September 20, 2014
Barbra Bares Her Soul
'My mother never told me she loved me': In a rare and candid interview, Barbra Streisand tells of how she owes her career to her jealous mother
By Chrissy Iley
Barbra Streisand’s hair still falls in blonde sheets below her shoulders. The eyes are the same pale, powerful blue, small but piercing. She looks impossibly young for a woman of 72. There's almost a childlike eagerness about her. And on her head she's wearing a grey beret reminiscent of her A Star Is Born period.
She has an interesting tale to tell about the Oscar-winning film in which she starred opposite Kris Kristofferson in 1976, the classic story of a famous rock star who fell for an unknown singer who then eclipsed him. “Elvis was the first person we approached to play opposite me in A Star Is Born. He was going through hard times then. He’d gained weight and was losing esteem. We thought, 'Why not go for him? He’s really going through this time in reality and to tap into that might be magnificent.' I flew to Las Vegas to talk to him. He wanted to do it but the Colonel [Tom Parker, his manager] wouldn’t let him. It was some strange reason which I can’t remember, but I finally got to sing with him.”
There’s a track with Elvis on her new duets album, Partners, using an old recording of Love Me Tender where she says she felt their souls touched. They first met in 1969. “I was giving myself a manicure when he came backstage. I was so shy I didn’t know what to do. I just found myself polishing my nails while he was talking to me. I remember he had this big silver belt with jewels.” She couldn’t look into his eyes. “He was very sweet. I didn’t get Elvis when he first became popular, then as the years went by I found myself listening to his records and appreciating him.”
Barbra has always had a rather exciting choice of boyfriend. Dominant characters – Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal, Don Johnson, Andre Agassi and her husband of 16 years, actor James Brolin. “All my men are really attractive. All of them. I love beauty whether it’s in a vase, a piece of furniture or a design. There are some people who are very fortunate to be beautiful. My husband has a perfect forehead, a perfect jaw, perfect teeth, perfect nose. So even if he makes me angry sometimes I still get a kick out of his symmetry.”
Does she think that her men have anything else in common other than their beauty? You can’t help wondering if she was looking to find a piece of her father, who died when she was only 15 months old, in them. She pauses to think about this. “No, although Pierre Trudeau [who was Prime Minister of Canada when they dated] had the most father-like quality because he was much older than me and I admired him. I was only 29. I was very young but he was ready for marriage and I didn’t want to give up my movie career and move to Canada.”
Her father Emanuel was only six years older than that when he died. He’d had a car crash and was blighted by headaches. One day he went to hospital with a particularly bad one and they gave him a dose of morphine that turned out to be fatal. Barbra’s mother Diana, a singer who died in 2002, was famously critical and unloving. “I think sometimes there are parents who don’t really like themselves. They don’t like their offspring either. My mother meant well. She loved me as best she could. She had dreams of her own and she wanted to be a singer.” Was she jealous? “Yes. And that was staggering for me to learn. She never praised me to my face but I have a feeling she praised me to other people. And she wasn’t a toucher. She never hugged me or said words like, 'I love you'.”
Has that affected her – is she a toucher? “More than my mother. Now I’m older I can do it, but for a long time touching felt alien. I always felt, 'Why are you hugging me, what is this about?' I didn’t understand it and it felt uncomfortable. A critical mother...” She shakes her head a little. “I just couldn’t please her. But I owe her my career. It was painful on the way up. I was always trying to prove to her that I was worthy of being somebody.
“When she first saw me sing I didn’t have money so I went to thrift shops for my outfits. I was wearing a Victorian lace jacket that looked beautiful with a pink ribbon in it, a white cotton skirt I’d made and shoes from the 1920s in pink satin. I thought it was a great outfit. My mother said, 'Why are you singing in your underwear? And your voice needs strengthening. Put an egg in milk and whip it up.' She called this a 'guggle muggle'. It was disgusting. Other people were praising my voice but my mother would say, 'It’s not good enough, it’s not strong.'”
On Barbra’s last tour in 2012, as if she wanted to close a chapter on some familial demons, she played her mother’s record to the audience. “She had a beautiful voice. And we played her so that I could finally say, 'Ma, you finally made it. You’re singing in front of thousands of people.' She always said she was too shy. When I was 13 we used to have a week’s vacation every year in the Catskill Mountains and that’s when my mother hired a pianist so she could make this record. I had a good voice too. On the block I was known as the girl with the good voice and no father. That was my identity tag. We made these funny recordings when I was 13. I suppose you have to go through these turbulent times. She motivated me to prove I was worth it.”
