly, Jewish. She portrays many undeniably Jewish Characters: Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Funny Lady; Dolly Levy in Hello, Dolly!; the teenaged yeshiva boy who is really a girl in Yentl; and a Jewish psychiatrist in The Prince of Tides. In fact, even when she plays a non-Jew, she is Jewish nonetheless, acting the part with courage and conviction. She even made the lead role in the classic A Star Is Born Jewish, and insisted on playing a Jewish Rose in The Mirror Has Two Faces, formerly a French farce.
Before Streisand, conventional wisdom stated that looking Jewish, for an actress, meant being relegated to supporting roles. Now, thirty years after Streisand, looking Jewish, ethnic, or in any way different has become chic. Streisand’s Jewishness is not a role, but a lifestyle. She has been generous to Jewish causes and philanthropies in the United States and in Israel, honoring the memory of her late father, an educator. When asked why she performs, Streisand has indicated that it is not for the money. “I have enough money, thank God, and the only reason I want it is to give it away. There’s nothing more I need,” she told the New York Times in 1983.
She champions environmental projects and is a dedicated Democratic fund-raiser; she raised so much money for Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign that she was invited to his inauguration. She later spearheaded a boycott of Colorado ski resorts when that state passed Proposition 2 to deny gay men and lesbians any legal recourse against even the most blatant homophobia: “We must now say clearly that the moral climate in Colorado is no longer acceptable, and if we’re asked to, we must refuse to play where they discriminate.”
Streisand’s often courageous stands earn her the unswerving respect and loyalty of fans all over the world. At Harvard, she explained her philosophy:
Yet in public performances and on the screen as the singer and actress, Streisand has a carefully constructed persona. She is touted as a natural talent, but she has taken many acting lessons. She sings to standing-room-only crowds, but she rarely performs in public because of her stage fright. She has a reputation with Hollywood insiders for arrogance, but is deeply insecure. Streisand is a perfectionist, pouring all her time and energy into her film projects, but Hollywood loves to snub her.
Streisand, unapologetic about her insistence on total control over her movies and albums, believes the criticism is indicative of sexism. “Of course I want utter and complete control over every product I do. You know, the audience buys my work because I control it, because I am a perfectionist, because I care deeply.”
Streisand’s fans think they know better; they love her. In her long career, Streisand has spawned a legion of fans, including singer Tony Bennett, whose 1995 album Here’s to the Ladies begins with a tribute to Streisand and her signature song, “People”: “From her humble beginnings to her triumph in the theater, no one has been more successful than Barbra. She is at the pinnacle of her art.” Her films, albums, and rare public performances continue to break records. Fans are united in their love of the multitalented star and their hatred of what they perceive to be sensation seeking critics. There are Streisand fan clubs, Streisand fanzines, Streisand cyber-fansites, Streisand collectors, Streisand groupies, and just plain Streisand aficionados. The most notable of these just opened a Streisand boutique in California called, appropriately, Hello Gorgeous. To her fans, Streisand is a trailblazer who has developed her own unique sense of style and beauty. Her lifework, as expressed in her music and movies, as well as in her political activism, is a defiant reexamination and redefinition of these terms -- beauty, style, woman, activist -- on her own terms.
Fans and critics alike agree that Streisand is extraordinarily gifted as a performer. Marvin Hamlisch, who in 1962 was Streisand’s rehearsal pianist and in 1973 wrote the music for her hit movie The Way We Were, recalled his awe and surprise at her acumen for musical phrasing: “There was nothing she couldn’t do with that voice, and she had an instinctual music taste that brought genius to everything she sang.” She is equally at home singing ballads and rock, playing a harlot and a Hasid, directing a movie or producing one, creating her image or decorating a house.
Designer Isaac Mizrahi, in the March 1997 issue of Out magazine, recalls that in his youth, Streisand was “one of my icons. She was kind of a misfit, and yet she convinced everyone she was beautiful, including me. She is beautiful, but she’s not the prototypical ideal of female beauty.”
She has recorded more than 50 albums – thirty went gold and twenty went platinum, making her one of the most popular singers of all time. Moreover, many of her albums have produced hit singles. She has starred in sixteen major movies, three of which she directed. She consistently draws sellout crowds to her live performances. Her television specials brought her to living rooms from Burbank to the Bronx. In addition, her innumerable philanthropic contributions to a wide variety of worthy causes are a testament to the fact that Streisand is much more than just an exceptionally talented and accomplished entertainer.
Barbra Streisand is more than another consumer culture icon. She is a diva. A superstar. A sensation. Since the 1960s, she has won more varied awards (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, special Tony) than anyone else in show business, and has sold more records than any singers but the Beatles. In 2021, she became the only the second person (Bob Dylan is the other), and first woman to record a top 20 album on the Billboard charts in every decade from the 1960s to the 2020s.
She is timeless, enduring, phenomenal. She has triumphed as herself in a town that thrives on make-believe, and she has done it all without mirrors.
Sources: Paula Hyman and Deborah Dash Moore eds. Jewish Women in America. NY: Routledge, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS).
Ben Sales, “Barbra Streisand sets another record: A top 20 album in every decade since the 1960s,” JTA, (August 22, 2021).
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.