LOS ANGELES—We half-expected Barbra Streisand to arrive at our interview to the tune of a full orchestra overture of her most memorable hits. But, without fanfare, there she was in front of us, in a black suit, high-collared white blouse and tie that reminded us of her character in “Yentl.”
Once seated, La Streisand took off her round glasses, which she fiddled with. When she was not doing that, she used her hands with those famous long, slender fingers (and nails) to stress points.
“Time has gone so fast,” she declared in this, our second chat with her (the first one was in 2004). She was referring to her enduring marriage to actor James Brolin, whom she calls Jim. “We’ve been together 15 years already. My gosh. It’s funny—it’s great to be alone and be together at the same time. He can do his own thing. He’s always at his computer; I’m not. It’s like we’re in the same house or in the same room and he does his thing and I do my thing.”
Laughing, she quipped in that dulcet voice: “That makes me happy and that makes him happy.”
And surprise, surprise—can you picture the diva going on road trips in a truck and spending the night in a $55 a night motel?
Pack and go
“I go on little trips with my husband because, before I met him, I never did that,” said the singer-actress-director, who marks her 50th year in show business this year. “We bought a truck. That’s a nice feeling of when you want to get away, you pack food, get in the truck and you go.”
Relish the humor in her next sentence: “I would travel with my own produce—low-fat sour cream, yogurt, cottage cheese and whatever.”
The ageless icon, now 70, recalled the night they stayed in one of the big hotels in Las Vegas owned by a friend: “I couldn’t believe that the refrigerator was broken in this enormous suite which was very fancy.”
She added: “Then the next night, Jim said, ‘I’m going to take you to a place where you don’t have to talk to people or anything.’ It was a motel for $55 a night. He just backed up into a [parking] spot. The icebox worked. To me, that was fantastic. I didn’t have to talk to anyone. They had TV. The room smelled a little of smoke, but what can you do? I love road trips—short ones.”
In her new film, “The Guilt Trip,” she plays a mom who goes on an eight-day road trip with her son (Seth Rogen).
Life with Jim includes playing games. (In one game, he even beat former US President Bill Clinton.)
“I play games with friends—cards, backgammon, rummy cube,” she said. “He’s a good rummy cube player. We played on Thanksgiving with friends and that was really fun. The last time we played rummy cube was with President Clinton. My husband actually beat him. President Clinton did not like that, but he hadn’t played for a while.”
Switching to other topics, she was asked about Lady Gaga. “I like her a lot,” came her quick, sure answer. “I think she really has something. She’s gifted, a real talent. Her television special was amazing. She has a very good voice, which she doesn’t show in a lot of her songs. But when she sang with Tony Bennett, it was like, ‘What? Who is that?’”
On “Glee” and Lea Michele, who idolizes Barbra on- and off-screen, she said, “I never saw ‘Glee’ until [I watched] a Golden Globe [show] when Ryan Murphy got an award and he thanked me. He said, ‘Thank you, Barbra Streisand.’ I said, ‘What? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ So that was when I saw ‘Glee.’ So, oh, the character (Lea’s) is sort of obsessed with me.”
She continued: “It’s very sweet because she (Lea) came to the last night of this concert at the Hollywood Bowl. She was too shy. Not that night but another night. It must have been some show (Grammy Awards’ MusiCares Feb. 2011 gala). She was too afraid to come up to me. I went up to her, ‘So you’re the girl, blah blah blah.’ It was very sweet.”
There was a time when she rarely performed. Barbra explained: “As I said in my show, I sang at Central Park in 1967 and I forgot the words to, I think, a couple of songs. I was so frightened by it that I could forget the words to songs that I didn’t perform for 27 years, except for fund-raisers where I didn’t have to charge. But I’m very relaxed now. That’s a great thing about getting older and having experience. I just wasn’t frightened as much, put it that way.
“I still have a fear of forgetting the words, but I can get up, go past it and be there. It’s not like I’m terrified anymore now, especially having my son. To me, it was about presenting him.”
Barbra was referring to that Hollywood Bowl concert last month where she proudly introduced Jason Gould (her son with actor Elliot Gould).
The famous momma said, “I used to tell my son when he thought that maybe his problems were about having well-known parents, but then as he grew up, I could show him that other families that didn’t have celebrity parents also had problems. But he’s done an amazing job on himself, on his growth as a person, so that all of a sudden, he feels like he wants to sing. He plays me a record that he made and it’s so magical and incredibly good. All of a sudden, he can stand in front of 19,000 people and sing. It just made my heart explode out of joy. I’m so proud of him.”