The recording, which she describes as “my mother’s record which I was allowed to sing on,” does not feature on her new album, but as well as singing with Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Andrea Bocelli and John Legend, Barbra also sings with her son Jason Gould, who’s 47. She’s always been very close to her only son (from her marriage to actor Elliott Gould between 1963 and 1971), an artist, writer and film director. It was as if she wanted to give him a childhood with all the love and approval she never had.
This is the first time they have united on record, singing How Deep Is The Ocean together. It’s one of the highlights of the album, but his singing talent was a recent surprise to her. “We sang together every night when I put him to sleep, so he knew lots of songs as a baby. I never heard him sing again until he was 15. I heard him hum through a closed door and I said, 'Jason, that is the most beautiful hum.'” Jason was self-conscious about his humming and was silent again for many years. “So what a surprise it was a few years ago when he said, 'I think I feel like singing.' I said, 'Fantastic. Why didn’t you do this earlier?' He was afraid to be compared to me, he said, 'Until my need to express myself was greater than my fear of it.' No matter what he does, whether it’s writing or pottery or painting, he’s incredible. We’ve both started painting at the same time now. It was a coincidence. It’s like we’re attached by osmosis, it’s such a bond.”
She brims with excitement – painting and singing with her only son is clearly thrilling for her. “When he brought me his recording of How Deep Is The Ocean, honestly my jaw dropped. I thought what an amazing voice. He just floored me.” Barbra took him on her last concert tour to perform that one song. “Now he’s trying out little clubs. He sang three songs last night. He’s still doing pottery and he’s still doing painting.” Are they similar as painters? “No, I don’t think so. He has his own style and I have my own style. I haven’t done enough work yet to have an exhibition, but it would be fun, mother and son. I’m very proud of him.”
She’s also very proud of her new album. It’s very emotional. Michael Bublé said she had “a throat that God kissed”, an uncanny ability to tell a story. And that’s one of the things that makes Barbra Barbra. She gets to you because whatever love she’s singing about, unrequited, passionate, forgiving, unswerving, you feel she’s felt it. And each song is delivered as its own emotional experience, a story of a relationship with a beginning, a middle, an end. “Yes, that’s because I started when I was 18, 17 even, in a club. I only wanted to be an actress. I didn’t want to be a singer. I just took a job. I hadn’t experienced half of what I sang about, but I experienced it in my imagination. I experienced what I’d like to feel in my own life. I used to go to acting classes, I never went to singing classes.’
For much of her career, Barbra attracted as much criticism as she did glory. The movies she directed, The Prince Of Tides in 1991 and The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996, were not critically well received. When she starred in and directed Yentl in 1983 the reaction was hostile, although Barbra became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director. She played Polish girl Yentl, as well as Yentl pretending to be her late brother, as only males were allowed to study under Talmudic law.
She’s always liked to embrace extremes of masculine and feminine, and sees them in herself. ‘“Even though it’s psychological.” She thinks it may be part of the legacy of losing her father. “I did find him, during Yentl, I created him. I was the director, I was the one in control. I was the male figure. All of that was very cathartic.
“When I first started I was called the ugly duckling, or kooky. Funny Girl was my first time in films and I was criticised so much.” Looking back she doesn’t seem an ugly duckling, the pictures of her from that time are iconic. She became a magnet for criticism because her mother had made her feel that was what she deserved. “Then I had an awakening. I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I look too pretty to be Funny Girl.’”
At what point did she realise she was beautiful? She looks self-conscious and baffled. “I have two different sides of my face. At first I didn’t know which side was good. I have got to know my face and I can honestly say I am both. From certain angles, maybe I am beautiful. From others I am horrible. So that’s the truth. That’s my truth anyway. I don’t think it will ever change because that’s what I see. When I did Yentl I shot myself as a boy on the side I don’t like. I shot Yentl as a girl on my good side. The bad side I used because I wanted to look more masculine. The story of The Way We Were [in 1973] is about an ugly duckling who finds Robert Redford. But if you look back I don’t look too bad. Maybe I’ve stood the test of time. Over 50 years. Or maybe at some point it just went out of my mind. I stopped thinking about it. Although one of the reasons to write my book is that I want to tell the truth.”
