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Barbra Streisand shares her secret for keeping performances honest

Barbra Streisand, photographed in 1965.
Harry Benson
Express/Getty Images
Barbra Streisand, photographed in 1965.

Throughout her career, Barbra Streisand's mother would send her bad reviews of her performances. The intention was to prevent her daughter from getting a "swelled head," but they also served as fuel for a woman who was determined to be a star — despite all the forces in her life telling her no.

"I don't know if it was like, 'I'll prove you wrong,' because she kept telling me to get a job as a secretary," Streisand says. "I just somehow always saw my future."

Streisand started off singing in nightclubs and Broadway theaters in the 1960s and quickly signed a record deal. Her 1963 debut, The Barbra Streisand Album, won two Grammy Awards. In 1964, she landed the lead in the Broadway production of Funny Girl. Before each night's show, she discussed with the conductor how to "play with the music [or] rephrase it," depending on how she felt. As a result, she says, every one of her performances was different.

"That's what I think keeps the performance honest," she says. "You can't just copy what you did from the night before. It never works. I like actors who respect the reality at the moment."

Her Funny Girl performance got Streisand nominated for a Tony award, and she later won the best actress Oscar for the 1968 film version of the role. In 1983, she became the first woman to write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film with the release of Yentl.

These days, awards are old hat to Streisand — she's part of the rarefied group of EGOT winners, people who have won all four major entertainment awards — but her perspective on show business remains unique. She looks back on her own life and career in that world in the new memoir My Name Is Barbra.

Interview highlights

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On media scrutiny of her nose

People would say, "You should have your bump removed." My first instinct was that I liked my bump. I just had a problem with the tip of my nose, but I wasn't [sure] that any doctor would do something so tiny. [Then] I thought, way later, it might affect my voice, my nasal quality — which I liked. So why would I change it? I don't like pain. I've seen people with the bandages on their nose, and sometimes they're not happy, and sometimes they take too much off — and you can't put it back. I just didn't want to take a chance. And it was expensive, remember? ... We didn't have the money to do anything like that. No, I decided I'll try to just make it on my own, and make it about who I was.

On a crush that turned toxic with Sydney Chaplin, son of Charlie Chaplin, during the Broadway run of Funny Girl

He would mumble under his breath while he was — not even looking into my eyes, he was looking at my forehead — and it completely threw me. Like, saying curse words. I went into his dressing room after the show once or twice to beg him to stop doing that. But he wouldn't stop, and I literally got sick to my stomach. I was thinking, "Oh my God, I can't remember my next line. What do I do if I want to throw up and run off stage?" The first act is an hour and a half; I was timing how fast I could get to the bathroom. It was horrible. I almost was going to quit, but I'm not a quitter. They finally begged him [to leave the show]. I remember seeing him on the stage and he says, "I don't need your money. My father left me a fortune." And they let him go because he wouldn't stop. ... I never did Broadway again.

On leaving theater behind

I just fell in love with film. I fell in love with doing a scene once or five times or whatever it was in a day or two, and it's over. You don't have to do the same show, say the same words, night after night. It became boring. I was ready to move on.

On the connection she felt with Marlon Brando

I used to go to the museums alone and look at the paintings, and I always wished I had someone to go with. A boyfriend, let's say. [Marlon said,] "I want to go to a museum with you." That was like the dream sentence — how did he figure that out? That's because we had, in the subconscious mind, what draws people together without any words. In other words, I knew him before I met him. I knew before that I could speak truth to him, that we had this inner life growing up with these parents who had a problem with us. ... So when I met him finally, face to face, I could say the truth to him. I didn't have to be charming; I just was myself, and he was himself, and we got down to the nitty-gritty of the important moments in our life. No small talk. I love that.

On the perception that she has a big ego

I'm not sure if this book is any good. If somebody tells me it's fabulous, great. If they tell me, well, it could have been much better, I could buy that too. I have two sides of me, and one helps the other. I don't have a swelled head; my mother didn't have to worry. I believed her when she put me down. God, I have to go back to therapy, I think! But I'm not that interested in myself. I love being interested in my grandchildren.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Daoud Tyler-Ameen adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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