Barbra Streisand, the 80-year-old star who did not ‘fix’ her nose and who sets her own rules
The artist has achieved every possible award in music and cinema. A committed Democrat and defender of LGBTQ+ rights, she now leads a private and fulfilling life
It is likely that only Barbra Streisand herself knows for sure what remains of the child she once was. The one that her mother, Diana, didn’t hesitate to call ugly, shamelessly letting her know that she was the beast while her sister Rosalind was the beauty. She was a fatherless child (her dad was a grammar teacher who died when she was 15 months old due to an epileptic seizure) who had to live first in the humble home of her grandparents and later in the one her mother created with her second husband. They were “loveless” places, as her older brother Sheldon once explained, where all they tried to do was avoid getting slapped and grounded. The young girl realized early on that only her voice would help her make a living. Right after high school, she got an acting scholarship in exchange for babysitting the children of the owner of that school. She got rejected on Broadway and earned a living singing in the bars of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. Now, as she turns 80 and looks back at her life as a star (who no longer sells out tickets only because she no longer does tours) and a pioneer of music, cinema and theater, it seems that there is not much left of that little Jewish girl from Brooklyn.
But surely it all helped forge the legend that she has become. Like it or not, there is nobody quite like Barbra Streisand. Reviewing her achievements and her professional career, so diverse, complex and successful in so many fields, could easily sound like reading off a Wikipedia or IMDb listing. One of the most powerful artists in the music and film industries, Streisand has sold more than 200 million records worldwide, a third of them in her own country. Her first album, released when she had not yet turned 21, became the bestselling record in US history performed by a woman – it spent more than 100 weeks on the sales charts – and achieved three Grammys. It’s been four decades since The New York Times said of her that she was “the most influential mainstream American pop singer since Frank Sinatra.” Tickets for her few tours, despite costing in some cases more than €1,000, used to sell out in minutes.
As for acting, her passion was born after seeing a performance of The Diary of Anne Frank in 1956. After taking classes, she herself went up on stage in March 1962 for a small role as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, so her 80th birthday also coincides with the 60th anniversary of her stage debut. In cinema, she worked on 37 movies as an actress, 27 as a producer and three as a director (in addition to half a dozen video clips and documentaries). All this work landed her five Oscar nominations and two wins; in fact, she was the first woman to win an Academy Award as a songwriter, in 1976 for A Star Is Born. But she never hesitated to criticize the prevailing sexism in an industry in which she was always ahead of the curve. Streisand also has 10 Grammys, nine Golden Globes, five Emmys and an honorary Tony, which makes her one of the few artists to have achieved EGOT (an acronym for Emmy, Globe, Oscar and Tony). All of this, moreover, while maintaining a tight artistic control over her creations, since it did not take her long to found her own production company, in 1969, with Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier; they would later be joined by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Streisand has been a pioneer across the board. She has been on the cover of Vogue, People, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair, as well as Life, New York, Newsweek and Time. In 1972, she dared to go on stage smoking marijuana; she later said that she never tried it again: “I didn’t like how it made me feel,” she told Variety. In 1976 she released a classical music album that left critics speechless; that same year she starred in A star is Born. And all this, moreover, without the kind of physique that the world of entertainment then seemed to be demanding. “I arrived in Hollywood without getting my nose fixed, my teeth capped or my name changed. That is very gratifying to me”, is one of her most famous phrases.
Her philanthropy and her humanitarian work, her constant defense of the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community (her only son, Jason, is gay and she has always said that she just wants him to be happy), her constant and generous fundraising for the Democratic cause —Bill Clinton’s arrival at the White House would not have happened without her— and her passion for the arts have also earned her such disparate awards as the French Legion of Honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the American Film Award and the Kennedy Award. Her speech at Harvard University in 1995, titled The artist as a citizen, on the importance of creators getting involved in the politics of their countries, is still remembered and was published by the press that February.
Streisand’s public projection has always been accompanied by a certain and logical interest in her private life, but it has not exposed her the way one might expect of someone with the stratospheric level of her career. While other minor celebrities have sold every last drop of their intimate lives, the diva has never needed it. Considered somewhat eccentric —four years ago she ordered two clones of her deceased dog—, she is far from being an intractable diva, and has discreetly and naturally experienced romances, separations and births. In the play that marked her theatrical debut, she also met her first husband, the actor Elliott Gould, with whom she had her son Jason (today also an artist) in 1966, after three years of marriage. The love would last only five more years, until the divorce in 1971. He has always defended that in that relationship, what mattered most was her career.
After that, there were many men who passed through Streisand’s life, some confirmed, others not so much. Of Elvis Presley she has only said that, when he entered her dressing room, she was “speechless.” Marlon Brando was a more platonic love. “He wanted to take me to the desert to see the wildflowers and for us to sleep over in a ghost town, but I was such a nice Jewish girl that I just said, ‘Marlon, I can’t stay overnight with you. I’ll go with you for the day’,” she said a decade ago on CNN. While shooting Funny Girl, in 1967, she was said to be close to Omar Sharif; she was still married at the time. After her divorce from Gould, she started a relationship with Jon Peters, a hairdresser turned producer who shared almost a decade with her, although they never got married (Peters did marry Pamela Anderson, in a marriage that lasted 12 days). He was a great promoter of her career, producing the first version of A Star Is Born with Streisand, in its 1976 version, and also the 2018 version (which the diva didn’t like).
André Agassi, whom she dated in the early 1990s for a few months, was one of her most notorious romances although it was never confirmed by either party. The 28-year age difference was underscored by the tabloid press. Names such as Ryan O’Neal, Jon Voight, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Kris Kristofferson, former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current one, Justin) have also been mentioned... In the 2006 book Barbra, the Way She Is, Christopher Andersen maintains that she had a fleeting one-night stand with Bill Clinton in the White House when he was president and Hillary was away taking care of her sick father. Her good relationship with Prince Charles of England has also been the subject of scrutiny (in Andersen’s version they had an affair in 1994, when the prince was still married to Diana), and she herself has fed the legend, commenting half-jokingly that she could have been “the first Jewish princess.”
Stability came into her life almost 25 years ago, when she met actor and director James Brolin, whom she married in July 1998. As he has commented on occasion, their work and financial independence from one another have placed them in an ideal situation: “I have my own money and she has hers. This is my third marriage, so I don’t want there to be any reason why I should have to get married or divorced again. We’ve been in heaven this whole time, so it works.”
At 80 years old, the girl who suffered from stage fright has achieved it all: a career as a successful artist, an intelligent producer and a renowned director who enjoys creative freedom, critical acclaim and public affection, as well as a quiet, steady love and a complete family with her son and Brolin’s grandchildren. Serenely, discreetly, step by step, determined to take on the world. Because as Shirley MacLaine said of her when she won the honorary Golden Globe in 2000, “if she had cooked, she would have been the owner of the catering service.”