"WELL, IN my limited experience, I’d have to say — that was the best-girl-on-girl action of my life!”
THIS WAS actress Amy Irving, referring to her “love scene,” kissing Barbra Streisand in ”Yentl” — you know, the one where Barbra is forced to masquerade as a male Yeshiva student, so as to further the education denied to women of her time.
This choice bit of info came the other night onstage at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, where Barbra was feted by famous colleagues and friends, before receiving (from President Clinton) The Chaplin Award for her extraordinary career on film as an actress, singer, director producer. (The latter two, one might say, she’s been in training for all her life! Even before movies came knocking.)
I’ve been to these big events over the years and admired Anne Tannenbaum for turning them into money-makers for film history. (This year she raised over $2 million.)
I’ve seen Elizabeth Taylor, Woody Allen, Meryl Streep, Claudette Colbert get this same award. I was there for the Bette Davis tribute, at which she opened the show with her classic — “What a dump!” The event is always packed with enthusiastic fans and stars, everybody onstage full of praise and admiration for the honoree.
This year brought back many of Barbra’s leading men and some delightful female actresses (Catherine Deneuve, Blythe Danner, Liza Minnelli). Songwriter Alan Bergman sang a moving “The Way We Were” — a tribute to Barbra, his wife Marilyn, and the gone-too-soon Marvin Hamlisch.
Kris Kristofferson, Robert Redford, Ben Stiller, George Segal, Michael Douglas, all extolled her humor, generosity, beauty (inside and out) and the perfectionism that has informed her art and informed gossips that she is hard to get along with.
According to the folks onstage, not true! Each emphasized that the self-admitted “bossy lady” was almost always correct. Pierce Brosnan’s little ‘Tale of the Tie’ from making “The Mirror Has Two Faces” was a riot. This 007 could never please her about his choice of neckware.
He also said he’d always wanted to sing with Barbra. “But I never had the chance to sing at all until (significant pause) ‘Mamma Mia!’” This drew a huge laugh.
SOMEHOW, though, despite the love onstage and in the audience, this particular spectacular event seemed a bit muted and ragged. I think age is taking its toll, of almost everyone except Barbra. She seems as glamourous and fabled as ever. It comes down to two things.
One, in this age of giant TV screens at home and in concert, those of us in the nosebleed seats were treated to postage-stamp-sized celebs onstage. They were all a city block away and we were dying to see the real Catherine Deneuve! Although a giant screen behind them, announced “Barbra” all night — as if we didn’t know who we’d come to see — it wasn’t used except for the movie clips. It put a distance, literally and figuratively, to what was happening onstage.
No. Two — I was terribly disappointed in the film clips. They’d cut off just as Barbra was about to burst out into thrilling song, or say something especially funny … The “Up The Sandbox” and “Prince of Tides” clips seemed randomly chosen.
As did one moment shown from the classic “What’s Up Doc,” arguably her best comedy. Only several scenes from “The Way We Were” were satisfying, though I found it hard to believe that whoever chose these, omitted Streisand’s most electric moment. (Taken to a party, after the death of FDR, her character is offended by the shallow joking. “Yes!” she shouts. “Mrs. Roosevelt went down into the mines! And she said “I am my husband’s legs. Did you tell the cripple jokes too? Is there anything that isn’t a joke to you people?!” (And that’s only the beginning of her rant.)
Also, they show a meaningless clip from “One a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” with a young barely recognizable Jack Nicholson. That movie, directed by Vincente Minnelli, contains some of the most ravishing visuals of Streisand ever committed to film. But we didn’t see them.
I might be wrong, but can’t believe what was shown, were Barbra’ choices. But … we all see ourselves differently and have our own opinions. So Barbra might well have approved or not been about to carp.
INCIDENTALLY, my favorite scene was from her last movie, “The Guilt Trip” with Seth Rogan. Barbra sits there looking like a glowing a 35-year-old. Her character is admitting to her adult son an affair she had long before. She is young and beguiling here, impossibly attractive. I wanted to see the whole movie again!
8(This reminded me of Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard” where she says, “I’m still big; it’s the pictures that got small.” Barbra could paraphrase, “I’m still big and look great; it’s my contemporaries who got older!”)