She has started on her autobiography and the drive behind it is to correct the untruths written about her. “I’m trying to write it. I have chapters in my notebook from years ago. I lose interest in telling the story of my life. I’ve lived it, it’s boring to me. But when people write about me and it’s not the truth it upsets me. If they say something about me that’s true I don’t mind. It’s only when they lie that I can’t understand it. Maybe it’s more interesting to do that. Especially women writers. My reviews on Yentl from women writers were so bitchy.
“When I got an award from Women In Film, my speech was called Women Against Women, why they’re competing. In high school the boys are learning teamwork strategy and the women are competing for football players. It’s like women are not allowed to be obsessed by work but only by a man.”
Perhaps she’s come to expect criticism, particularly from women, as she grew up believing she could do no right. She nods. “I was very friendly with Sue Mengers [a talent agent big in the 70s]. As she got older she got more critical, sounded like my mother, and I finally said to her, ‘I have to hang up now. I can’t talk to you when you’re criticising me.’ You have to cut off from people who don’t nurture you. It took me a long time to realise that.” In a love relationship does she like to be the one who loves most or is loved more? “Loved more. That’s from my childhood too. People who have two parents who love them are very lucky. They are not left with a hole to fill. And it’s very hard to fill. You have to fill it with yourself eventually.”
I’d heard that every Saturday she and James like to stay in bed all day. “We do that more days a week. TV is so good these days. We’ve got so much to catch up on. When you travel you don’t see them so we’ve recorded lots. I love Homeland, Masters Of Sex, and all my political shows. I’ve gotten lazier. I used to work when I was not content. As I got happier I had less need to work, which is terrible in a way. I have a personal trainer who has been with me for 34 years. Three times a week is all I can do because I hate exercise and I love to eat. I love food too much.”
I have brought Barbra a cake for our meeting in the penthouse of a chintzy New York hotel. Not just any cake, but a cake from her favourite childhood bakery in Brooklyn which closed in 1974. My friend had been able to get the recipe because his grandmother was the manager there and he had another bakery bake it for her. We’ve put it in a box with the bakery’s logo left over from his grandmother’s days there. Barbra gets so excited when she sees it, her long French manicured nails scramble to open it. Mocha cake with shaved almonds. She lets out a sigh. “It takes me back,” she says. “We lived in the projects [subsidised tenement blocks]. Around the corner they had built new stores, and Ebinger’s was the bakery with all the great chocolate and mocha cakes. It tells you a lot about a neighbourhood, a cake. When you lived in Brooklyn in the 50s you just lived on your block with your friends. I never ventured to Manhattan until I was 14. Going for a cake was the high point of my day.”
Samantha, the fluffy white dog who is her constant companion, wants cake but isn’t allowed it. In fact the whole family is on a diet. “We started it three days ago. My husband has lost one and a half pounds since we’ve been on it. I’ve lost half a pound and now I won’t lose any more because of the cake.”
She says she’s recently taken cookery classes.“I’m fascinated by how, with little more than two eggs and a cup of sugar, you get a cake. I’m not inventive, I have to follow recipes. And I’m not organised in the kitchen, so it’s a mess. I’ve never had a professional cook, but my housekeeper has been with me 40 years and I like her simple cooking. Food is so important to me. I eat when I’m sad, I eat when I’m happy. I’ve just been on vacation to Italy and I ate my brains out for two weeks. We had pasta five times a day.” She and her husband were on holiday with one of her past boyfriends, Don Johnson, and his wife. “We just got to know each other again. He seems to have learned some lessons.”
There have been rumours that another old flame might have been former president Bill Clinton. Barbra’s always been a staunch supporter and never hidden her political devotion to him. She even dedicated an album to his late mother, whose funeral she attended. “He loves people, he loves ideas and he can talk about every subject. I don’t know where he finds the time to read all this stuff. He is quite extraordinary,” she says, so warmly that it seems pretty obvious to me she wouldn’t be so open if they really had had an affair. Does she know Hillary? “Yes and I like her. I think she would make a good president and I think that will change a lot of things. Think of all the countries that have female leaders. We would also get Bill Clinton back in the White House as an advisor. He’s pretty fantastic. So let’s root for Hillary!”