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Barbra Streisand on How She Battled Hollywood’s Boys’ Club

The Oscars have an embarrassing history of snubbing female directors. Barbra Streisand was naturally verklempt but ultimately fine when the Motion Picture Academy failed to nominate her for 1983’s “Yentl,” a musical fable about a spinster who passes as a man to gain an education.

“It was strange,” recalls Streisand over a cup of tea at her stunning Malibu estate. “I didn’t mind it for one reason: It really showed the sexism. I thought by not being nominated, I put a spotlight on the issue. I thought, ‘Wow. This is so transparent.’”

Some 34 years later, the barriers that Streisand broke through — as the first woman to juggle duties as the star, director, producer and co-writer of a single studio movie — are at the forefront of everyone’s mind in Hollywood. “I didn’t know it was a glass ceiling,” she says about her decision to step behind the camera. “I just thought, they don’t believe in a woman’s capacity to handle finances or to be the businessman. Years ago, I was told, ‘You want control? A woman wants control? That’s crazy!’”

As the 90th Academy Awards ceremony gets ready to unfold on March 4, there’s no doubt that women are finally regaining control of their own narrative. There’s been an unprecedented reckoning with the #MeToo movement and the firings of powerful, high-profile men accused of sexual abuse and harassment, such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. And in recent months, the Time’s Up campaign has raised $20 million to help eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace.

“It’s just awe-inspiring,” says Streisand, 75, who was motivated to speak out in a rare two-hour interview with Variety. “I’m totally proud.” Although she hasn’t appeared in a film since 2012’s “The Guilt Trip,” her legacy looms large over awards season. Streisand — who won a best actress Oscar nearly 50 years ago for “Funny Girl” and another statuette for song for 1976’s “A Star Is Born” — was the biggest female movie star in the post-studio system. She used her power to leverage stories that she wanted to tell.

“I had an impression of her before we got together,” says Robert Redford, her co-star in 1973’s “The Way We Were,” which earned Streisand a best actress Oscar nomination. “My impression was that she was beautiful, even with her agonizing insecurities and so forth. And so during the film, it was very easy. She was playing someone who was insecure. And I come into her life and assure her that she’s better than that.”

Spending the day with Streisand at her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean reveals someone who lives up to her reputation as being much less self-assured than one might expect. Her chronic stage fright prompts her on several occasions to kick everyone but the photographer out of the rooms where she is being shot. She stage-manages some of the setups and lighting cues, true to the perfectionist that she is. She even reshoots a series of short video interviews to her precise liking: “I know how this should look,” she declares.

She is at once shy but surprisingly warm and candid during our extensive interview. She reveals how she was passed over for directing “Hidden Figures,” how the “vulgar” Weinstein once threatened her, how she scoffed at producer Scott Rudin when he suggested that she film a Broadway production of “Gypsy,” and what movie she hopes to helm after a 22-year break from directing.

Along with her husband of 20 years, James Brolin, there’s no one she enjoys sharing her residence with more than her three Coton de Tulear dogs. Perhaps her biggest reveal: Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett were cloned from cells taken from the mouth and stomach of her beloved 14-year-old dog Samantha, who died in 2017. Miss Fanny is a distant cousin.

“They have different personalities,” Streisand says. “I’m waiting for them to get older so I can see if they have her brown eyes and her seriousness.”

Of course, the outspoken Democrat doesn’t miss an opportunity to eviscerate Donald Trump: “He embodies the nasty remarks he makes about other people. He’s a liar. He’s crooked.”

She’s equally blistering about the mistreatment and inequality of women in Hollywood and the negligence of an industry that has failed to create more opportunities for female filmmakers. In her long-in-the-works memoir, Streisand devotes a chapter to “The Boys’ Club.” When will her book see the light of day? “I have no idea.”

Streisand has been a Hollywood trailblazer for five decades, creating a climate where discussions about equal treatment for women could even exist. “I have a line in one of my journals,” she says, flipping through binders filled with pencil-written notes. “It was actually about how we’re giving you” — she nods to her male interviewer — “the benefit of the doubt that we’re equal. I think women are more powerful than men.”

Streisand followed up her first film role in “Funny Girl” with 1969’s “Hello, Dolly!” She wasn’t sure if she was the right choice to play the matchmaker Dolly Levi. “I said, ‘Why don’t you hire an older woman?’” Streisand recalls. “I thought I was totally miscast. I tried to get out of it. So many people love that movie. In fact, Ryan Murphy said to me, ‘I watch it every Christmas.’” She’s not as enamored. “I think it’s so silly,” she says. “It’s so old-time musical.”

Barbra Streisand Variety Cover Story Oscars
CREDIT: Russell James for Variety

In 1977, Streisand became the first female composer to win a best song Oscar, for “Evergreen” from “A Star Is Born.” Although her 1991 drama “The Prince of Tides” received seven nominations, including best picture, she was overlooked again in the director category. In 2010, in a moment of sweet justice, she presented Kathryn Bigelow with the director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” the only time in the Academy’s 90-year history that a woman has achieved the honor.

