Last night’s presentation of the annual Chaplin Award to Barbra Streisand for her film work was a fascinating reminder of what a polarizing and beloved figure she was and remains. As the years fly by, her fans have lost none of their adoration, while many people I spoke to at the event were either too young to remember that Barbra had anything to with film, or too arty to have any appreciation for her body of work. For those in latter two categories, it is worth pointing out some of the reasons that Barbra remains such a huge cultural icon in spite of not having produced much work at all in the last few decades.
First of all, there is the VOICE. At the tribute, Streisand went out of her way to say that her primary goal as a kid was to be an actress. Her singing was just a means to an end. It was her way in. This piece of information should not be surprising to anyone who followed her early career, and became even clearer when watching the clips from her early films. More than that amazing voice, her talent was in the emotion she brought to a song, making her arguably one of the greatest interpretive singers of all time.
But there was something more. The back story of this talented, but not very pretty girl from a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, who by sheer will transformed herself into a self-confident recording artist, actress, comedian, movie star, director and producer, is the living dream of every not traditionally pretty girl who grew up during that time. That she became the embodiment of such dreams fulfilled should not be surprising. Nor is the fact that she developed a reputation for being a demanding, difficult perfectionist. At the same time she was empowering a generation of young women, she was simultaneously challenging many of the cultural norms of that time.
If you watch the body of work, Barbra’s main theme was always about striving for more in life. Perhaps the most emblematic moment in her career was the film “The Way We Were,” in which the homely Jewish girl gets the handsome blond goy to fall in love with her (Robert Redford, no less), only to leave him on her own terms. It’s not hard to understand how this resonated with so many women.
In any case, the tribute last night made me want to go back and watch some of those early films that I haven’t seen since their initial releases. If you are not familiar with the work, just pop in the upcoming Blu-ray of “Funny Girl,” and I defy you not to fall in love.