How she was convinced to act again in a film written by Dan Fogelman and directed by Anne Fletcher was another candid anecdote from the superstar. “Dan’s mother was a fan of mine and he wrote this about his mother.” With a smile, she said, “She wanted me to play her. It took her a year to convince me to do it, but I thought it would be interesting to play a starring role again after 16 years. I made it hard for them to hire me. I threw all kinds of obstacles in the way.”
Added Barbra: “I didn’t take the road trip. I want to stay at home. I didn’t even want to take an hour and a half riding a car in the morning to get to the Paramount Studios. So I said, ‘If you get a warehouse in the Valley no more than 45 minutes away from my house and you build the sets there…’
Barbra pointed out that in most movies, “you have to get up very early in the morning. I am not an early morning person. Jim and I stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. We sleep in the day. It comes from the theater—when I was doing ‘Funny Girl,’ I went to bed at 4:00 in the morning and got up at noon. I kept saying, ‘I can’t do it (‘The Guilt Trip’) because you’ll never give me this and I don’t blame you.’ But they just really wanted us to do it.”
When we asked Barbra about her reputation as a perfectionist, she replied: “Perfection is a funny word. I strive for excellence. I don’t think perfection exists in a sense. You can just strive toward it. Humanity is in the imperfection. I said this when I was 15 years old. I remember in an article [where I said], ‘Perfection is imperfection because it can’t be so perfect.’ Because then it’s inhuman.
“I am much more relaxed about it but I regret it sometimes,” she admitted with a laugh. “I did something the other day. I didn’t care about the lighting and then I went, ‘Oh my God, I should have cared more.’ Even in the book on my passion for design that I wrote a year ago, I wasn’t going to talk about perfectionism, but then I realized, wait a minute—I am not ashamed of being called a perfectionist. I welcome that.
“When you hear an architect talk about a wall that was 1/16th of an inch off and he made them tear it down and build it straighter … he’s a great architect.”
Now, she was on a roll: “In terms of men, when they are called perfectionists, it’s a compliment. I think it was coming from the fact that women were not supposed to be in such kinds of positions of power. So now, I say unabashedly I’m probably still a perfectionist. I even wrote about it in my last album. I wouldn’t release songs because they were less than so-called perfect. There was a note that I didn’t like, and now, I’ve released the album called ‘Release Me.’ There are things that, when I hear them again, I go, ‘That’s not bad. It’s just different.’ It’s one take of something—it’s how good is good, in other words. How good do you have to be? What’s good enough? It’s good enough.”
How does the perfectionist chill? “In my house, in my comfy robe,” said Barbra, who is also a passionate environmentalist. “I have my vegetable garden so I have organic produce. I have eggs from chickens. I have gorgeous flowers, including roses, in my garden. What more do you need?”
The garden brought memories of her mom and food. “My mother always fed me,” she said with obvious fondness for Diana Streisand. “Instead of saying ‘I love you’ or giving me a hug, she would bring me half of a cantaloupe. Food was love.”
However, there is one exception—steak does not equal love in Barbra’s world. And she had to be filmed eating steak for three days. “That was a tough sequence,” she said. “The interesting thing is that I didn’t want to do it because I eat one bit of steak and then I get sick of steak. I can’t eat a lot of it. I was talking to Dan, ‘Can we come up with some other thing that I could eat?’
“Then I realized, no, it’s the real thing. It’s the real story of Dan and his mother. As a filmmaker, I thought this works for the movie so the actress has to take second place to the filmmaker in me. It serves the film. The steak was 50 ounces and with the baked potato and everything. It’s a real place they must have gone to. I kept trying to just eat it and spit it out. I had a bucket underneath.”
On her eagerly awaited return to directing via “Skinny and Cat” with Cate Blanchett and Colin Firth, Barbra revealed that raising money for the project was a problem.
“It’s a very interesting thing now,” she said. “Studios want to spend over $100 million on action movies with CGI and all that stuff, or they’ll do movies for basically around $10-$15 million. But there’s nothing in between.
“This is a beautiful love story that needs around $18 million. For a while, the project stopped because we could only raise $13 million. I just found a place that will give us $15 million. I’m trying to raise more money because I don’t think anybody really gets tired of love stories. It’s what makes the world go round.”
Looking into the future, she repeated a question and answered, “How to spend the rest of my life? One minute, I’m ambitious and I want to direct films and sing in other places in the world. Then the next minute, I’m going, ‘Oh God, it’s just so fun to stay home and watch movies, read books, write and not to have to talk.’”
This award-winning multi-hyphenate disclosed yet another dream: “I’d love to play the cello. It’s not over yet. I may yet play the cello.”
She added: “I’m going to write my memoir after I direct a couple of movies if I can or play ‘Gypsy,’ if they ever work out the rights deal.”
E-mail the columnist at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.