Memories… of our favorite Barbra Streisand roles
Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968)
”Hello, gorgeous.” In her movie debut, Streisand emerged as a fully formed star and glamorous screen goddess. She was reprising her Broadway role as early-20th-century comedy star Fanny Brice, but everything about her brash, vital performance — singing, dancing, skating, emoting — seemed to shout, ”Look at ME, Barbra!” No one could look away, much less rain on her parade. Certainly not the Academy, whose tie vote forced The Lion in Winter‘s Katharine Hepburn to share Best Actress honors with the Brooklyn upstart.
Judy Maxwell in What’s Up, Doc (1972)
This time, Streisand has the Katharine Hepburn part, playing a dizzy college dropout who upends the life of a handsome, uptight academic (Ryan O’Neal), in an homage to 1930s screwball comedies like Hepburn and Cary Grant’s Bringing Up Baby. With her history of brittle dramatic performances, it’s easy to forget that Streisand was the top comic actress of the early ’70s. Here, she gives a master class in comic timing, slapstick pratfalls, and rapid-fire verbal wit. We can only hope she’ll be a fraction as funny in Meet the Fockers.
Katie Morosky Gardner in The Way We Were (1973)
It’s not the laughter we will remember whenever we remember this early peak of Streisand’s career. Rather, we’ll think of Streisand and Robert Redford, both at their most glamorous, as Katie and Hubbell, striving heroically to make their opposites-attract marriage work in this classic romantic tearjerker. It doesn’t help that her Jewish activist and his WASPy golden-boy screenwriter are trying to maintain their suffocatingly intense relationship in a time of historic upheaval, during Hollywood’s McCarthy-era blacklist period. We’ll remember the arguments, the reconciliations, and Streisand tenderly brushing Redford’s hair out of his face. Oh, and of course, that haunting theme song, which an early Fockers trailer used so cleverly to jar our mem’ries.
Yentl/Anshel in Yentl (1983)
Yes, yes, the 40-year-old Streisand was too old to play a teenager, but any film whose heroine dresses in drag and breaks into song to express her innermost thoughts requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. Still, as soon as the bereft Streisand opens up and starts singing a plaintive ”Papa, Can You Hear Me?” to the starry heavens, it’s hard not to get swept up in the magic. There’s even something perversely erotic and exciting about the unpredictable love triangle between Streisand (disguised as a boy in order to get around the taboo against women studying the Talmud), her study partner (Mandy Patinkin), and the girl he wants to marry (Amy Irving). Despite Streisand’s own left-leaning politics, the film — her first directing job — plays less like a feminist manifesto than a fairy-tale elegy to a vanished world, one of sexism and superstition, but also one of faith and principles. Oy, just talking about it makes us feel all verklemmt.
Dr. Susan Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides (1991)
Look past Streisand’s formidably long legs and lacquered nails, and you’ll see that this supposed vanity vehicle is simply The Way We Were updated for the age of Oprah. Here, the Gentile golden-boy writer is Nick Nolte’s tormented English teacher, while Streisand’s Jewish New York intellectual is the shrink who serves up salty chicken soup for his haunted soul. For all her supposed narcissism, Streisand the director keeps the focus where it belongs, on the adult Nolte (it ain’t called The Therapist of Tides) and his treasure trove of childhood trauma, which the movie handles with great sensitivity and empathy. Her character teaches his that there is power and strength in uncorking your feelings and shouting out your brightest hopes and deepest fears at the top of your lungs. It’s not just the message of the film but the credo behind Streisand’s entire career.