Barbra Streisand: Sacred Cow

Though Joe Queenan hasn't yet seen Barbra Streisand's new film Prince of Tides, it's unlikely to change his opinion of her. He just watched all her old movies on video, and he's convinced "she should have stuck to making comedies."


In Barbra Streisand's very first movie--a perky Broadway play successfully translated to the silver screen in 1968--the filmmakers immediately address the subject of the actress's unconventional physical appearance, most particularly her obtrusive nose.

"So she looks a bit off balance; she possesses golden talents-- or is that a pill too bitter to digest?" inquires her mother, and, by extension, the people bankrolling this project, who were justifiably concerned about the public's digestive capacities. "You've got to face facts," a backer counsels Streisand, playing the youthful, ungainly Fanny Brice. "You don't look like the other girls." Streisand, in one of the final moments of modesty in her career, agrees, conceding, "I'm a bagel on a plateful of onion rolls."

The movie was the appropriately titled Funny Girl.

In Barbra Streisand's very last movie released--a gloomy Broadway play unsuccessfully translated to the silver screen in 1987-- The filmmakers do not directly address the subject of Streisand's physical appearance, instead allowing the actress to share the screen with the only living thespian whose schnozzle can give hers serious competition: Karl Maiden. This time out, the audience is asked to believe that Streisand--same eyes, same nose, same general facial contours, with 20 extra years on the odometer--is a $500-an-hour call girl capable of "taking your body to heaven and sending your mind south," and of "spoiling you so bad you'll hate every other woman you touch." The film was the appropriately titled Nuts, which Streisand, director Martin Ritt, and everyone else associated with this dotty project quite clearly were.

It took Barbra Streisand a quarter-century of remorseless self-infatuation to get to the point where she would make the ridiculous Nuts, but that she finally arrived at her destination should come as a surprise to no one. For as long as anyone can remember, Barbra Streisand has been defying gravity, beguiling audiences into suspending disbelief for anywhere between 88 and 155 minutes and accepting the premise that this intoxicatingly plain-looking, self-absorbed Tartar could pass herself off as:

1) A passionately committed communist organizer on an American college campus during the 1930s;

2) A teenaged Polish Jewess masquerading as a yeshiva boy in pre-World War I Eastern Europe;

3) God's gift to Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal, Yves Montand, Omar Sharif, Kris Kristofferson, and, by extension, all living males.

Millions of her fans have been willing to ignore the overwhelming physical and intellectual evidence and swallow the Streisand schtick whole, while the less impres-sionable among us look on in utter disbelief, wondering, "How the hell does she do it?"

Well, assuming that she isn't doing it with pure luck, or with an ineffable charm that has heretofore gone undetected, she must be doing it with brawn and determination and chutzpah, and with an indisputable, but invariably misdirected and abused, talent. Clearly, Barbra Streisand is a talented, some might even argue great, singer who has recorded a handful of fine albums. She is also a competent director, and an accomplished actress who has starred in a handful of halfway decent films. She has won every acting and singing award worth mentioning, some of them more than once, and has been a legitimate superstar since John F. Kennedy was in office. Save for Goldie Hawn and Jane Fonda, she is the only actress to work continual box-office magic in the past two decades, to bring in the kinds of dollars that Meryl Streep and Glenn Close and Jessica Lange and a host of other more gorgeous, more gifted, more gregarious actresses can only dream of. She is, and always has been, a force to be reckoned with.

So what? Neil Diamond is a force to be reckoned with. So are Kenny Rogers and Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray and Barry Manilow and dozens of other MOR acts who probably seemed jaded and tired way back in the maternity ward. It isn't as if America doesn't have a tradition of rewarding its hokey old showbiz troupers. It's just that America doesn't reward all of them and it doesn't reward all of them equally. In fact, it's kind of fickle. It picks an Andy Williams over a Vic Damone, a Dean Martin over an Al Martino, a Hulk Hogan over a Rowdy Roddy Piper, a Merv Griffin over a Mike Douglas. It decides that it will accept Madonna for canonization, but will banish Debbie Harry to cultural purgatory; needs Dick Van Dyke, but doesn't need Jerry; wants the Judds but doesn't want Judd Nelson. It says "Yes" to an infantile band like the New Kids on the Block, "No" to a juvenile band like the Bay City Rollers; "Golly, gee!" to a comeback by Belinda Carlisle and the four Go-Go's, "Hell, no!" to a comeback by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fortunes have been won and lost trying to figure out which specific load of horseshit America will buy next.

