“Did you like my dog film, my little dog film?” Barbra Streisand asked when I began our interview about Barbra: The Music… The Mem’ries… The Magic! — her latest TV project and Emmy contender in the Variety categories.
This is the nearly two-hour show that came at the end of what she indicated at the time likely was her last concert tour, and the poignant film tribute (added to the close of the special) to her late dog Sammie, who always traveled with her on the tours, features a graphic over his smiling face sweetly saying, “Our last concert together.” But is it also her last concert?
“I vowed I’m never going to do another one, but I never say never,” she now says. “Every time I finish doing some concerts, I say, ‘Never again … when can I stop doing this,’ and then, years later, I go, ‘Well, maybe I should do another one or two,’ or there’s something I really want, and I have to work for it.” In the case of this mini-tour, it was for a very expensive Modigliani painting she wanted. “That’s right — I still work for just money. I work for a piece of art.”
Streisand famously always has gotten nervous, a bit of stage fright, when performing live concerts and told me Friday afternoon that she still can’t get over that feeling that it’s still “scary.” But after I commented that it looked to me like she had a real comfort level on this special, she agreed. “I know. I mean, my heart wasn’t pounding, I felt more comfortable, at ease, but I don’t know, did I lose some tension in being in a sense less scared?” she wondered. “I don’t know.”
Perhaps it was because she felt this was the last time live onstage. But considering this concert, shot for her first Netflix special, was done in only one take in Miami you would think the nerves might still be there. “You know, other concerts I’ve always shot two performances, so you have some leeway if it’s better the night before or whatever. We didn’t even have a chance to have a rehearsal, a dress rehearsal,” she noted of the show that she not only produced but also co-directed with Richard J. Alexander. She knew where the cameras should be positioned, but there wasn’t much room for mistakes or something unknown happening in order to capture it all. “I’m thrilled we got a concert out of it.”
I would say she got much more. Having seen every one of her television specials over the years — Netflix just announced it will be adding six of them to the service soon — this one felt like it captured Streisand looking back at moments she is proud of in her career but also maybe looking forward, including a new song at the top of the second act that was her homage to being environmentally conscious. The use of film, anecdotes and song choices all seemed perfectly in tune with where’s she been, who she is and what has got her to this point in her life. Streisand last won an Emmy in 2001 as performer in her Timeless special, and first won as a performer in her 1965 classic debut special, My Name Is Barbra. Her 1995 special, Barbra: The Concert, brought her two Emmys for Variety Special and Performer, as well a co-nomination for directing with Dwight Hemion, the great TV icon who shepherded much of her earlier TV efforts often with partner, producer Gary Smith, who Streisand says she is still friends with. Streisand has a directing credit on several of her recent specials.
Going forward she has been in the midst of writing a memoir for 3 1/2 years, stopping for a while and then going back to it. It’s a work in progress and she says she has a 50-page chapter alone on the making of her 1976 film, A Star Is Born — which, as I reported Sunday, also will appear on Netflix soon in a special restored version with previously unseen footage. “I’ll have to cut [the book] down, but I mean, it’s a big saga,” she says, emphasizing how she loves her private time. “I love time with my family. I’m lazy also, and then I get spurts of energy where I want to do things and then take a rest. I’ve always had that same pattern.”
She’s also recording a new album and is about five songs into it. She says it about things that are on her mind today but wants to keep it a surprise. Streisand is the only artist with a No. 1 album in each of the past six decades. After seeing the power of the duet she does with Jamie Foxx on “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music, I told her she should do a whole album just devoted to Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. “A whole album of Rodgers and Hammerstein? Yeah, it’s a good idea. I never have even done that,” she said. Well, something to hope she gets around to someday.
Something else her fans hoped for was the new film version of Gypsy that has been on and off and on and now seemingly off again after I first wrote on Deadline in March 2012 that it was in development at Universal. It’s frustrating to her. “Can you imagine that? I mean, I had that all in my head and even wrote part of a screenplay on it. To me it was a story about a mother (Mama Rose) and a daughter (Gypsy Rose Lee) and the jealousy of one for the other, and youth and what that means. I think it was more a classical theme.”
