For Your Consideration: Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Barbra Streisand
Dream on, right? The icon turns 79 this month, and she still doesn’t get the musical respect she’s earned.
Something got me started, and this time, it was Tina Turner. With all the recent talk about Tina, the new HBO documentary about the Queen of Rock and Roll, vintage music divas of a certain age have been on my mind. We need to appreciate them while we can.
I like to think I devoted an appropriate level of appreciation to Aretha Franklin before and after her passing in 2018. I’ve been revisiting her legend over the last few days through Genius: Aretha on Hulu, and it’s making me even more impatient for Jennifer Hudson-as-Aretha in the big-screen biopic Respect later this year. Since they’re handing out Oscar nominations like candy to actresses portraying singing legends in movies these day, I have a feeling Aretha will be on our radars up through next year’s Academy Awards.
All this Tina talk and appreciating Aretha has me thinking a lot about another iconic diva of a certain age: Barbra Joan Streisand. Like the Queen of Soul, she was born in 1942 and started her major-label recording career at Columbia Records, but Streisand has yet to inspire a big-budget biopic or receive the high-profile documentary treatment. Unlike Aretha (and Tina, for that matter), she’s never been considered the queen of anything, nor has she gotten anything near the level of musical R-E-S-P-E-C-T she deserves. She’s never even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an organization that counts both Aretha and Tina among its inductees.
(And before we go yet another round of who is and isn’t rock & roll, consider this: What do Hall of Famers like Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond, Nat King Cole, and The Supremes have to do with rock & roll unless it’s all rock & roll?)
Arguably pop music’s all-time greatest vocalist this side of Whitney Houston, Streisand has been quiet lately. She turns 79 on April 24, so it’s understandable that she might want to lie low and enjoy her golden-girl years with her silver fox of a husband, James Brolin. I hope we get at least one last hurrah, though. Maybe it will be a great movie performance, or a fabulous directorial project (now that the Academy is more open to female Best Director Oscar nominees than it was when it snubbed her for Yentl and The Prince of Times), or a scintillating memoir, or a Tina Turner/Cher-style Broadway musical based on her life story.
Tina finally has a shot at making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist this year (she was inducted in 1991 alongside her late ex-husband, Ike Turner), but I don’t expect Streisand and her penchant for decidedly un-rock & rolling easy listening ever to be deemed cool enough for that boys club. Still, if Whitney Houston could belatedly and posthumously receive an invitation last year, and Streisand contemporary Dionne Warwick could make this year’s nominee list, maybe there’s hope yet for “Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Barbra Streisand.”
It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. Although she’s had enormous success as a singer and her voice ranks among the most admired ones in music history, her music gets shortchanged. At the peak of her pop success in the 1970s, Streisand the music star was always somewhat overshadowed by Streisand the movie star. And despite a sustained string of gold and platinum albums, Grammys and an Oscar for her music, and occasional swerves off the middle of the road into disco, gospel, and, yes, even rock & roll, she’s never been seen as particularly groundbreaking.
That, to me, is a mistake. She may not have spent much time on the cutting edge, but Streisand was a pioneer who opened the door for women in music who wanted to assert total control over their careers. She was the first modern female pop star to thrive as a movie star, paving a Hollywood path for future Grammy- and Oscar-nominated women like Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Cher, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, and Lady Gaga, who, like fellow gay icon Streisand, won a Best Original Song Oscar for a number-one single from her hit remake of A Star Is Born that she performed and cowrote.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Linda Ronstadt might be the only definitive female ’70s and ’80s pop star whose peak-era work was as versatile as Streisand’s. At the height of synth pop, one (Ronstadt) rocked the charts with the Great American Songbook, and the other (Streisand) did it with The Broadway Album, a 1985 chart-topper. Both took big risks. Both took control. Even without a crashing guitar in ear shot, there’s nothing more rock & roll than that.
I wrote the essay below when Streisand turned 70 in 2012. Since this is both her birthday month and an Oscar month in which two Best Actress nominees played pioneering female performers, it feels like a fitting moment to revisit my homage to one of only a few women who have managed to be as integral to movies as she’s been to music. The last six decades of both and the best years of all our lives wouldn’t have been the same without her.
Streisand Superman: Barbra’s First 70 Years
With that greeting, the first words uttered by 26-year-old Barbra Streisand in her film debut in the 1968 musical Funny Girl, the ingénue from Brooklyn, New York, with the crooked, over-sized nose and the flawless singing voice entered the annals of popular culture.
