Life & Culture

On her 80th birthday, a celebration of Barbra Streisand's glittering career in showbiz

From her first screen role in William Wyler’s 1968 film Funny Girl to her hilarious turn in 2004's Meet the Fockers, few can rival the success of this global icon, who grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn


HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 07: Singer/actress Barbra Streisand presents in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards held at Kodak Theatre on March 7, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

If you’ve seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film Licorice Pizza, you’ll doubtless remember the scene where Bradley Cooper’s character, real-life hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, lectures the film’s young protagonist on how to pronounce the name of his girlfriend: Barbra Streisand. Or as he repeatedly emphasises “Strei-sand”. As if we could forget. This week, the legendary singer-actress-director-producer turns 80. A global icon, who grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, she is one of those rare creatures who has dominated stage and screen for six decades.

Revisit her very first screen role in William Wyler’s Funny Girl — and you can, the BBC is screening the 1968 film for the first time in years on April 23, the day before Streisand’s birthday — and you’ll see in one performance her sheer genius. She plays Fanny Brice, the early 1900s Broadway comedienne who found fame with the Ziegfeld Follies. Streisand originated the role in the 1964 stage version, although only after the producers had been turned down by Anne Bancroft and Carol Burnett.

By the time she filmed Wyler’s movie, she was already a huge star — after singing in New York nightclubs aged 18, then offering a star-making, Tony-nominated turn on stage in I Can Get It for You Wholesale opposite a then-unknown Elliott Gould (whom she married in 1963 and divorced in ’71). Famously, Groucho Marx told her that 20 was an “extremely young age to be a success on Broadway”, but it wouldn’t matter. There were regular television appearances and a recording contract with Columbia Records, when she was 21.

Her voice was called by no less than Glenn Gould, the celebrated classical pianist, “one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resource”, and it came into full effect in the New York stage run of Funny People — a show that was so successful, she received another Tony nod and was feted on the cover of Time magazine. Better still, the songs by Bob Merrill and Jule Styne — notably People and Don’t Rain On My Parade — became indelibly associated with Streisand, who was capable of performing with such pain, such drama.

It all brings to mind a line in Funny People, spoken by Fanny’s lover, the inveterate gambler/entrepreneur Nicky Arnstein: “The moment you’re out there on the stage, nothing bothers you.” Streisand simply was born to perform, come what may. Determination gripped her from the very beginning. And nothing was going to stand in her way, despite many people telling her — including her mother Diana — that she did not have what it takes to make it. To her credit, she repeatedly, steadfastly, refused to undergo cosmetic surgery on her nose.

After Funny People hit cinemas, Streisand was awarded an Oscar for Best Actress, adding to the Grammy she won back in 1964 for The Barbra Streisand Album (the first of ten Grammy awards, and 43 nominations) and the Emmy (the first of five) she claimed for the TV special My Name Is Barbra. She would go on to be awarded a Special Tony Award in 1970, ushering her into that rarefied group of EGOT winners — those who have triumphed at the Emmys, Grammys, Oscars and Tonys. For good measure, she’s also been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

By 1973, the year that Licorice Pizza is set, “Strei-sand” was a bona fide mega-star. She appeared opposite Robert Redford in Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were, playing Katie Morosky, the strident Marxist Jew with cast-iron anti-war opinions. “[On the set the first day] I could hear the crew shouting out my opening lines from Funny Girl: ‘Hello, gorgeous.’ I was thrilled, I was flattered… and then I was very upset because they were talking to Bob,” she once said, typifying her self-deprecating sense of humour.

The role of Morosky gained her a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Three years later, she won her second Oscar for Best Original Song (with lyricist Paul Williams) for the ballad Evergreen from the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born, in which she co-starred with Kris Kristofferson. The same story had already been filmed twice before — in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and 1954, with Judy Garland — and yet Streisand, playing an ambitious young singer, felt inextricably tied to the role. She liked that her character “owned the feminist spirit”.

It was also her first behind-the-scenes credit — as executive producer — and she would continue in this creative vein across the rest of her career. Perhaps most significantly, she co-wrote, produced, directed, and starred in 1983’s Yentl, the story of a Jewish girl living in Poland in the early 1900s who disguises herself as a boy to enter a yeshivah. Streisand had strived to get this project made for over a decade, ever since she read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Yentl the Yeshivah Boy. She would eventually win Best Director at the Golden Globes — making her first female filmmaker to ever do so.

There were further directorial projects, The Prince of Tides (1991) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) —and, in 2004, a return to film acting after an eight year hiatus in Meet the Fockers, hilariously playing the hippie-ish mother to Ben Stiller’s hapless husband-to-be. Since, she has remained active, not least trying to launch a film about the love affair between pioneering photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and author Erskine Caldwell. But now, for the moment, all we can do is light the candles and wish her a very happy 80th birthday.

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