Streisand sees the musical, with music by Jules Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, as a bookend to her first film, Funny Girl, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. “I made an eight-minute little piece to try to sell Gypsy. It’s awfully good. And I say that in it. I actually showed the two posters, the Funny Girl poster and the Gypsy poster — both from Julie Styne — and I say those exact words. It was a bookend. It was the way I wanted to go out on film, in that role. But I never got a chance to do it. It is depressing,” she lamented. After Universal dropped it, STX had it for a while, but financing didn’t come together. Could Netflix come to the rescue? “You know, maybe Ryan [Murphy] could do it. Ryan seemed interested, and maybe he could put it on the screen on Netflix. We’ll have to talk about that.” Earlier this year, Murphy interviewed her about her TV career for a Paley Center event at the Dolby Theatre. Gypsy hope still springs eternal for Streisand fans, who would love to see this kind of perfect symmetry in her career trajectory.
But what Streisand really wants to do is direct. This special is just the latest credit in that regard, a career behind the camera that began with a deeply personal film, 1983’s Yentl, and also included the superb 1991 Best Picture Oscar nominee The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). She swept the Golden Globes with Yentl but was snubbed by the male- dominated Directors branch of the Motion Picture Academy. “You know, I was thinking, ‘Well, they didn’t like my movie,’ they didn’t like it. I didn’t take it as a gender thing because in the music business, it’s not about gender. Whoever sells the most records, whoever is the best singer, that’s who gets the big bucks and that’s who’s famous. It’s not about gender. So I was always confused by why it is different in the movies. I didn’t get it.”
Interestingly, before presenting the Best Picture-Drama award at the Globes this year, Streisand publicly lamented that she remains the only woman to have won a Golden Globe for directing after 44 years. And in terms of Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman in 90 years to win, an award presented in 2010 by Streisand, who opened the envelope and said, “It’s about time.” She told me she thinks she has just signed a contract to direct a movie about Margaret Bourke-White, the legendary American photographer known for her work at Life magazine and elsewhere, a passion project for her. In February, Deadline and other trades reported that she, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, was in negotiations to appear in and possibly even direct some episodes of a new hourlong Netflix comedy starring Ben Platt called The Politician from Ryan Murphy. But it sounded far from settled when I asked where it was at. “Well, they wanted me to do that, but we’ll see about that,” she said. “I really want to direct. I want to direct movies.”
Directing has been in her DNA since the beginning of her film career, when she had the unique honor of signing to make three major movie musicals without having ever shot a foot of film: Funny Girl (1968), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar; Hello Dolly (1969); and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). She got to work with three great directors in succession: William Wyler, Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli. Not bad. Plus, she had the legendary cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. on all of them as well as her fourth film, The Owl and the Pussycat. (He died shortly after shooting that film in early 1970). Wyler and Stradling were particular influences. “These were my guys. These were my support system,” Streisand said. “These were encouraging men, who never thought of me as just a girl or a first-time actress. I don’t know how come because that’s what I was in a way, but I also had opinions, and they respected my opinions. That was incredible to me. Right after I finished Funny Girl, Harry Stradling wrote me a note, when he was well into his years. He had [done] so many great films, and he said, ‘We should do a picture, maybe a straight picture, and you direct it, and we’ll make it not with a big studio.’ He was way ahead of his time in thinking. And I should’ve listened to him, I guess.”
Streisand said people kept making fun of her in the press, saying she was taking over. “Because a woman had opinions, it became ‘taking over.’ It’s like Hilary Clinton — you know, it’s being said that she yelled or something, shouted. Nobody shouts more than [Donald] Trump,” she said, going on to list reasons she admires Clinton and talking about an experience participating in a documentary on Bella Abzug the other day. “It’s a documentary on her, and it was like the men around — the cameraman and so forth — it seemed they still aren’t used to a woman saying, ‘I would put the chair over there,’ ‘The light has to be here.’ It was as if they were looking at me like, ‘Huh?’ Really giving me the eye. Are you not used to this yet, a woman wanting control of her work that is not just the singing part or the acting part? It’s everything.”
Everything indeed. Singing, acting, directing, writing, political activism, another album, another concert, another special, another tweet — whatever the future holds for Barbra Streisand, she is someone who uses her voice in many ways in this world, and always has.
Barbra: The Music … The Mem’ries … The Magic! is currently streaming on Netflix. Beginning June 15 the new extended restoration of her 1976 version of A Star Is Born will start streaming ,as well as the vintage TV specials: My Name Is Barbra (1965), Color Me Barbra (1966), Barbra Streisand: A Happening in Central Park (1968), Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments (1973), Barbra Streisand: The Concert (1994) and Barbra Streisand: Timeless (2001).