Barbra Streisand: 'Not enough women are directing now'
The star talked talent, fear, and tearing down walls at the Tribeca Film Festival
Five days after her 75th birthday, Barbra Streisand strode onstage to a raucous standing ovation at the Tribeca Film Festival. On her arm was Robert Rodriguez, the action and horror director of El Mariachi, From Dusk Til Dawn, Spy Kids, Sin City — and on this evening, Streisand’s self-appointed choice to interview her onstage for the last of 2017 Tribeca’s Storytellers series.
“Well, hello gorgeous,” Rodriguez meowed to start the conversation.
To begin, the 48-year-old Texas-based director explained the reason behind his anomalous presence onstage with the singing and acting icon: “This speaks volumes about the widespread appeal of Barbra Streisand. I grew up in a large Hispanic family of 10 kids in San Antonio, Texas. And in our household, there simply was no bigger star than Barbra Streisand. My mom talked to us 10 children about God and about Barbra Streisand. After all these years, I don’t remember any bible stories, but I remember all the Barbra Streisand stories.”
Rodriguez, whose friendship with Streisand developed a few years ago, confessed that he’s never been as starstruck by another human being in his life. Recently, in Texas, he took his mother to see Streisand perform. “We went into Barbra’s dressing room after the show — and Barbra sat and basically interviewed my parents for 45 minutes. It was Barbra After Hours.”
After a preamble in which Rodriguez declared Streisand the greatest entertainer of all time, their loose, spirited hour-long conversation eschewed Streisand’s musical career and focused on her movie work (specifically four major films) and her position as an opinionated woman in the male-dominated film industry.
There was also time for audience questions, an idea that immediately descended into entertaining chaos as the first three questioners, all female Streisand superfans, were so breathless with emotion that two were lightly heckled by the crowd for stalling. The fourth questioner was a gentleman fan. “Oh, it’s good to have a man speak,” Streisand declared upon hearing his voice. “I’m glad I sound like one,” the man responded, drawing a big laugh from the legend.
Here are the 13 best moments from the evening.
The crowd whooped at Streisand’s first mention of Brooklyn. When discussing her childhood in Williamsburg, her voice betrayed a bit more of that fantastic NYC accent than usual: pure Brooklynese. She described spending the whole day at her local movie theater as a child. “The first time I sat through two movies to see the first one again was to see Marlon Brando. I loved the make-believe world, the world of color. I remember leaving the theater and going back into the drab, hot summer days. Inside the theater was cool and they had great ice cream. And these movies! These movie stars!”
The men’s section
In an anecdote that set the table for a deeper discussion to come, she described going to a synagogue with her grandfather as a child. “And I would sit with him in the men’s section. I wasn’t alienated with the women upstairs. So I felt kind of familiar with being with the men. And who knows what that has to do with me eventually choosing Yentl.”
Streisand talked about reading George Bernard Shaw’s book The Quintessence of Ibsenism. “The one sentence I remember outta that book was, ‘Thoughts can transcend matter.’ And then later on when I had a career as a singer, people would say, ‘How do you hold the notes so long?’ Because I want to.”
Speaking of holding notes long, even non-superfans of Streisand (raises hand) should be plastered by this: In 1980’s hit record “Woman in Love,” the singer belts out the last word of the line “But I give you it all” (at 2:20) for what seems like the length of evolutionary epoch.
Grabbing the bullhorn
After filming wrapped on her first film Funny Girl, for which Streisand would win a Best Actress Oscar in 1969, the movie’s director William Wyler presented her with a megaphone and a note that read, “Congratulations on directing your first film.”
“I loved every minute of working on that movie,” she said. “But I remember learning how to dislike the press. Because every time I had a suggestion, it was put in the paper as if we were fighting or something. I always had opinions and opinions in the ’60s were not popular for women.”
A director is born
Streisand described her fruitful and collaborative relationship with Sydney Pollack, who directed her opposite Robert Redford in The Way We Were. “We told each other secrets that no one will ever know,” she said. But she explained in specific detail two scenes that Pollack cut from the finished movie — and her vociferous disagreement with him over those decisions.
When she was done, Streisand pointed a finger at Rodriguez with a big smile on her face and said, “That’s when I decided to be a director.”
Streisand never mentioned Frank Pierson, her director on A Star is Born, by name. But she made abundantly clear that theirs was not a joyful collaboration. “In a sense, I was blackmailed into hiring the director. I had hired him to write. I had final cut over that movie, so I said, ‘Look, you can have all the credit, but you have to allow my vision.’ I’m like a straight-shooter, I tell you what I think. He was like, ‘I agree with that, I agree with that,’ and then I’d come on the set and the camera’s in a completely other position. That was tough.”
The movie was filmed with music recorded live on set — Streisand’s idea — and one shot was emblematic of her frustration with Pierson. “I would be in the middle of a song and he would yell, ‘Cut!’ I’d say, ‘Why did you cut?’ He says, ‘Your head went out of frame.’ I said, “My head will come back!’ It was insane to me. I saw that he doesn’t see the truthful moment. So…he yelled action, but I yelled cut.”
“What I remember are the bad reviews,” Streisand said. “I forget the good reviews. That’s part of the artistic process. You start [creating art] because you don’t feel good enough. And yet there’s also the other end of the scale, which is confidence. So it’s a funny thing. You have to have both qualities: the self-doubt and the confidence.”
Though Yentl received five Oscar nominations, she was broadsided by some of the film’s bad reviews — and particularly irked by female critics who slammed her directorial debut. “None of them talked about what the movie was trying to say. The reviews must have hurt me because I didn’t want to direct for years after that.”
Is it hard to direct herself in a movie?
“No, no,” she said. “Because there’s less people to argue with.”
The singing psychiatrist
Rodriguez pointed out that Streisand chose not to record a song for the end credits of her second film as a director, The Prince of Tides, in which she played a New York therapist counseling an adrift family man (Nick Nolte). “The studio wanted an Academy Award nomination for a new song. I thought, ‘I can’t do it. And why is this psychiatrist singing?'”
The Prince of Tides nabbed seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, but not for Streisand’s directing.
“Of course it’s a f—ing snub,” Rodriguez said.
Streisand explained, “There was a lot of older directors who didn’t want to see a woman director, I don’t think. And then there’s the whole notion of, I don’t know how many women wanted to see a movie with a woman director. Then you get into competition and a bit of jealousy.”
Though she added, “Not enough women are directing now. I love when I see a woman’s name on a film. Then I pray that it’s good.”
Nothing to fear but…
“I have fear,” said Streisand, who’s suffered lifelong bouts with stage fright, “but I do it anyway. Put it that way. I think that fear is like an engine to create.”
Tear down this wall
“That’s so great that you use [fear] as an engine and not a wall,” Rodriguez said.
“Don’t mention a wall to me,” she exclaimed, an obvious reference to the current president. The line garnered the loudest applause of the night.
Where art thou Juliet?
Streisand has not acted onscreen since 2012’s Seth Rogen-starring The Guilt Trip. But responding to an audience member’s question about taking on the lead role in Romeo and Juliet, Streisand said, “You know what, Sarah Bernhardt played her at 74. And on the stage, so without close-ups.” Though she waxed on about the pleasure she receives from gardening, the activity that she’d been engaged in for the four days leading up to Saturday’s interview, Streisand did not rule anything out. Even Juliet.