My latest book, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide, is just about to appear, so I’m celebrating with an interview…
Q: So is this the usual Life and Work?
A: It’s a Work and Work, because there already are excellent bios available. This is an analysis of Streisand the actress, singer…
Q: And personality?
A: Up to a point, Lord Copper. Streisand is not a Warholian figure, the kind of star most people identify in a general—really, unknowing—way. Someone like Tennessee Williams, Britney Spears, Winston Churchill. Or take Marilyn Monroe. People who have never seen one of her movies “know who she is” uncomprehendingly, because her profile--that of the doomed, self-destructive beauty--has nothing to do with her work. And Streisand has no profile in that sense. You have to hear her sing or take in her acting before you know who she is.
Q: What was your first experience of this singing and acting? Did you know then that she was headed for such a big career?
A: I saw, very early in its run, her Broadway debut show, I Can Get It For You Wholesale. The one with Miss Marmelstein. Ironically, the number is very much in the line of songs Fanny Brice built her public persona on—the Jewish girl who can’t catch a break. Second Hand Rose and so on. Yet though Funny Girl was already in “process” then (as a movie called My Man and only latterly as a stage show), Streisand could not have known that that work would serve as her portal into big-time show business.
Q: And was Miss Marmelstein a real barn burner, as we always hear?
A: It got a big hand is all I remember, and I saw the show twice. But I wasn’t as impressed with that number as I was with What Are They Doing To Us Now?, in which Streisand led the chorus in strangely Hebraic-sounding music about the oppression of those with no earning power: in other words, with no real rights as citizens. Miss Marmelstein was a comic bit, but What Are They Doing is a real singer’s exhibition piece. I remember thinking, This is why she was hired, because even with all the belters on Broadway at the time, I didn’t think anyone else could have invested the music with such (I have to say) smooth intensity. It’s hard to describe what she does in that scene, maybe a cross between simply stating facts and giving way to despair. She’s almost like a fierce partisan reining herself in. A historian, even.
Q: And you saw Funny Girl, surely?
A: Yes—and that was the barn burner for certain. Everyone was talking about it—I mean the grownups you knew, because I was a kid then. My schoolfellows talked about The Twilight Zone or Mr. Novak, not Broadway. But Funny Girl totally took off, even though now everyone thinks it’s not even good schlock.
Q: What do you think of it?
A: I think it’s essential Streisand, because, if it hadn’t existed, she might never have become anything but an album singer. Because Funny Girl was Vivien Leigh-as-Scarlett O’Hara casting, and until Streisand had her hit movie with the
Hollywood version of
the show, she would have been thought hard to spot in the kind of stories they
were filming then. Funny Girl “created” Streisand, but it as well created
opportunities for new kinds of storytelling—The Rose, for instance, which
served Bette Midler the way Funny Girl did Streisand.
Q: Couldn’t a Funny Girl-less Streisand have gone on to a wow career in Broadway musicals?
A: She didn’t want to. She likes creating anew each day—shooting the next scene, launching the next project. It keeps the art rich. The same thing night after night makes the art stale, because you already know what you’re going to play.
Q: So what’s her best film?
A: There is no “best.” There’s her most entertaining, her most enlightening, her most artistic. She would say it’s Yentl for all three. And of course everyone has his or her personal favorite, which is something else entirely. And there’s the complication that The Way We Were, an exploration of how politics and romance cannot mate, was sabotaged when the crucial eight minutes in which this theme is concluded was cut out by the frantic director when a single preview audience got restless. So people think of the film as a soap opera. At least the
DVD includes the lost footage as a bonus, so you can see what’s missing. I
think it’s the most interesting of her films, and I suspect it’s so popular partly
because people keep re-screening it looking for the missing parts. Like, they
have to be in there somewhere, right?
Q: But they aren’t?
A: Remember a very young James Woods in the opening college sequence?
Her best friend, Frankie McVeigh? You’ll have to read my book to find out what he does to her later, but it’s absolutely crushing.
Q: What does she do then?
A: She laughs. “The little rat,” she says.
Q: What’s the worst scene in all her films?
A: That lugubrious parade in Hello, Dolly!—an endless procession of the dullest people on the planet. It should have been a gay pride parade. Or she should have directed it instead of Gene Kelly. But she didn’t have that kind of power then. Besides, even when you are powerful, there are always jerkos hanging around to tell you why you can’t do what you want. And they’re not listening to you. Streisand lost a number of close relationships that way, because people who should have been supporting her need to make Yentl—a dire cultural need, not a wish—put their fingers in their ears and sang Hitler Had Only Just One Ball loudly whenever she brought it up.
Q: They sang what?
A: You don’t know it? It’s sung to the tune of the Colonel Bogie March:
Hitler had only just one ball.
Göring had two, but very small.
Himmler had something sim’lar,
And poor old Goebbels had no balls at all!
Q: My goodness. Do you always include these sidebars in your books?
A: Let others write Readers’ Digests. I compose panoramas.