Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Streisand Superwoman: Barbra's First 70 Years

"Hello, gorgeous."

With that greeting, the first words uttered by 26-year-old Barbra Streisand in her film debut in the 1968 musical Funny Girl, the ingénue from Brooklyn, New York, with the crooked, over-sized nose and the flawless singing voice entered the annals of popular culture.

Next step: winning the Best Actress Oscar (tying with The Lion in Winter's Katharine Hepburn) for her silver-screen reprisal of her Broadway portrayal of Fanny Brice, another legendary Jewish actress and singer from New York City. The rest is history-making stardom, one of the most celebrated entertainment careers of all time, and along with Olivia Newton-John, Tammy Wynette and ABBA's Agnetha and Frida, one of the first female singers with whom I can remember falling madly in love.

The irony of her famous opening line in Funny Girl is that "gorgeous" was one word probably never used to describe Streisand, who turns 70 today, April 24. Yes, she was beautiful in her own unconventional way, but not the flawless brand of beautiful that we usually assign to Hollywood starlets. Her nose was too big, her eyes too close together, and for most of the '70s, she wore a curly perm that almost seemed to dare anyone to love her just for her looks.

Cher would go on to win an Oscar for Moonstruck some 20 years later, but Streisand was the first modern music star to soar as a modern film star. Diana Ross and Newton-John were her closest competitors for the Queen of Pop throne in the '70s. They, too, were actresses (Ross even scored an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Billie Holliday in 1972's Lady Sings the Blues), but no diva under the sun could carry a tune quite like Streisand. If Whitney Houston was the black Barbra Streisand, Streisand was the white Aretha Franklin.

Throughout her recording career, she's earned every superlative assigned to her, effortlessly venturing from pop (1980's multi-platinum Guilty album, her commercial zenith) to rock (1971's Barbra Joan Streisand, on which she covered John Lennon, Carole King and Laura Nyro) to show tunes (1985's Grammy-winning The Broadway Album) and even to disco ("No More Tears [Enough Is Enough]," her chart-topping 1979 duet with Donna Summer), with jazz standards, movie music, inspirational songs, and the Great American Songbook regularly thrown into her eclectic mix.

She's had more Top 10 albums than any other female artist (32), and more that have gone gold and/or platinum (over 50). As recently as 2009, Streisand scored her ninth No. 1 album, when Love Is the Answer entered Billboard's Top 200 album chart at No. 1, making the '00s the fifth consecutive decade in which she'd scored a chart-topping album.

For a time, her movie career was just as impressive. I can remember seeing TV trailers for her movies A Star Is Born and The Main Event in the '70s, back when I was too young to realize -- or care -- that she was one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood. She earned another Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1973's The Way We Were and won the Best Original Song prize for co-writing "Evergreen," the love theme from 1977's A Star Is Born and the nominee I picked when I made my first-ever Oscar prediction on the night of the 1978 Academy Awards: Streisand had to win because she'd just performed her nominated song. Of course, she did.

In the '80s, her movie output slowed as she turned to directing. She became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director for 1983's Yentl, but the Academy overlooked her for a Best Director Oscar nomination, as it would again for 1991'sThe Prince of Tides, which earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and The Mirror Has Two Faces, the 1996 film that brought old-Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall her first-ever Oscar nomination.

Recently, Streisand has focused primarily on liberal political causes (she's a lifelong supporter of the U.S. Democratic Party) and making music, with sporadic live performances and scattered acting gigs in the two sequels to Meet the Parents, 2004's Meet the Fockers and 2010's Little Fockers, and also on marriage to actor James Brolin, her husband since 1998.

After nearly 50 years spent in the spotlight, her cultural legacy lives strong. As gay icons go, only Cher has been beloved for nearly as long. Meanwhile, she's hip to the younger generation, thanks to her status as Rachel Berry's American idol on TV's Glee, and as the titular subject of "Barbra Streisand," the 2010 international dance hit by Duck Sauce that hit No. 3 on the UK singles chart. (It was beyond terrible, but it's not every day you get name dropped in a smash single.)

Streisand will continue building on her youthful following this November with her role as Seth Rogen's mom in the road comedy The Guilt Trip, and she and Hollywood super-producer Joel Silver are developing a remake of Gypsy, with Streisand in the baity Mama Rose role, for Universal Pictures.

Afterwards, she could easily spend her remaining days resting on her considerable laurels, but there'll no doubt be a lot more music. And my wishful thinking has me hoping she's got a few more acclaimed screen performances left to give, though at the rate she's been going in recent decades, we might have to wait until she's in her 80s for Auntie Mame, with Streisand in the title role, and the film adaptation of The Normal Heart, two projects I've been hearing about since the Louisiana Purchase was in escrow. Whatever she does in her next 70 years, Streisand will no doubt bring to them the same touch of class and perfectionism that defined her first 70.

5 Super Streisand Songs

"Mother" (from Barbra Joan Streisand)

"Evergreen" (from A Star Is Born)

"The Love Inside" (from Guilty)

"You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Higher Ground)

"Above the Law" (from Guilty Pleasures)

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