Minor complaints aside, all were swept away when Barbra walked, straight and slender and agile as a girl, to the podium. She looked divine. Even from where I was sitting, it was obvious. Her speech was not short, it was discursive, sweet, and terribly amusing. She didn’t get political at all.
In fact, as she found herself drifting into the tragedies of Newtown and Boston, she stopped herself. “No, No — this is about film!” She spoke of her love of directing, and acting. (As all Barbra fans know, she had never intended to make her name and fame as a singer.)
The big laugh of the night was telling how she’d go searching for acting jobs, “But nobody wanted a 16-year-old Medea!”
The best was saved for last. President Bill Clinton had announced Hillary was in the front row — to thunderous applause. Handing Miss Streisand the award, he seemed as star-struck with Barbra as any “regular” fan. She was girlish and complimentary in return. It was fun, and as Barbra stood onstage, sleek as a seal, her glamour and power undiminished, I was grateful real stars still do exist, and I that am still here to see them! She stands alone, literally.
OH, A personal shout out to one Nancy Cohn, who works in accounting at the Film Center. Nancy sat with me during cocktails, knew where the right elevators were. Insisted on seeing me seated and sweetly offered me a pair of opera glasses, the better to see the far-off stage. I declined. Big mistake! But Nancy, you were a doll. Thanks!
Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining and it was a real privilege to be there! I owe a debt of thanks also to press reps Dick Guttman and Ken Sunshine on both coasts.
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 4/24/13
April 23, 2013, Barbra Streisand, at a Gala and in Memory By MANOHLA DARGIS
“What am I doing here?” a smiling former President Bill Clinton asked the plush, volubly appreciative crowd packed into Avery Fisher Hall on Monday evening. He may have been the effective warm-up act for his friend Barbra Streisand, to whom he was about to present the 40th annual Chaplin Award. Yet when Mr. Clinton sauntered in, taking over host duties with the silky ease of a man accustomed to working the biggest stage in the world, there was no doubt who the biggest star in the room was. For almost anyone else, he would have been a tough act to follow.
But this was her night and soon after Ms. Streisand took the stage, this very special FOB (friend of Barbra) slipped into the shadows behind her, perched on a seat like a sideman waiting for his next cue. That came when, a little later, Mr. Clinton introduced Tony Bennett, whose warmly embracing rendition of “Smile” turned the hall into an intimate club, capping an evening that included Wynton Marsalis‘s playing “Hello, Dolly!,” the very tune Louis Armstrong crooned with Ms. Streisand in the 1969 movie of the same title. Mr. Marsalis brought the cool, Mr. Bennett brought the warmth. But it was Alan Bergman, who with his wife, Marilyn, wrote some of Ms. Streisand’s signature songs, who brought the tears with his gently personalized rendition of “The Way We Were.”
Ms. Streisand didn’t sing, though really the faithful in attendance were just happy to see and hear her when she finally took the stage for a diverting, fairly brief ramble down memory lane, one she ornamented with career highs and lows (she said the studio insisted she couldn’t make “Yentl” unless she sang in it) and interspersed with blown kisses to friends including Liza Minnelli. (Ms. Minnelli powered through a couple of songs, seemingly with little more than heart and ferocious show-business drive.) Ms. Streisand even joked about her reputation for being difficult, picking up a motif that had been teasingly threaded by other guests, like Kris Kristofferson, who starred with her in “A Star Is Born,” and Pierce Brosnan, who was in “The Mirror Has Two Faces”
The mix of banter and old stories gave the sold-out theater an intimate, we’re-all-just-old-friends vibe, which is crucial for glittering affairs like this. One of the tricks to producing successful galas is making attendees so happy, so pleased and even grateful to be there, that they forget (or simply don’t mind) just how much money they paid to be present for what is, effectively, a fund-raiser. (Most tickets for the gala ran from $200 to $500, while a seat at the after-show dinner ran from $1,500 a ticket to $100,000 a table.) The Film Society of Lincoln Center created the award in 1972 and since then it has honored several dozen directors and performers, two thirds of them men, an imbalance reflecting the movie industry’s pervasive sexism.