America, in short, has a virtually limitless appetite for schmaltz, and in the kingdom of the schmaltzeroonies, no one has enjoyed as long a reign as Barbra Streisand. For here is a performer who, until quite recently, has never lost sight of her real audience: Anyone who wasn't at, didn't want to be at, never claimed to be at, Woodstock. (People who were at Woodstock never go to see movies with the words "Pete," "Funny," or "Pussycat" in the title.) On the great Highway of Life, this is one gal who never wanders too far away from the median strip. And when she does make a mistake with a film project that goes awry, she quickly buries the incriminating evidence with a demographically satisfactory album. Basically, this is a judicious form of portfolio diversification.

Unlike earlier stars who demonstrated the same canniness--Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra come to mind--Streisand has never been able to achieve pre-death beatification, that gloriously transcendent moment when even your worst critics are willing to concentrate on your fabulous gifts as a performer and forget that you're basically an unacceptable human being. That's why we have The Two Franks--the one who menaces reporters and acts like a pig, and the one who delivers "I Have Dreamed" and The Manchurian Candidate--and The Two Garlands--the one who hits the sauce and self-destructs in public, and the one who sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and meets Louie in St. Louis. Streisand has never, and will never, achieve that status where critics instinctively separate the artist from the art. She'll always be Streisand--you know, the one who romanced her hairdresser, which is one thing, and then turned him into a movie producer, which is another thing altogether.

And now for a terrifying civics lesson: there was once a time in the divine Miss S's career when she actually was on the cutting edge of our culture. Yes, way back in 1963, in those final, horrid hours of the dark night before the British Invasion, Bob Dylan and Streisand were the brightest young stars in the musical firmament, holding out hope for those doomed to life in a universe dominated by Leslie Gore, Frankie Avalon, Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, and other names too scary to be printed in this, a family publication. But unlike Dylan, who managed to stay hot and hip for the better part of two decades, Streisand only remained on the cutting edge of American civilization for about two hours and 27 minutes.

As a film actress, she made her debut by appearing in a full-dress, big-budget musical at a time the idiom had all three feet in the grave (Funny Girl came out the year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, the year of the Chicago riots, the year of the Tet Offensive). She then reprised that same role seven years later-- scant months before the Sex Pistols showed up, scant months before disco--paying homage to an idiom that was dying when Fanny Brice was alive. Her comedies--The Owl and the Pussycat, What's Up, Doc? and For Pete's Sakee all throwbacks to an earlier, simpler time, when people were simple, and well, earlier. Her one artistic experiment with something vaguely unconventional and timely was the tantalizingly dumb 1972 film the Sandbox which, cast as the unhappy spouse of a Columbia University professor, she daydreamed about joining a cadre of black subversives and blowing up the Statue of Liberty. Babs mans the barricades? Allons, enfants de la Patrie? Power to the people? If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem? But I digress.

That Streisand cannot win the respect of serious film critics (not you, Roger!) must be a source of great consternation to her, because fundamentally this is a woman driven by two powerful drives: She would like to be a gorgeous sex object, and she would like to be taken seriously. Neither of these is possible-- though the latter once was, before A Star Is Born and The Main Event and All Night Long and Nuts put an end to all that. The first drive was a hard sell from the word "go." When you want to be a sex goddess, but Mother Nature never processed the requisition slip, you end up making an ass of yourself, as Streisand did in the vulgar aerobic sequences from The Main Event. When you want to end up being respected, you waste 15 years of your life trying to make monstrosities like Yentl, a bloated, cross-dressed version of Fiddler on the Roof, butchering what started out as a charming short story by the great writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. (Singer hated the movie so much he wrote an article in The New York Times saying how much he hated it. And Singer is a really nice man. Proving that in Streisand's case, it's the song, not the Singer, that's at fault.)

Why does Streisand do all this heavy lifting? Probably because she has figured out that history is not in the hands of the people who make it, but in the hands of the people who write about the people who make it. And, unfortunately for Streisand, movie critics of any repute by and large have very little tolerance for her trashy Vegas sensibility. Streisand may rake in megabucks off abortions such as A Star Is Born and The Main Event, but surely she realizes that when the history of the 1970s and 1980s is written, it will be Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange and maybe even Susan Sarandon who will be remembered as the interesting actresses, while Streisand-- if she is remembered at all--will be celebrated as the cinematic equivalent of Fleetwood Mac: a bedrock MOR act who made a lot of money and then went home.

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