Next step: winning the Best Actress Oscar (tying with The Lion in Winter’s Katharine Hepburn) for her silver-screen reprisal of her Broadway portrayal of Fanny Brice, another legendary Jewish actress and singer from New York City. The rest is history-making stardom, one of the most celebrated entertainment careers of all time, and along with Olivia Newton-John, Tammy Wynette and ABBA’s Agnetha and Frida, one of the first female singers with whom I can remember falling madly in love.
Cher would go on to win an Oscar for Moonstruck some 20 years later, but Streisand was the first modern music star to soar as a modern film star. Diana Ross and Newton-John were her closest competitors for the Queen of Pop throne in the ’70s. They, too, were actresses (Ross even scored an Oscar nod for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues), but no diva under the sun could carry a tune quite like Streisand. If Whitney Houston was the black Barbra Streisand, Streisand was the white Aretha Franklin.
Throughout her recording career, she’s earned every superlative assigned to her, effortlessly venturing from pop (1980’s multi-platinum Guilty album, her commercial zenith) to rock (1971’s Barbra Joan Streisand, on which she covered John Lennon, Carole King and Laura Nyro) to show tunes (1985’s Grammy-winning The Broadway Album) and even to disco (“No More Tears [Enough Is Enough],” her chart-topping 1979 duet with Donna Summer), with jazz standards, movie music, inspirational songs, and the Great American Songbook regularly thrown into her eclectic mix.
She’s had more Top 10 albums than any other female artist (32), and more that have gone gold and/or platinum (over 50). As recently as 2009, Streisand scored her ninth number-one album, when Love Is the Answer entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart at number one, making the ’00s the fifth consecutive decade in which she’d scored a chart-topping album.
For a time, her movie career was just as impressive. I can remember seeing TV trailers for her movies A Star Is Born and The Main Event in the ’70s, back when I was too young to realize — or care — that she was one of the biggest box-office draws in Hollywood. She earned another Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1973’s The Way We Were and won the Best Original Song prize for co-writing “Evergreen,” the love theme from 1977’s A Star Is Born and the nominee I picked when I made my first-ever Oscar prediction on the night of the 1978 Academy Awards: Streisand had to win because she’d just performed her nominated song. Of course, she did.
In the ’80s, her movie output slowed as she turned to directing. She became the first woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Director for 1983’s Yentl, but the Academy overlooked her for a Best Director Oscar nomination, as it would again for 1991’s The Prince of Tides, which earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and The Mirror Has Two Faces, the 1996 film that brought old-Hollywood icon Lauren Bacall her first-ever Oscar nomination.
Recently, Streisand has focused primarily on liberal political causes (she’s a lifelong supporter of the U.S. Democratic Party) and making music, with sporadic live performances and scattered acting gigs in the two sequels to Meet the Parents, 2004’s Meet the Fockers and 2010’s Little Fockers, and also on marriage to actor James Brolin, her husband since 1998.
After nearly 50 years spent in the spotlight, her cultural legacy lives strong. As gay icons go, only Cher has been beloved for nearly as long. Meanwhile, she’s hip to the younger generation, thanks to her status as Rachel Berry’s American idol on TV’s Glee, and as the titular subject of “Barbra Streisand,” the 2010 international dance hit by Duck Sauce that hit number three on the UK singles chart. (It was beyond terrible, but it’s not every day you get name-dropped in a smash single.)
Streisand will continue building on her youthful following this November with her role as Seth Rogen’s mom in the road comedy The Guilt Trip, and she and Hollywood super-producer Joel Silver are developing a remake of Gypsy, with Streisand in the baity Mama Rose role, for Universal Pictures.
Afterwards, she could easily spend her remaining days resting on her considerable laurels, but there’ll no doubt be a lot more music. And my wishful thinking has me hoping she’s got a few more acclaimed screen performances left to give, though at the rate she’s been going in recent decades, we might have to wait until she’s in her 80s for Auntie Mame, with Streisand in the title role, and the film adaptation of The Normal Heart — two projects I’ve been hearing about since the Louisiana Purchase was in escrow. Whatever she does in her next 70 years, Streisand will no doubt bring to them the same touch of class and perfectionism that defined her first 70.