In her 20 or so onstage minutes, Ms. Streisand drew attention to her hyphenate status – her Web site calls her an “actress/singer/director/writer/composer/producer/designer/author/photographer/activist” – though not her status as a feminist role model. But she was, and is. Like a lot of women, I suspect, I fell in love with her while watching “The Way We Were,” the 1973 Sydney Pollack romance about two college students – she plays a fiery leftist and Robert Redford is her coolly apolitical goy-toy, i.e., “gorgeous goyisher guy” – who meet in the 1930s, fall in love but are driven apart by their differences. Their misty reunion years later in front of the Plaza Hotel, during which she tenderly brushes his hair across his forehead, exquisitely captures the enduring heartache of loving the wrong man.
“The Way We Were” has a lot to recommend it, including its weaving of the political and the personal. Watching it for the first time as a 12-year-old, though, I didn’t pay any mind to the politics. Rather, I was wholly mesmerized by her, by that famous nose, yes, a signifier of so much, but also her voice and mouth and especially her mouthy-ness, a tremendous inspiration for smart girls, like me, who liked to talk, and were sometimes told, even protectively, to shut up. In a mostly sympathetic review of the film, Pauline Kael got at that quality when she wrote about how the role was tricky for Ms. Streisand because it showed the world “that element in her own persona which repelled some people initially: her fast sass is defensive and aggressive in the same breath.”
What Ms. Streisand also did, indelibly, historically, was turn a Jewish woman into a sex symbol. The judiciously chosen clips that played during the tribute illustrated that metamorphosis, though they only suggested the larger story of what it meant in 1968 – the year after Dustin Hoffman ran away with Katharine Ross in “The Graduate” – for a film star to look like Ms. Streisand. That year she appeared in her first film, “Funny Girl,” playing the young Fanny Brice, who, when she’s told that she doesn’t “look like the other girls,” belts out “I’m the Greatest Star” (“I’m the greatest star/I am by far/but no one knows it”) with a heavy New York accent and a hint of Yiddish. Before long, she’s dolled up in fur and Popsicle orange and warning the world “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
It didn’t, at least for a couple of decades, as the clips continued to play on Monday and highlights from effervescent delights like Peter Bogdanovich’s neo-screwball comedy, “What’s Up, Doc?,” lighted up the tribute. The images were carefully chosen, and if they tended to emphasize the earlier work over Ms. Streisand’s later movies, including the three features she directed – “Yentl,” “The Prince of Tides” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” – that was to be expected. This was a celebration, not a roast, despite the occasional, very gently delivered tweaking, and everyone onstage and off was there to cheer rather than jeer. For Ms. Streisand, who turns 71 on Wednesday, it was a night to be gloriously Barbra. As she said, with a voice that rose for all to hear: “Here’s to bossy women!”
One day my agent called to say that Barbra wanted me to be in a movie she was starring in and directing. Now, I naturally assumed it was a musical and that I would sing a duet with her. I was a little stunned when I found out she wanted me to just act. The result: the world had to wait until “Mamma Mia” to find out I could sing.
When I took that job to play Alex in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” all I really knew about Barbra was that she had a reputation for the two T words: Talented and Temperamental. I quickly discovered that the first T word, Talented, was 100 percent on the mark. As a director she was funny and accessible, quirky and intelligent. She was also connected to every step of the film. So, for me, the second T stands for the word Thorough.
To explain this, we one day had a walk-and-talk scene. Before we began she didn't like the tie I had picked out to wear. I thought, Okay, she's the director. I had no ego about this when it comes to wardrobe, so I went and got another tie. She didn't like that one either. So I went and got another one. She didn't like that one any better than the first one. I realized then that the solution was simple: Let her pick the tie and tell me what to wear and what to do. I'm a married man, so it's something I'm used to.
Since then we have become friends and spent a lot of time together. As I got to know her I could tell she felt bad not having me sing in “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” So to make up for it she invited me over to her place for a screening of “Mamma Mia.” I began to sing—I remember it vividly—she leaned over, put her hand on my knee, patted it gently and she said she was so impressed. She said, Words fail me.
Afterwards when I asked her what she thought she looked me in the eyes and said It was everything I expected and more. When a singer like Barbra says that to you, you are so flattered. And so, what can I say? Words fail me, too. Barbra, you are loved by every man and woman in this theater tonight.