Only five women have ever been nominated in the category, among them Greta Gerwig this year for “Lady Bird.” Streisand is disappointed that Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) and Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”) weren’t also recognized. She is well aware of the dismal statistics and how they still haven’t improved.

She notes that only eight of the 100 top-grossing movies of last year were made by women. “By the way, who was called the father of film?” she asks. “D.W. Griffith. He made his first film in 1908. But a secretary named Alice Guy in 1896 started making films because she worked for Gaumont studios. She made the first film, and she’s not given credit.”

Although many women in Hollywood have horrifying stories of sexual harassment, Streisand isn’t one of them. “I wasn’t blond enough,” she says. She recalls a strange experience she had as a 16-year-old Brooklyn teenager. “I went to a guy’s apartment once from the Art Students League. He wanted to paint me. He said, ‘The next time you come here, maybe I could paint you with your top off.’ I said, ‘Huh?’”

She didn’t know about Weinstein’s predatory behavior, although she had a bad experience with him. “I thought he was vulgar,” she says. They had a dispute involving the opening night of his Broadway musical “Finding Neverland.” “He wanted me to come there on his arm and sing a song on the album,” Streisand says. “I said, ‘No. I can’t do that.’” After she turned him down, he threatened not to work with her on future movies and said he wouldn’t be sending her any of his releases to screen at her home. “That kind of stupidity. So I thought he was a boorish guy.”

“Years ago, I was told, ‘you want control? a woman wants control? That’s crazy!”
Barbra Streisand

Speaking of which, Streisand has strong feelings about the president. “Everything he called Hillary, he is,” she says. The star was with presidential candidate Clinton in 2016 at the fundraiser where she slipped up and called some of Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables.” Streisand was playing doctor that day. “She was sick,” Streisand remembers. “I was giving her tea. I was like, ‘Here, these are good lozenges, and you’re coughing and you got to keep drinking liquids.’ I didn’t know she had pneumonia.”

Streisand has since had other conversations with the first female presidential candidate. “I said to her the last time I saw her, ‘You were just too smart.’” In fact, she’s not convinced that Trump beat Clinton. “I really believe she won the election,” Streisand says. “I’ve talked to senators from Michigan and Wisconsin. I do believe, like I believed during Bush, they were playing with those voter machines. And [Al Gore] lost by 537 votes out of 104 million. And now, in retrospect, Bush looks quite good compared to Trump. At least he’s not mean-spirited. He’s not a guy who is retaliating for what Obama did at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”

Streisand, on some level, feels that Trump shares the blame for the recent Florida high school shooting, which claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers. “I think even that shooter was affected because Trump brings out the violence in people. He says, ‘It’s OK — rally, lock her up.’”

Her three-acre coastal enclave, which features three houses — a main residence and guest quarters dubbed The Barn and Grandma’s House — was meticulously designed by Streisand. She personally selected every material, from the cognac-colored wood floors and paneling in her arts-and-crafts-style dwelling to the floral wallpapers, antiquarian books and gorgeous paintings by Robert Henri, John Singer Sargent, William McGregor Paxton and other renowned artists that adorn many of the rooms in her estate.

She often screens movies in the elegant living room of the central guesthouse, although she sometimes ventures out to the multiplex. “My husband and I like to go to those theaters where you get food,” Streisand says. “They have one in the Valley where they have little spring rolls, great ice-cream sundaes and truffle french fries. You’re there thinking, ‘How many heads were on this thing?’ I feel like I should bring a towel.”

Her favorite movies of 2017 were “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “Mudbound” and “Phantom Thread.”

Streisand’s decision to transition into directing movies paved the way for other A-list actresses — Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman — to do the same. It wasn’t so easy in her time. Streisand recalls that on the set of “Yentl,” which took 14 years to make, she was greeted with open arms by her overseas crew. “Europe had a queen,” she says. “Europe had a woman prime minister. They totally respected me, accepted me, as a first-time director.”

The experience was drastically different on her second movie, “The Prince of Tides,” which was shot in the United States. She recalls how one day, she told her co-star Nick Nolte that he couldn’t change the words in his scene. “When I cut, they have to match,” she told him. “And he said, ‘No, no, you don’t see my mouth from over there.’ He starts talking to the camera guy. And he says, ‘You don’t see my mouth moving, do you?’ The guy says no. I have my monitor right over there. I look back, and of course you can see his mouth. I go over to the camera operator, and I say, ‘Why did you just lie to him?’ He says, ‘It’s the boys’ club.’ Can you imagine? They were protecting him.”

Another memory of that shoot still bothers her. She wanted everyone to stay a little late, because Nolte was in a head space where she thought he could nail a scene that called for his character to be tired. But the camera operator and the crew banded together and told her they wanted to go home. Nolte took their side (although he called her later that night to apologize). “So I had to walk off the set. It would have literally taken 10 minutes, but they were fucking with me.” The next morning, Nolte needed 17 takes to get it right, because he was too rested. “Today I wouldn’t ask the question,” Streisand says. “I would tell them. And if you don’t want to do it, don’t bother to come back to work tomorrow. I wouldn’t be afraid of that. But then, I was afraid of it.”

