Tonight at the Dolby Theatre, renaissance entertainment icon Barbra Streisand opened PaleyFest with a bang, joining Ryan Murphy (9-1-1, American Crime Story) for a sprawling conversation about her legendary career.
The only musical artist ever to have #1 albums spanning six decades, Streisand was honored tonight with the Paley Center for Media’s Icon Award, acknowledged for her groundbreaking work as an actress, director, producer and singer-songwriter which, over the years, has landed her two Oscars, 10 Grammy Awards, eight Golden Globes, four Emmys, four Peabody Awards, a Special Tony Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other accolades.
In conversation with Murphy, Streisand discussed working with talents including Judy Garland and Ray Charles, her stage fright—a challenge she struggled with for years—and gave a few political remarks here and there, most notably in regards to the #MeToo movement. “We’re in a strange time now in terms of men and women and the pendulum swinging this way and that way,” Streisand said, “It’s going to have to come to the center.”
Asked by Murphy whether she had her own #MeToo moments early in her career, Streisand said that she didn’t. “I never thought of myself as powerful. I was always thinking, ‘Wow,’ like a person surprised. I’d like to be powerful as a human being, I’d like to do good in the world, but I didn’t know what powerful meant,” she said, reflecting on her status as an atypical icon. “I wasn’t like those pretty girls with those nice little noses. Maybe that’s why [I wasn’t harassed]. I have no idea.”
Streisand added that her best collaborations came with men who treated her as a creative partner, asking for her ideas. “I loved Funny Girl,” she said about that William Wyler-directed comedy-drama which landed her a 1969 best actress Oscar win (tying that year with Katharine Hepburn who won for The Lion in Winter). “It’s the most wonderful memories I have of my first film because I worked with great men.”
Having Murphy moderate was an interesting choice tonight: Streisand, as exclusively reported by Deadline, is in talks to star in the creator’s new Netflix comedy The Politician opposite Ben Platt. However, Murphy and Streisand didn’t make any confirmations of her involvement on the series tonight at PaleyFest, nor did they expound on her role in the show. Traditionally, whenever Murphy has made an appearance at PaleyFest, typically with an American Horror Story panel, he’ll divulge some casting or plot details about that series’ next season. Asking Streisand about her future ambitions, all Murphy hinted was, “Well, I’ve got a really good Netflix deal, Barbra.”
Throughout the night’s conversation, a theme emerged—Streisand as powerful woman who stood up for her artistic independence and managed her own reputation, in the trades and otherwise. Murphy pointed out that Streisand wasn’t taken seriously enough by some male executives, even at the heights of her power and draw as a screen talent, while Streisand recalled one interview with 60 Minutes‘ Mike Wallace that was particularly upsetting. “He made me cry. I was 19 years old and he would say, ‘Why are you so self-obsessed?’ Or something like that. I thought, who else should I be obsessed by?” Streisand joked.
Earlier in her career, Streisand said, she was less quick to jump to her own defense, or to call her own shots, for fear of being called out as “difficult.””I didn’t want people to make fun of me or call me controlling—which I am,” she said. “I would say anybody talented wants to control their work.”
Asked about the experiences that have given her most joy, creatively, Streisand looked to her work as a director on such films as Yentl and The Prince of Tides, singling these out as the times she felt most in control of her own creative experience. “That is such a complete experience. It just involves every sense you have, every nerve end, your taste or your visual qualities,” she said. “To be in control and not have to feel frustrated, it’s just so wonderful. You feel so humbled by it, humbled by that power.”
At one point, Murphy asked Streisand what projects she’d love to produce (She’d like to play Mama Rose in Gypsy), while avid fans wanted to know what she thinks about Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born remake (“It’s very good”) and Murphy’s latest, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. “It’s very scary to me,” she said. “I had to go fast.”
For his part, Murphy opened the evening talking about his decades-long appreciation of Streisand, discussing his yearly tradition of watching Hello, Dolly! at Christmas and the potent experience of seeing Funny Girl for the first time.
“The interesting thing about [Funny Girl] to me was I left and I said to my grandmother in the car afterwards, ‘I want to go back [to see the film again], and I want to be like her. To me, that’s not a male thing, it’s not a female thing, it’s not a straight and it’s not a gay thing. I saw something in Barbra Streisand that really touched my soul,” Murphy said. “She was the first of her kind as an artist, in our business and in the world. She had incredible power, she suffered no fools. You could tell that she was going to do things her way. She was not going to be [put] into a box that men created, and she kept that spirit alive throughout her entire career.”
“Many people talk about Barbra as the greatest female star of them all, and I say, ‘No. That’s not enough.’ People use the phrase ‘other’—‘the other’—and Barbra Streisand really was the first ‘other’ in our culture. She was singular, she was an artist who, on paper, probably should not have worked, but just by pure force of talent, and magnetism, and charisma, pushed through so many glass ceilings,” the producer continued. “She created an incredible career and an incredible life, her way. I think Barbra is the greatest star, male or female, that the world has ever seen, and I honestly don’t think that I would be in show business without having seen her at a very young age.”