Barbra Streisand was born on April 24, 1942 in Brooklyn, New York. Her neighbors knew her for her voice, but she really wanted to be an actress. And she sure met that goal — becoming the most bankable actress of the 1970s and reinventing film stardom for the new era.
The 1968 film adaptation of “Funny Girl” was her first film and a classic star vehicle, an extravagant roadshow musical meant to put front and center the talent of the leading lady. Streisand plays Fanny Brice, the real-life Jewish vaudevillian and comedienne, as she navigates her rise to stardom and a troubled relationship with her husband.
“Funny Girl,” both the film and the 1964 Broadway musical, formed the basis of Streisand’s public persona. David Kaufman describes her in his book “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity” as “both shlemiel and diva, self-consciously unattractive and glamorously chic, Brooklyn Jewish-whiny and the most beautiful voice in the world.” Like Fanny, Streisand’s inability to slot into the 1960s beauty standards epitomized by the poise and glamour of Audrey Hepburn and the sultry appeal of Elizabeth Taylor made people doubt she would be a successful star. However, her “ordinariness” and the struggles she faced in the entertainment industry because of it also turned out to be one of her greatest assets.
Fanny Brice doesn’t sing standard romantic ballads in “Funny Girl.” Instead, her songs are about the character’s loneliness (“People”), rejection (“My Man”) and determination (“Don’t Rain On My Parade”). Even “You Are Woman, I Am Man” is a comedic duet about how out of her depth the working-class Fanny is in a high-end restaurant. This made her characters relatable to audiences of women, Jews and queer people who saw their own experiences represented on screen. As Streisand biographer Neal Gabler writes, “When she sang, she sang for every woman — and a good many men, too — who had been marginalized and degraded. In her, they saw not her Jewishness, but her otherness in a world that valorized the beautiful, the rich and the powerful.”
By the 1970s, the style of extravagant roadshow musicals that catapulted Streisand to international superstardom in the 1960s (besides “Funny Girl,” she also starred in “Hello, Dolly!” and “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”) fell out of favor with audiences. This shift in cultural tastes seems like something that would spell career doom, but Streisand survived by emphasizing the modern elements of her persona — self-deprecating humor, zaniness, ordinariness and determination — over her musical abilities. This shift led to a string of politically engaged films in which Streisand aligned herself with women’s liberation, including “Up the Sandbox,” “The Way We Were” and “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
“Up the Sandbox” sees Streisand cast against type as Margaret Reynolds, a bored housewife who has a series of fantasies including being pursued by Fidel Castro and joining a group of terrorists to blow up the Statue of Liberty. It’s a bizarre and oft-forgotten film, but remarkable in this context for how it positions her as the everywoman navigating an era marked by social and political change. She was passionate about the project because, as she said in a 1972 interview, “Part of me wants to be a housewife and mother and another isn’t a housewife and mother. I feel for [Margaret Reynolds]. I feel for all women. I want them to be heard. Their problems are universal.”
The 1976 remake of “A Star is Born” is a more commercially successful example of Streisand’s modern persona. Instead of keeping the film in classical Hollywood and making it a period piece, this version modernizes the story by shifting the setting to the 1970s recording industry. Streisand’s performance as rising star Esther Hoffman reflects these changes, and she’s much more confident and driven than either Janet Gaynor (in the 1937 original) or Judy Garland (in the 1954 musical remake). She subverts the gender norms present in those earlier iterations by wearing suits and pants (which she brought to set from her own closet), proposing to John instead of the other way around, and hyphenating her last name as opposed to taking his. But none of her characters from this era were as subversive as her directorial debut.
The release of “Yentl” in 1983 made Barbra Streisand the first woman to write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film. Even as one of the biggest stars in the world, it took her nearly 15 years to get her passion project made. Studio executives thought the story’s Jewishness was “too ethnic” to have wide appeal, and its gender-bending nature certainly didn’t assuage those fears. It being her first directing job also gave studios pause and caused public backlash to the film as well. While Streisand has always had a reputation for being difficult to work with — things like clashing with co-stars and directors, which her male contemporaries rarely received the same scrutiny for — her desire to direct only fueled accusations that she was a self-absorbed diva gone mad with power.
After the film’s release, Isaac Bashevis Singer — the author of the original short story on which “Yentl” is based — wrote in The New York Times that “No matter how good you are, you don’t take everything for yourself… When an actor is also the producer and the director and the writer he would have to be exceedingly wise to curb his appetites. I must say that Miss Streisand was exceedingly kind to herself. The result is that Miss Streisand is always present, while poor Yentl is absent.” Singer’s op-ed illustrates the misogyny of much of the response to “Yentl,” but his vitriol is also rooted in his dislike of the changes Streisand made to the story. She views Yentl’s plight with empathy for the outcast and downtrodden, refusing a simple binary morality and obvious distinctions between what is and isn’t “normal.” Like Fanny Brice and Barbra herself, Yentl is ambitious beyond what her society deems acceptable for women. Even when the people around her refuse to believe in her abilities, it never shakes her from pursuing her goals.
Despite conventional wisdom, Hollywood is a conservative industry. Studios don’t adapt well to changing tastes and values, preferring to stick with trends until long after they’ve fallen out of the zeitgeist. We often expect celebrities in 2022 to be politically active, especially when they belong to marginalized communities, but it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case. Previous generations of Jewish film stars — including Lauren Bacall and Paulette Goddard — tried to erase their identifiably Jewish features to better assimilate to dominant WASP culture. Barbra Streisand didn’t, and it earned her a deserved place in the pantheon of great American entertainers.