The definitive superstar, Barbra Streisand has conquered stage, screen, and the recording industry, amassing millions of devoted fans along the way. Born Barbara Joan Streisand on April 24, 1942, she was raised in the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. She never knew her father, a high school teacher who died when she was only 15 months old. Five years later, her mother remarried. Barbara’s aloof relationship with her stepfather made her eager to leave home. At 16, after graduating from high school with honors, she fied for Manhattan, where she hoped to become an actress.
Changing the spelling of her first name to the more distinctive Barbra, she found work in a series of unsuccessful off-Broadway shows. When not working she and her friend Brian Dennen developed a nightclub act, in which Streisand sang the songs of FANNY BRICE, the renowned star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Although Streisand considered herself more of an actress than a singer, the act took off. She played long-running engagements at popular clubs such as Bon Soir and the Blue Angel and toured briefiy as the opening act for the pianist Liberace. While performing at the Blue Angel, Streisand was spotted by the producer of I Can Get It for You Wholesale. In the 1962 musical, she was cast as Miss Marmelstein, a saucy secretary. The show, which ran for nine months, made Streisand a star. During its run, she met costar Elliot Gould, whom she married in 1963. Streisand and Gould had one child, Jason, before divorcing in 1971.
Streisand’s popularity only grew with the release of her first record, The Barbra Streisand Album. It became the top-selling album by a female artist in 1963 and earned her Grammy Awards for best album and best female vocal. The next year, she won the role of a lifetime when she was given the lead in Funny Girl, a musical romance based on the life of Fanny Brice. Streisand had to audition seven times, beating out CAROL BURNETT and MARY MARTIN for what would become her signature role. After the show’s enormous success on Broadway, however, she was the only choice to play the part in the movie version of Funny Girl (1968). For her movie debut, Streisand won the Oscar for best actress in a tie with KATHARINE HEPBURN. For the times, Streisand made an unconventional movie star. With slightly crossed eyes and long nose, she had unusual features that distinguished her from other film starlets. Often playing an ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan by her own charisma, Streisand helped reshape the standards of Hollywood beauty. Having established herself in film, Streisand then turned to television. The first of many teleision specials, My Name Is Barbra (1965) provided a well-crafted showcase for her musical talents. The special drew a huge audience and won five Emmy Awards.
Streisand returned to the musical genre in her next two movies, Hello Dolly! (1969) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). She found equal success as she moved into straight comedy with films such as The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) and What’s Up Doc (1972). Her biggest hit of the early 1970s, however, was The Way We Were (1973), a romantic drama that paired her with Robert Redford. The film and its theme, sung by Streisand, were enormous popular hits, making her the biggest female star in Hollywood during the 1970s.
In 1976, Streisand began working behind the camera with A Star Is Born (1976), a third remake of What Price Hollywoodfi (1937). She served as the film’s executive producer, while her boyfriend Jon Peters, a former hairdresser, was billed as its producer. In addition to starring in Star, Streisand wrote the music for its Oscar-winning love theme, “Evergreen.” She was also credited as the film’s wardrobe consultant and designer of “musical concepts.” During the filming, press accounts accused her of egomania, a taunt Streisand believed smacked of sexism. She has frequently maintained that her supposed pushiness and arrogance would be seen as ambition if she were a man. Although critically savaged, Born was a huge box-office success.
Streisand acted in two undistinguished movies—The Main Event (1979) and All Night Long (1981)—before appearing in her dream film, Yentl (1983). Based on a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the movie cast her as a young Jewish woman who disguises herself as a boy so she can receive a religious education denied to female students. Spending five years on the project, Streisand directed, cowrote, and coproduced the movie. A modest hit that was well-received by critics, Yentl established Streisand as a director to watch. Her next directorial effort, The Prince of Tides (1991), won even greater acclaim. The film received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture. Streisand’s direction, however, was not given an Oscar nod—a fact that, to many in Hollywood, revealed the film industry’s bias against women in positions of authority. She also weathered criticism for photographing herself in a glamorizing haze, even though her costar Nick Nolte was shot in the same manner. The year 1991 saw the released of Just for the Record, a four-CD collection of her recordings since the 1960s. She has released more than 50 albums, including 12 that have gone multiplatinum. Throughout her career, she has also recorded many successful singles, including hit duets with Neil Diamond, Donna Summer, Barry Gibb, and Celine Dion.
In 1992, Streisand returned to the concert stage for her first tour in 25 years. She had abandoned live performances in 1967, when an anti-Semitic death threat left her with a paralyzing case of stage fright. Her tour was a sensation. In addition to paying astronomical prices for tickets, her fans bought millions of dollars worth of tour memorabilia sold at Barbra Boutiques across the country. Also in 1992, Streisand established the Streisand Foundation to promote social and political causes of interest to her. A friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, she emerged in the 1990s as Hollywood’s leading spokesperson for liberal politics. She had been a particularly vocal advocate of gay rights. In 1995, she mixed filmmaking and politics by coproducing Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, a television movie that criticized the U.S. military’s ban on homosexuals in its ranks. Streisand returned to the big screen in 1996 with The Mirror Has Two Faces, in which she again directed herself. The light romantic comedy proved only a modest success. Her fans were much more excited by her real-life romance to actor James Brolin. The couple was married in a highly publicized ceremony in 1998.
Streisand brought in the millennium with a New Year’s Eve concert at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. She has since announced her retirement from live performing. In October 2000, she gave four farewell concerts, with ticket prices selling for as much as $2,500. Streisand continues to work in film and television as a producer, director, and performer. Choosing only projects close to her heart, Streisand has earned a reputation as a consummate professional driven equally by passion and perfectionism. The elite of Hollywood came out to celebrate her trailblazing career in February 2001, when in a gala ceremony she became the first female director honored with the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award.
Cunningham, Ernest W. The Ultimate Barbra. New York: Renaissance Books, 1999.
Edwards, Anne. Streisand. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.
Nickens, Christopher, and Karen Swenson. The Films of Barbra Streisand. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing, 1998.
Waldman, Allison J. The Barbra Streisand Scrapbook. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing, 1995.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Barbra: The Concert (1994). Sony/Columbia, VHS, 1994.
Funny Girl (1968). Columbia/Tristar, VHS, 1997.
Timeless: Live in Concert. Sony/Columbia, CD set, 2000.
The Way We Were (1973). Columbia/Tristar, DVD/VHS, 1999/1999.
Yentl (1983). MGM/UA, VHS, 1989.