When Streisand made her movies, she wouldn’t list herself as the director in the opening credits. “I didn’t want people to think about me, the girl who is directing,” she says. “I only wanted them to follow the story of the characters in the movie. At the end, you see it was directed by me.”

Streisand’s two Oscars statuettes are displayed in her library.
Russell James for Variety

At the time, audiences weren’t accustomed to women directors. Streisand had a hunch she wouldn’t get an Oscar nomination for “Yentl.” “I remember looking at the Directors Guild list. I think there were only 11 women, and I thought to myself, ‘There is no way they’re going to vote for me.’ I didn’t even think the women would nominate me.” Some of her harshest reviews came from female critics. “It was the Janet Maslin review of ‘Yentl’ in The New York Times that devastated me. She didn’t like the light on my father coming through a window. It was a beautiful light. I wanted to show him in a natural way.”

Streisand sees herself returning to the director’s chair soon. Her hiatus has been due in part to her own choosiness. While some directors (Clint Eastwood, for example) barrel through projects, Streisand is highly selective. “Sometimes she gets a lot of flak for being an over-perfectionist,” says Jeff Bridges, who acted opposite her in 1996’s “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” the last movie she directed. “But when you get that perfection focused on you, it’s wonderful.”

Her dream projects have long been put on hold. She spent 25 years trying to secure financing for “The Normal Heart,” based on Larry Kramer’s play about the AIDS crisis. “This was heartbreaking,” she says. “Nobody wanted to touch that. I had the script the way I saw it. It was a very cinematic opening: Meeting all these people who eventually end up in a doctor’s office.”

More recently, she reveals, she threw her hat in the ring to direct “Hidden Figures,” the Oscar-nominated 2016 drama about NASA women mathematicians of the 1960s. “I wanted to do ‘Hidden Figures’ because that is a great film to me,” Streisand says. “I was sent the script, and I said yes. They gave it to the man who wrote the script [Ted Melfi], and he did a good job. I wish I had directed it.”

Producer Donna Gigliotti explained what happened. “UTA, Barbra’s agents at the time, urged her to read the script,” Gigliotti says. “She liked it, and we had a terrific, wide-ranging conversation about the screenplay. I loved her! But I was pretty far down the road with Ted Melfi. If the timing had been different, the result might have been different.”

Streisand is in negotiations to direct “Skinny and Cat,” based on a 1994 script about Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White. She shopped it around five years ago with Cate Blanchett and Colin Firth attached. “No studio wanted it,” she says. “I thought they were going to be fighting for it, and they all turned it down.” Now she has most of the financing in place, though she has yet to hire a cast.

Streisand dismisses reports that she’s in talks to co-star in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix TV series “The Politician,” but she can see herself in a role behind the camera, perhaps as a director or a producer. “If I’m not making a movie,” she says. “I like the script.”

The only roles she’s interested in playing, she says, are that of French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt and Mama Rose in a big-screen adaptation of “Gypsy,” which has had some false starts.

The two dogs in her arms, Miss Violet and Miss Scarlett (from left), were cloned from her 14-year-old Coton de Tulear, Samantha, who died in 2017. Miss Fanny (far left) is distantly related. While Streisand was waiting for the clones, her breeder brought another dog, whose mother had been named Funny Girl. Streisand was smitten. She adopted the new dog and called her Miss Fanny, which is how Fanny Brice’s dresser refers to the character in the movie. A short time after, the clones arrived. Streisand dressed the two dogs in red and lavender to tell them apart, which is how they got their names — Miss Scarlett and Miss Violet.
Russell James for Variety

What about a return to Broadway? “I still have stage fright,” she says. “I’m not going to sing live again. Scott Rudin and Barry Diller wanted me to do ‘Gypsy’ on Broadway and film it. I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Last year, she revisited her past when she was invited to the set of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born.” She watched a few scenes being shot, including ones where Lady Gaga plays her former character. “It’s good,” says Streisand. “I don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to spook it. I can’t believe that was 40-some years ago. I think he did a wonderful job with her.”

Originally, Beyoncé had been in talks for the Streisand role. “I thought when it was going to be done it was going to be very different and have a multiracial cast, and the music was going to be rap,” she says. “But it’s more like the movie I made.”

For the last three and a half years, Streisand has been writing her memoir, and it’s been a slow, arduous process. “I just figured out my dedication for my book: ‘For my mother and all she did for me.’ You don’t know if that’s negative or positive.” Streisand can’t say how many words she’s written so far or when the manuscript might be completed.

“It’s so difficult because I don’t want to relive my life,” she says. “Once is enough.”

Watch Streisand talk about her Oscar win for ‘Funny Girl’: 

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