“It’s because I was always fascinated by gender discrimination,” says Barbra Streisand when asked about her notorious philanthropic tendencies among an intimate L.A. audience of 200 on Thursday night (Jan. 5). “When I talked about wanting to be in control [in my early years] I remember the response, ‘What do you mean you? You’re a woman!’ When I directed Yentl a piece ran that said that women should stay in their place. What? That’s a big factor in why Hillary Clinton wasn’t elected. There are still a lot of people — men and women — who just can’t see a woman in charge. And now look what we’ve got…”
Streisand knows what it is to challenge societal preconceptions about gender, about appearance, about creed. As this genuine superstar is introduced tonight inside the Clive Davis Theater of L.A.’s Grammy Museum, the list of accolades attributed to her sounds excessive. We’re told she’s an eight-time Grammy winner, nominated again at the upcoming 59th Awards in February for her latest album Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. We’re informed that she’s a recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, that she’s four times inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame, and also winner of the Grammy Legend Award, which has only ever been bestowed upon 15 artists. Then there’s her other accolades including the feat that she’s among a select number of artists to win an Emmy, an Oscar, a Tony, a Golden Globe. And she’s the only artist to have No. 1 albums in six consecutive decades. It’s staggering. But as Streisand enters the stage for a conversation with the museum’s executive director Bob Santelli, you realize it’s not intentionally excessive on her part. Actually it’s a well-earned byproduct of the necessary feats this self-made, drama-obsessed female upstart from New York had to undertake in order to be taken seriously.
“I was known on the block as the kid who had no father but had a good voice! That was my MO. I knew I had a good voice.” Streisand admits that singing was her only path to Hollywood. “I couldn’t get a job as an actress,” she told Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli. Describing acting as “an escape from my dreary little world”, Streisand recalls a meeting with the casting director for producer David Susskind. She was trying to get a walk-on role playing a beatnik. “You don’t have to act good or bad for a walk-on, you just have to look the part. I said, ‘Do I look like a beatnik? I could be Sarah Bernhardt or the lousiest actor but I’m wearing black tights so what does it matter?’ Of course I never got the callback.” The room falls silent as she contemplates the key to a drive that never relented despite so much rejection. “It’s a combination of confidence and enormous self doubt. You’re always afraid that you’re not good enough but you know you have the vision. You can see yourself doing it and you have to make it happen.”
Tonight is the first 2017 event for the museum’s annual public programmes series and all proceeds go towards funding music programmes for underprivileged youth in L.A., which speaks to Streisand’s never-ending passion for charity and politics. The audience of die-hard fans and close friends of Streisand’s (including husband James Brolin and executive producer Jay Landers) laugh, sigh and clap during the 74-year-old’s trips down memory lane, taking in stories of her early Brooklyn years, her first forays into film, her directorial feats and her relationship today with touring. She enters and exits to standing ovations. She wears all black. She talks with that New York matter-of-fact swagger that never gets too excited. There’s no BS with Barbra Streisand.
Beginning with her latest album, she talks about taking a director’s approach in the studio with the likes of Jamie Foxx, Seth MacFarlane and Melissa McCarthy, revealing that they were all intimidated to get in the studio with her. “The first thing Melissa McCarthy said was, ‘I can’t sing you know!’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter!’”
Moving onto her portrayal in the media early on she admits at being baffled by critics who would describe her as “kooky”. “Just because I could get a great dress for five dollars?!” she jibes. She offers an anecdote about going to a couch store in Detroit and falling in love with a damask burgundy fabric. She bought a few yards to make a dress with it. Recalling the name of the store’s owner, she invited him to one of her most recent shows. He’s 95 years-old now.
Streisand’s stories are on the tip of her tongue at the moment because she’s writing that long-awaited book, finally committing her life to paper with the aid of journals that go back 25 to 30 years. “It’s really tough,” she says admitting that one of the only reasons she’s turned to writing is because there’s no money to continue making the films she so wants to make. “I wasn’t interested in the money [in the beginning]. I don’t even know what I got paid. I just cared about artistic control and I still do.”
Throughout the conversation, she repeatedly professes to being lazy. She only likes to do a maximum of four vocal takes (“I get so tired of listening to myself”). She doesn’t care for her voice (“I try to do some vocal exercises while I’m rehearsing but it’s so boring”). She refuses to sing at house parties, and definitely doesn’t sing in the shower (“why would I sing in the shower?!”), preferring only to release her gift in the studio. “When I’m in the house I don’t sound very good. I always tell people, Don’t ask me to sing happy birthday!”
Despite working on the book, Streisand rejects any joy for nostalgia. She never listens to old albums or returns to the likes of her directorial efforts Yentl and Prince Of Tides. “Oh god no!” She remembers buying a Billie Holiday record in a supermarket ad being impressed by Maria Callas growing up but that’s about it. After her breakthrough (which came during the time of the British Invasion) she was disengaged with pop. “I didn’t get The Beatles until much later. I was listening to Johnny Mathis!” Even today, she doesn’t play music in the house. This past New Years Eve was spent with Woody Allen. “I love him,” she says. She couldn’t stand the music playing in the room because it distracted from the conversation and asked that it be turned down. “Music is work to me on the one hand. On the other hand it’s everything. My mother had Alzheimer’s. She didn’t know who I was but she remembered melodies. That’s powerful.”
There were 27 years during which Streisand didn’t perform following a performance that turned into an ordeal in Central Park in 1967 during Israel’s Six Day War. “Omar Sharif’s films were banned from going to Egypt because he was performing with a Jewess and that was scary. I forgot the lyrics to two of my songs. It left a big imprint on me.” As a result she wouldn’t charge to sing any more, and instead did fundraisers exclusively. “I don’t get stage fright now. Gratitude is my attitude. I’m grateful that I can still sing. But there’ll always be that feeling of: what’ll I say next… where am I now?” Hence her use of a teleprompter at her latest concert at Staples Center across the street just six months ago.
At the moment she only has two more dates in New York in the calendar: one in Nassau County, the other around the TriBeCa Film Festival. She wavers on any questions surrounding future tours. On the subject of another album she teases that she thinks her next one could be a solo record. Does she enjoy performing again? “I wouldn’t say enjoy. I challenged myself to get over my fear.” Streisand may insist she’s lazy but it seems she protests that one a little too much.