Pho­to cour­tesy of the author




B. 1942

Hel­lo, gor­geous.” In the very first line of her very first film, Bar­bra Streisand man­aged to con­vey an epochal span of con­fi­dence, yearn­ing, self-doubt, and self-reliance. Sev­en months lat­er, she used those same two words to accept the 1969 Best Actress Oscar for her indeli­ble perfor­mance in Fun­ny Girl.

She was twen­ty-six, and already an icon.

So how do we assess the impact of a leg­end? It isn’t only her once-in-a-life­time tal­ent that’s turned her into an eter­nal super­star. It’s also her abil­i­ty, in song and per­for­mance, to cap­ture and embrace the oth­er­ness that we feel, too. To reject uni­form­ly entrenched stan­dards with so much con­vic­tion and will as to sin­gle-hand­ed­ly erase them.

Despite being type­cast ear­ly on as the kook,” an odd duck,” and even too Jew­ish”— among oth­er actu­al descrip­tions — she insist­ed on defin­ing her­self, with all the com­plex­i­ty and beau­ty and bril­liance that entailed.

Obvi­ous­ly, the stats are impres­sive. She became the world’s youngest EGOT win­ner in record time. She’s the only artist to have achieved a #1 album in every decade since her 1963 debut, The Bar­bra Streisand Album. And many of her musi­cal tri­umphs have come from her equal­ly wide-rang­ing films, includ­ing not just Fun­ny Girl but What’s Up Doc?, The Way We Were, A Star Is Born, and The Main Event.

Of course, that’s not all: In 1983 she wrote, pro­duced, direct­ed, and starred in Yentl, becom­ing the first — and still only — woman to win a Best Direc­tor Gold­en Globe. She then went on to direct (and pro­duce, and star in) The Prince of Tides and The Mir­ror Has Two Faces. Togeth­er, the three films received four­teen Oscar nominations.

But for a life­long phil­an­thropist, per­son­al activism is just as essen­tial as pro­fes­sion­al acco­lades. From the start Streisand has spo­ken to us and for us, through both art and exam­ple. We’re all bom­bard­ed, every day, by mes­sages about who we should be. It was Bar­bra who proved that the truest pow­er lies in embrac­ing the way we are.

You were the Tony-nom­i­nat­ed break­out star of your first play, at age nine­teen. You won an Emmy for your first TV spe­cial, two Gram­mys for your first album, an Oscar for your first film. Have you always had a grand vision?

I guess so. When I was a kid, I didn’t want to do just one thing. I want­ed to be the best singer, the best actress, the best record­ing star, the best Broad­way star, and the best movie star. That was my chal­lenge. My moth­er thought I should learn how to type. Start­ing with my first movie — actu­al­ly my first Broad­way show, I Can Get It for You Whole­sale—I was already think­ing like a direc­tor. I could see the whole sto­ry, envi­sioning how to stage scenes in my head.

You began push­ing social bound­aries ear­ly, too.

I am very inter­est­ed in pol­i­tics, the state of our coun­try, and the search for jus­tice. Up the Sand­box in 1972 was my first film for my own com­pa­ny, and I want­ed to use it as a way to explore what was on my mind. The script tack­led con­tem­po­rary issues like the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment and a woman’s right to choose if and when to have a child.

And then in 1973 you earned an Oscar nom­i­na­tion for play­ing an out­spo­ken activist in The Way We Were.

The Way We Were was very impor­tant to me, because it was more than just a love sto­ry. It dealt with polit­i­cal issues.

You exec­u­tive pro­duced A Star Is Born a few years lat­er. What did that movie mean to you, both as an actor and a producer?

I saw it as a chance to reverse sex­u­al ste­reotypes. This time, the woman’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. I was also inter­ested in explor­ing some­thing about the pres­sures of show busi­ness, what it’s like to be in the pub­lic eye. I put more of my own expe­ri­ence into that film than I had ever done before. It also forced me to write songs because we need­ed them.

But by that time you were already think­ing about writ­ing and direct­ing your own movie.

