Newsmaker: Barbra Streisand
Who knew? Barbra Streisand pronounces the second syllable of her surname as “sand” and not “zand”, which is how the rest of the world has been saying it ever since her recording debut was crowned album of the year at the Grammys in 1963, kick-starting a career in music and film that has spanned six decades.
At the age of 74, Streisand, a double Oscar winner who always insisted she was “an actress who sings”, is on tour again in the United States and promoting her latest album (her 35th). But the news that has been making headlines around the world this week was her revelation that Siri, Apple’s virtual personal assistant, has been mispronouncing her name.
Her name, she told National Public Radio, is “Streisand with a soft S, like sand on the beach. I’ve been saying this for my whole career.”
She has, and it has been a long battle. A recording exists of Streisand correcting a BBC Radio presenter’s pronunciation during a radio interview in April 1966, while she was in London for the musical stage show Funny Girl. Fifty years on, she’s still at it.
“I called the head of Apple, Tim Cook,” she said, “and he delightfully agreed to have Siri change the pronunciation of my name, finally”.
She’s very attached to that name. She was born Barbara Joan Streisand on April 24, 1942, but changed her first name to Barbra at the start of her career after a suggestion that she should try something a little more anodyne. According to the programme notes for a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1967, the name change was “an instance of partial rebellion … she was advised to change her last name and retaliated by dropping an ‘a’ from the first instead”.
It was an early demonstration that the feisty girl from a humble background in Brooklyn was determined to be her own boss. “Ms Streisand,” The New York Times noted this month, “has always been in charge – of her image, of her career … ever since she started singing in Greenwich Village nightclubs as a gawky teenager”.
That career began in July 1960, when Streisand, then an 18-year-old struggling actress, entered a talent contest in a Greenwich Village bar because she was “out of money and out of work”.
Her father Emanuel, a teacher, had died when Streisand was 15 months old. Although her mother, Diana, had sung when young, she tried to discourage her daughter from pursuing a career in show business. “I always had these dreams of being a star, being in the movies,” Streisand recalled in 1967. “My mother never liked me to go to the movies. I would be depressed for weeks.”
Initially, she had no real interest in singing, but as she would later recall, she wasn’t landing any acting jobs and “my unemployment insurance was up and though I’d never sung anyplace or done anything, I decided to try”.
It worked out rather well. Streisand has sold 145 million records worldwide and is the only singer to have had a No 1 album in the US in six successive decades. Since 1963, she has had 33 top 10 albums.
The first song she sang that night in Greenwich Village was the ballad A Sleepin’ Bee. According to a 1997 memoir by Barry Dennen, at the time Streisand’s boyfriend, that was the moment a star was born. When the song finished there was “utter silence … a breathless pause … and then suddenly the whole room crashed into applause”.
Within a few months, she was treading far bigger stages, before making the leap to Broadway. Acting was always her first love. At the age of 14, she had left Brooklyn for the first time to see a Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank. In a perverse way, it proved inspirational. “I was disappointed,” she later said. “I thought I could do it better.”
Broadway and Hollywood agreed – her acting career took off after she landed a role in the 1962 hit musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. It generated multiple television appearances and an unprecedented 10-year contract with CBS to star in specials.
She also met her first husband, the actor Elliott Gould, on the set of that first musical, and in 1966 she gave birth to her only child, Jason Gould. They divorced in 1971, and it wasn’t until 1998 that she married her current husband, another actor, James Brolin.
In 1963, the 21-year-old was suddenly in such demand that she found herself invited by President Kennedy to sing at the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner. That summer, she put herself on the Hollywood map with a series of sell-out nightclub concerts on the American West Coast. Gazing out on one sea of influential faces, she quipped: “If I’d known you were going to be on both sides of me, I’d have had my nose fixed.”
That year also saw the release of her first studio album, which bagged three Grammys. The following year, she was back on Broadway, starring in Funny Girl.
Offers of musical movie roles were flowing in. She won a best-actress Oscar on her first outing in 1968 as Fanny Brice opposite Omar Sharif in the movie version of Funny Girl. The musicals Hello, Dolly! and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever followed in 1969 and 1970, and in the latter year she starred in her first non-singing role in the comedy The Owl and the Pussycat.
Streisand was also determined to show she could do “serious” acting, and she got the chance in 1973, in the acclaimed romantic drama The Way We Were, paired with Robert Redford. Streisand was again nominated for a best actress Oscar. The film’s title song became her first US No 1 single.
To date, Streisand has made 19 movies, occasionally combining her acting and singing with great success. For 1976’s A Star is Born, she co-wrote the theme song, Evergreen, which won her her second Oscar, for best original song.
Increasingly, Streisand sought greater creative control. In 1983, she directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in Yentl, winning a Golden Globe for best director. Other exercises in multitasking followed, including The Prince of Tides in 1991 and The Mirror has Two Faces in 1996. For the latter, she co-wrote the song I Finally Found Someone with Canadian soft-rocker Bryan Adams, who duetted with her on her biggest hit in more than a decade.
Streisand has rarely been shy of musically reinventing herself, collaborating with unexpected artists across genres. By 1980, only Elvis Presley and The Beatles had sold more albums in the US than Streisand. She released Guilty, a collaboration with Bee Gee Barry Gibb. It was her best-selling record to date, featuring the hit single Woman in Love.
Her current album, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway, which is released today, is another set of collaborations designed to put her in the sights of a new, younger audience – the singing partners include the actors Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin.
On film, Streisand is best known to younger audiences for her appearances as matriarchal hippy Roz in the 2004 and 2010 Focker movies, in which she starred with Ben Stiller, Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman.
Like her character in The Way We Were, Streisand has always been political, supporting the Democratic Party. In 1971, she found herself on President Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List”, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jane Fonda, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
When it comes to philanthropy, she has been consistently one of the most generous celebrities, and the causes supported by The Streisand Foundation reflect the eclectic range of her concerns and interests. Current recipients of grants include the Union of Concerned Scientists, which works to combat and highlight the perils of global warming, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Her support for the non-profit investigative news organisation Mother Jones, however, appeared to some to sit at odds with her attempt in 2003 to sue Pictopia.com for violation of privacy. The site’s collection of 12,000 aerial photographs of California’s coastline included one of her Malibu home. Before her unsuccessful law suit, six people had viewed the image. In the subsequent month, it was downloaded more than 400,000 times, giving rise to the term “The Streisand effect”, to describe the folly of trying to cover up or censor something and actually bringing more attention to it.
In May last year, Viking Press announced it had bought the rights to Streisand’s memoirs, which will be published in 2017. There have been no shortages of books about her, none approved and all “full of myths and inaccuracies”, according to Viking’s president Brian Tart. Now, she is “finally going to tell her own story”.
That story was summed up by Streisand herself almost half a century ago in the aforementioned programme notes for her concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1967. “When I was a kid,” she said, “I had to be somebody. And, I decided I didn’t want to be just the best of one thing. I would be the best singer, best actress, best recording star, best Broadway star and best movie star.”
Mission accomplished on that front. Now if only she could get people to pronounce her name right.
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