Barbra Streisand, My Hero

June 17, 2020 | Veronica Litt

Barbra Streisand, My Hero

Barbra Streisand is one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. After cutting her teeth on Broadway, she burst onto the silver screen with her Oscar-winning debut as Fanny Bryce in Funny Girl. From there, she starred in screwball comedies like What’s Up Doc?, melodramas like The Way We Were, and extravagant musicals like Yentl. With an EGOT under her sequinned belt, it’s impossible to deny Streisand’s talent. She’s also, as many will point out, completely outrageous.

Barbra Streisand Editorial

Barbra As Absurd Diva

Streisand has an elaborate, personalized “mall” in her home. She spent an absurd amount of money to clone her dog. She personally called Apple to get Siri to pronounce her name correctly. In one of my favorite Barbra-isms, she refuses to be filmed from her right side—and such is her sway that talk shows regularly rejig their sets to accommodate her.

Despite being proudly Jewish, Streisand has released not one but two Christmas featuring a ludicrous, possibly drug-fueled rendition of “Jingle Bells.” She records ridiculous albums, calling one Wet for no discernible reason other than wanting to look attractively damp on the cover. On another, titled Songbird, Streisand shoehorns a picture of her and a beloved dog with a cheeky scribbled note. It reads “Sorry...Couldn’t find a bird!” I could go on, but the point’s been made: Barbra Streisand is undeniably silly. And yet, I love her.

Barbra Streisand EditorialFlickr

Barbra As Underdog Heroine

The usual charge leveled against Barbra is that she’s a conceited diva. While that’s not wrong, it’s not the whole story either. Streisand is a hard-working, wildly talented, plucky underdog heroine who dominated Hollywood with the odds stacked against her. She wasn’t born rich and as a struggling actress, she'd camp out on a cot while going to auditions. Not content to overcome poverty, she also used her chutzpah to become a major star without getting a nose job—despite intense pressure to do so.

Streisand is stunning, but she’s never been a conventional beauty. She has a pronounced nose, imperfect teeth, and as a showbiz boss in Funny Girl puts it, “skinny legs.” A typical screen siren, she is not. And yet, by sheer force of will, Streisand forced Hollywood to expand its definition of beauty. By the time The Way We Were rolled around, she wasn’t just showing off her comedy chops: Streisand was a veritable romantic heroine to Robert Redford’s all-American boy.

Throughout her career, naysayers have critiqued Barbra’s fixation on her appearance, but there’s more than vanity at play here. By insisting that she was just as attractive as actresses like Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John, Streisand advocated for a “distinctively Jewish” beauty, as one of her biographers said. In 1960s Hollywood, that was no easy task.

Barbra Streisand EditorialWikimedia Commons

Barbra As Hollywood Agitator

But fixating only on Streisand’s looks would be a severe underestimation of her appeal. Streisand is also incredibly hardworking, talented, and outspoken. From appearing on Richard Nixon’s personal enemies list in the 1970s to Twitter rants in the 2010s, Streisand has never been one to mince words.

But for me, a person whose sister turned away from directing because of the industry’s entrenched sexism, Streisand’s most powerfully righteous anger is her unceasing celebration of women artists. Decades before Hollywood stars started shading the establishment’s refusal to take female directors seriously, Streisand paved the way.

Barbra Streisand EditorialWikimedia Commons

Barbra As Unrecognized Auteur

In 1983, Streisand released her magnum opus Yentl, a brilliant musical drama about a young Jewish woman who dresses as a man to study the Torah. In this incisive parable, Streisand’s core concern is clear: both onscreen and off, Yentl is about a woman’s struggle to break into a male-dominated profession. Streisand worked for 15 long years to get Yentl into theaters, not only directing the movie but starring in it, producing it, and writing its script. She became the only woman—so far—to win a Golden Globe for Best Director and campaigned for a Best Director nod from the Academy Awards.

As with Greta Gerwig’s recent snub for directing Little Women, the Oscars tacitly acknowledged Streisand’s proficiency by showering Yentl with nominations for its music, performances, and production design. But when it came time to credit the woman at the helm, they fell silent. Even though Steven Spielberg called Yentl “the best directorial debut since Citizen Kane,” Streisand did not receive a nomination for Best Director.

Barbra Streisand EditorialGetty Images

Barbra As Rabble-Rouser

Over the years, Streisand has become a vigorous advocate on behalf of female directors. She produced a scathing documentary about women in Hollywood and publicly lambasted the industry’s refusal to give female directors opportunities or acknowledgment. As a sign that they heard her appeals, it wasn't a coincidence that when Kathryn Bigelow became the first (and to date, only) woman to win the precious golden statuette, Streisand presented her with the award.

Streisand’s energetic advocacy, both for herself and for other women, is a huge part of her charm—and it expands outward into broader elements of her personality. She’s an unceasing innovator and rabble-rouser who refuses to stay in one box. Over her decades-long career, Streisand has appeared in every genre of film and tried seemingly every musical style to mixed, but always entertaining results (side note: her country album Stoney End is a surprising banger).

Through it all, Streisand refuses to undersell her efforts and achievements. To use her words from 2017, it is important to “document the work." In an industry that routinely undersells female artists, especially pop singers and comediennes, Streisand's three-word creed rebukes anyone who'd discount her career. In a single sentence, she declares that not only is her artistry a form of labor, it's also worthy of recognition.

But Streisand's most famous self-love moment came long before than this declaration. In 1969, Streisand infamously voted for herself when she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl. Her vote paid off: Streisand won—but only by a hair. In the academy's only tie for Best Actress, Streisand and Kathryn Hepburn both accepted statuettes. If Streisand had been more demure, if she'd bought into being more femininely meek and pliant, she wouldn’t have walked away with her prize.

Barbra Streisand EditorialGetty Images

Barbra: My Hero

This is the heart of Streisand’s appeal. She’s outrageous and ludicrous, but her effervescence isn’t one-dimensional. It stands in for her refusal to be shortchanged or under-estimated. Long before I had words to express my anger at how the world demanded I become as small, quiet, and compliant as possible, my instinctive attraction to Barbra’s exuberance offered a much-needed release valve. Before the term “feminism” entered my tween self’s brain, Barbra expressed its principles: stay vibrant, fight the good fight, and don’t let anyone trick you into settling for less.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23

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