You mean Yentl. It actu­al­ly took me fif­teen years to get that made. It’s about a woman who defied expec­ta­tions, and I guess I did, too, by want­i­ng to direct. On the night of the Gold­en Globes, when my name was announced as Best Direc­tor, I lit­er­al­ly could not believe it. I was one of only four women direct­ing films that year. Mean­while, I won that award in 1984. And I’m appalled that I’m still the only woman to receive it.

Every true pio­neer could have cho­sen a less chal­leng­ing route. What gave you the con­fi­dence to make Yentl when so much was aligned against you?

Pas­sion. I was stand­ing up for some­thing I’ve believed in all my life: gen­der equal­i­ty. Women were being treat­ed as if they were sec­ond-class cit­i­zens, as if they couldn’t cook and have babies and also study and run cor­po­ra­tions. I want­ed to empow­er women to be all that they could be. But I also felt the weight of respon­si­bil­i­ty as a woman direc­tor. If the movie was a flop, I was wor­ried that oth­er women would find it even hard­er to get their films made.

It cer­tain­ly wasn’t easy to get yours made.

When I was try­ing to set up the project, the response was… less than enthu­si­as­tic. Here I was, accord­ing to var­i­ous polls, a top box-office draw. And I felt like I was six­teen years old again audi­tion­ing for a Broad­way show. Some exec­u­tives seemed to have this anti­quat­ed notion of an actress as some sort of friv­o­lous crea­ture who couldn’t be fis­cal­ly responsible.

Peo­ple may not real­ize the depth of the dou­ble stan­dards you’ve faced.

The fact is, a man tak­ing on mul­ti­ple roles is con­sid­ered mul­ti­tal­ent­ed. But a woman try­ing to do the same thing must be vain and ego­tis­ti­cal. The atti­tude was, who does she think she is? Some men don’t want to be told what to do by a woman, and that’s prob­a­bly why we don’t have a woman pres­ident today.

The sex­ist lan­guage that’s been used to describe you has often seemed unre­lent­ing. Even the word diva” is a dou­ble-edged sword.

Well, I’m not a diva. But I am strong. Strong men are seen as lead­ers. Strong women are seen as sus­pect. He’s assertive, she’s aggres­sive. He’s com­mit­ted, she’s con­trol­ling. But every good direc­tor has a vision. Every artist wants con­trol over their work. I want to be respon­si­ble for every­thing in my life, good or bad.

And yet when you per­form, as a singer and an actress, you seem to tap into eter­nal truths instinc­tive­ly rather than deliberately.

I trust my instinct. I know my truth and I use it. Truth trans­mits. Truth is the one thing that can touch people’s hearts and minds.

What’s one of the most grat­i­fy­ing changes you’ve seen over the course of your career?

Women are speak­ing out and telling their sto­ries. They’re think­ing of them­selves more like a sis­ter­hood, and recogniz­ing com­mon goals. And there is pow­er in num­bers. When we come togeth­er, we can make a difference.

You’re as busy as ever, but you haven’t helmed a movie since 1996. Do you think you’ll direct again?

As a mat­ter of fact, I’m work­ing on a new project. I can do a film only when I have a pas­sion­ate attach­ment to the sto­ry, and this is a com­pelling sto­ry — but no build­ings get blown up. I’m not sure even a clas­sic like The Way We Were would be green­lit today. It’s a myth that if you’re well known or, as you call me, an icon, you can get what you want. But I’m still trying.

Learn more about Rene­gade Women in Film and TV and pur­chase it here

Reprint­ed from Rene­gade Women in Film and TV. Copy­right © 2019 by Eliz­a­beth Weitz­man. Illus­tra­tions by Austen Claire Clements. Pub­lished by Clark­son Potter/​Publishers, an imprint of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC.

Eliz­a­beth Weitz­man is a jour­nal­ist, film crit­ic, and the author of more than two dozen books for chil­dren and young adults. She cur­rent­ly cov­ers movies for The Wrap, and was a crit­ic for the New York Dai­ly News for 15 years. In 2015, she was named one of the top crit­ics in New York by the Hol­ly­wood Reporter.