A born loser’s success and precarious love
By Shana Alexander
It is possible to divvy up humanity a lot of ways — rich and poor, black and white, young and old. Another way is winners and losers, and seen from this angle Barbra Streisand started from about as far back as one can get.
When, five years ago, 16-year-old Barbra decided to leave Flatbush, invade Broadway and aim for the stars, she had every mark of a loser. She was homely, kooky, friendless, scared and broke. She had a big nose, skinny legs, no boyfriends, a conviction that she was about to die from a mysterious disease, no place to sleep but a portable folding cot and, worst of all, a super-sensitive brain which could exquisitely comprehend precisely how much of a loser she actually was. Things being how they were, there was only one possible way out for Barbra: straight through the top of the tent.
Funny Girl is the proof that she made it. When Barbra opened on Broadway as the star of the new musical comedy last March, the entire, gorgeous, rattletrap show-business Establishment blew sky high. Overnight critics began raving, photographers flipping, flacks yakking and columnists flocking. Thanks to such massive stimulation the American public has now worked itself into a perfect star-is-born swivet.
Today Barbra Streisand is the drummer boy leading the charge. Cinderella at the ball, every hopeless kid’s hopeless dream come true. Having effectively routed the winners, that puny minority of beautiful girls and successful men, she now stands as the fervent heroine of Everybody Else. Her show is a sellout and her albums are a smash.
Even more remarkable is the sudden nationwide frenzy to achieve the Streisand “look.” Hairdressers are being besieged with requests for Streisand wigs (Beatle, but kempt). Women’s magazines are hastily assembling features on the Streisand fashion (threadbare) and the Streisand eye make-up (proto-Cleopatra). And it may be only a matter of time before plastic surgeons begin getting requests for the Streisand nose (long, Semitic and — most of all — like Everest, There).
Like the nose, the girl is unique. For one thing, she reverberates between extremes. She appears to be at once both beautiful and ugly, rough and smooth. graceful and awkward, childlike and of immense age. In the recent journalistic frenzy to commit Barbra’s appearance to paper, she has been likened to an amiable anteater, an ancient oracle, a furious hamster and an elegant Babylonian queen. At varying moments she resembles them all.
But the surprising, stunning supertruth is that there are times when she does become incredibly beautiful. Stand beside her at her dressing-room mirror backstage, so that you can see simultaneously both the real girl and the reflection in the glass, and the truth about her weird, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t beauty comes clear: a furious Flatbush hamster stares into the mirror, but it is the Babylonian queen, haloed in lightbulbs, who gazes regally back. “I AM GORGEOUS!” she insists. And she is.
But Barbra’s talent is no illusion. Her artistry is inborn, and enormous. She has tone, taste. elegance of line, and a sense of what is “right” for Barbra that is close to being flawless. On stage, everything about her is avocado smooth: her voice, her gleaming copper helmet of hair, her gliding motions, the long, slow fullness of her body movements. Off stage she is appealing for opposite reasons: she is rough, timid, unformed. For, of course, Streisand is not just a huge dollop of talent. She is also a 22-year-old girl, a young bride, and very vulnerable indeed.
The great magnitude of Barbra’s talent was apparent in chrysalis form the first time she sang on any stage professionally four years ago, in a Greenwich Village nightclub. “This girl had to become a great star. Anybody could see it,” observers of the historic occasion have since maintained.
Anybody could see, too, that this girl was already a five-star eccentric. For her debut she wore a $4 dress salvaged from a thrift shop, a frayed Persian vest, clown-white make-up, an English sheep dog coiffure, outsize Minnie Mouse shoe buckles, and the song she chose to sing was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” But eccentricity could not disguise her talent.
Eventually she was signed to do two specialty numbers in the musical comedy, I Can Get It for You Wholesale. One number, “Miss Marmelstein,” stopped the show. Records, TV and nightclub work followed in furious profusion and, by the time Funny Girl opened, Barbra was already the top female LP seller in the country.
In all, dozens of agents, managers, teachers and taste-makers played minor roles in bringing Barbra Streisand to her present boiling point, for in reality there is no such thing as an Instant Star. Stars are made, not born. But the one person who really stirred up the marvelous, original concoction which is Barbra Streisand today, who not only homogenized the raw talent and the growing girl, but who a thousand times has saved the whole brew from dribbling away into a vain splatter of nerves and doubts, is Barbra’s young husband, a wry, mop-headed, accomplished singer-dancer-actor named Elliott Gould.
The private story of Mr and Mrs Gould is less sure-footed but oddly more comprehensible than the public success story of Barbra Streisand. It is a precarious love story. But unlike the old-fashioned romance between Fanny Brice and her gamblin’-man husband which forms the creaky plot of Funny Girl, the Goulds story is as con-temporary as a TV dinner.
It began at the auditions for I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Elliott had just been cast as the leading man when Barbra suddenly materialized, like some Halloween spook, as Miss Marmelstein. Elliott was 23, Barbra was 19. Each was on the brink of stardom. Off stage, each was painfully shy. Buffeted by incipient success, they became inseparable.
Says Barbra, “We worked together, we lived together, we were not apart for more than one hour. We thought of each other as Hansel and Gretel.” But Barbra has her fables garbled. The real prototype for Barbra Streisand is the Ugly Duckling. Elliott was the first person who saw the swan.
“A freak — a fantastic freak!” Elliott remembers thinking. He was slouched in the darkened theater watching the Marmelstein auditions when, over the footlights, clambered a strange-looking,skinny creature with long, spiky hair, spidery hands, two-inch nails and purple lipstick.
“I sang,” Barbra recalls, “and then I sort of ran around the stage yelling my phone number and saying ‘Wow! Will somebody call me, please! Even if I don’t get the part, just call!’ I’d gotten my first phone that day, and I was wild to get calls on it.”
That night Elliott phoned her. “You said you wanted to get calls, so I called,” he said. “You were brilliant.” Then he hung up.
They did not meet again until the first day of rehearsals. “Barbra had this satchel bag and tattered coat. She looked like a young Fagin,” Elliott remembers.
“I thought he was funny looking,” says Barbra. “He gave me a cigar. He was like a little kid. One day at rehearsals I saw the back of his neck and — I just liked him.”
Elliott was too shy to ask for a date, but he started walking Barbra to the subway after rehearsals. “She scared me, but I really dug her. I think I was the first person who ever did.”
Barbra admits that now. In high school she’d had a 90-plus average, no dates, no friends. At home she used to lock herself in the bathroom, smoke, glue on false eyelashes, throatily emote TV commercials in the mirror, and dream of becoming a Great, Great Star. “I hadda be great. I couldn’t be medium. My mouth was too big.”
One night Elliott took Barbra to a horror movie about giant caterpillars that ate cars, and then they went to a Chinese restaurant. About 2 am it began to snow. “We were walking around the skating rink at Rockefeller Center when Elly chased me and we had a snow fight. He never held me around or anything, but he put snow on my face and kissed me, very lightly. It sounds so ookhy, but it was great. Like out of a movie!”