I’ve had a couple of dozen occasions to refer to Barbra Streisand (b. 1942) on this blog, yet have never done a post on her (despite having done three posts on Bette Midler, and plans for more). The reason is simple. The years of Streisand’s greatest extended chart success (and in my view, her worst music) coincided with my high school years and was pretty much calculated to make me vomit. The bad taste in my mouth had made me forget how much I had enjoyed the earlier phases of her career when I was a younger kid. We’ll return to the sensitive issue of the disco years, but first, we’ve got to accent-u-ate the positive. I think of Streisand as one of the last of the last of the pre-rock, pre counterculture type pop singers, furthering a trajectory put forward by performers like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. I like her best as a member of an endangered species (old school entertainers); it plays to her strengths.
Brooklyn born Streisand was raised by a single mother and attended Erasmus High School, where one of her friends and fellow pupils was Neil Diamond. I used to live near her old neighborhood and walked by that historic school on my lengthy jaunts. As a young woman Streisand appeared in an off-off-Broadway play with Joan Rivers, and began singing in nightclubs like the Blue Angel, around which time she removed the irksome extra vowel from her first name. She was cast in a good role in the 1962 Broadway show I Can Get It For You Wholesale, alongside Elliott Gould and Lillian Roth. In 1963 she released her first solo LP and married Gould.
Streisand did tons of variety and talk television in the ’60s: The Tonight Show, with both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, etc. In 1965 her historic TV special My Name is Barbra aired, which accompanied the release of her eponymous album. These TV spots were wonderful showcases for her talents, not just her famous voice, but her emotional range. She could deliver a moving tear jerker but also had great, fresh comic chops. During this period she became an icon, especially to young Jewish women and girls, who felt they hadn’t been quite represented in show business before, at least not with any glamor. That may have been somewhat true of the television era. But as readers of this blog know, there had been hundreds of such women decades earlier in vaudeville. Indeed, Streisand was to climb to the next rung of fame playing one of them, Fanny Brice, in the Broadway musical Funny Girl (1964), as well as the film version in 1968, and the sequel Funny Lady in 1975. The show yielded her first hit single “People” in 1964.
For a short while, she was Broadway’s best hope in the motion picture business. After Funny Girl, she starred in Hello, Dolly (1969), rather unthinkably replacing Carol Channing in her most famous role. Then she usurped Barbara Harris’s stage role in the screen version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). This followed by the adaptation of The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) in a part that had once been Diana Sands’. By this stage Gould was also a movie star on account of Robert Altman’s MASH; Gould and Streisand were divorced in 1971.
In 1973 came her dazzling turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy tribute What’s Up, Doc? This for me is my favorite of all her performances, a mix of Bugs Bunny, Groucho, and Carole Lombard. Unfortunately she was never to duplicate these comic heights on screen again. What’s Up, Doc? was followed by the period romance The Way We Were (1973), whose title song became a #1 hit. The next major tent pole in her career was the 1976 remake of A Star is Born opposite Kris Kristofferson, which has become a guilty favorite of mine, including its beautiful theme song “Evergreen”, co-written by Paul Williams, another #1 hit. I am also guiltily fond of “My Heart Belongs to Me”, her #4 hit from the following year.
It’s around the end of the ’70s and into the early ’80s that Streisand became a difficult pill for me to swallow. She had already begun experimenting with a more contemporary sound in 1970 when she released the record Stoney End, the title track of which, written by Laura Nyro, went to #6. It was produced by Richard Perry, later famous for such record classics as Nilsson Shmilsson (1971) and Ringo (1973). In 1978 she paired up with her old high school friend Neil Diamond, now a successful singer/songwriter, to record the tough to take “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”. The song went to #1, and this became her sound over the next several years, as she dominated the pop charts and the radio stations that specialized in the “easy listening” format. I was into the Ramones and the Clash, and so forth and so had no time for this kind of thing, to put it mildly. In 1979 the title song to The Main Event, her terrible reunion with Ryan O’Neal went to #3. She followed it up that year with a duet with disco diva Donna Summer “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”, which went to #1. Then 1980’s unbearable, plodding “Woman in Love”, also #1. Then two hits with Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees: “Guilty” (1980, #3), and “What Kind of Fool” (1981, #10). One last Top 20 hit, “Comin’ In and Out of Your Life” (1981, #11) ended this lamentable stretch, at least the part we had to hear.
Thankfully in 1983, Streisand attained what may well be the high point of her career: she produced, directed, co-wrote, starred in, and sang in Yentl, based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. She followed it up with an adaptation of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides (1991), and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). After being away from screens for eight years, she returned to take part in those abhorrent Fockers movies, which are not just unworthy of her but also of the rest of the entire cast. She was employed to much smarter effect as Seth Rogan’s mother in The Guilt Trip (2012).
In 2018 she had a #8 hit with “Don’t Lie to Me” a single off her album Walls, which was a take-down of the Trump administration. I like it and its accompanying video (which she directed) a great deal. Hear it (and watch it) here:
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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