As Barbra Streisand turns 70 on Tuesday, you'd think her reputation would be secure. She's conquered every medium, she's one of only a dozen or so members of the EGOT club (people who've won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony), and she's one of the most popular and best-selling singers of all time. Still, despite her two Oscars, her Hollywood career has never gotten its due.
In part, that's because, in 44 years of screen acting, she's made just 18 movies. Young audiences who know her only as Ben Stiller's exuberant mother from the "Fockers" movies can't be blamed for not knowing that she was once a groundbreaking dramatic and comic star, a reliably funny and sexy leading lady, a pioneering jill-of-all-trades filmmaker, or a celebrated (and reviled) movie diva. She's made just six movies in the last 30 years, often allowing six to eight years to lapse between screen appearances. (At least she has another movie coming out this fall, just two years after her last film. It's a comedy called "The Guilt Trip" and it sees her aptly cast as Seth Rogen's mom.)
But Streisand also hasn't gotten her due because she's insisted on wearing multiple hats -- not just star, but also producer, director, screenwriter, and composer, often all on the same film. It's hard not to wonder if institutional sexism isn't a factor. Charlie Chaplin is generally considered a genius for holding down those five jobs at once, but when the Academy Awards snubbed Streisand for doing the same on "Yentl," she observed, "In Hollywood, a woman can be an actress, a singer, a dancer - but [they] don't let her be too much more." She had similar control over "The Prince of Tides," which also turned out to be a big hit, and yet the film was derided as a vanity project whose sole purpose seemed to be to include glossy close-ups of the star/director's well-toned legs and long fingernails. These days, she's just a character actress in supporting roles, so you don't hear such catty complaints anymore. Age and the industry seem to have put her in her place.
So it's worth going back to the beginning of her film career to recall what a barrier-bursting pop explosion she was -- "Nothing even remotely like Streisand has existed in movies before," wrote Roger Ebert, shortly after she became an instant film star -- and to recognize that, even though she's graced the screen infrequently, she's left an indelible mark on the movies.
"Funny Girl" (1968). It's really hard to overstate the impact Streisand had in her debut film. It was a big deal even that she was cast in the film version of the Broadway musical hit that made her a star of stage and TV. At issue was her appearance. Streisand has always insisted that she's sexy just as she is, even with that nose -- and damned if she hasn't spent a career convincing everyone that she's right. At the time, she was part of a wave of clearly ethnic actors -- including Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Woody Allen, and her then-husband Elliott Gould -- who were redefining what it meant to be a Hollywood lead. In Streisand's case, her looks and her Jewish heritage clearly fit the role of Fanny Brice, herself a star who had dealt with similar issues decades earlier. On screen, Streisand went all out to prove herself, singing, dancing skating, doing everything but juggling flaming batons to prove her talent and versatility. It worked, earning her an Oscar for her first at-bat (her Best Actress award was a rare tie, with veteran Katharine Hepburn's performance in "The Lion in Winter").
"Hello, Dolly" (1969). Carol Channing had made the role her signature part on stage, but while 27-year-old Streisand was a little young to play veteran matchmaker Dolly Levi, she was still as charming and glamorous as can be. A lot of things in the movie don't work, but Streisand's geniality is enough to gloss over them. Plus, as we know from "WALL-E," this movie is one of the few artifacts of modern pop culture that will survive into the post-apocalyptic future.
"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (1970). Streisand may have been born to star in lavish musicals; unfortunately, as a movie genre, lavish musicals were dying just as she was breaking into films. This would be her last one before she turned to straight comedy and drama roles, and it's a bizarre curio (it's about a woman whose past lives emerge through hypnosis). Still, Streisand's everywoman appeal (along with her killer pipes) make this one worth checking out.
"The Owl and the Pussycat" (1970). In her first straight romantic comedy, Streisand is slutty, trashy, and foul-mouthed, all in a good way. She's a hooker and frustrated actress who strikes up an unlikely romance with similarly frustrated novelist George Segal. Witty dialogue ("The Graduate"'s Buck Henry wrote the screenplay, adapted from Bill Manhoff's Broadway play), sparkling chemistry between Streisand and Segal, and the grungy nighttime cityscape of 1970 Manhattan make this one a winner.
"What's Up, Doc?" (1972). Peter Bogdanovich's hilarious homage to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s (particularly "Bringing Up Baby") features a perfectly cast Streisand as the dizzy dame who throws nerdy Ryan O'Neal's life into total chaos and steals his heart. Bogdanovich (working from another Buck Henry script) is aping Howard Hawks here (only with more slapstick), so everything is fast, fast, fast. The wisecracking Streisand handles the pace with ease, and it's up to everyone else to keep up with her.
"Up the Sandbox" (1972). Streisand's first straight dramatic role, and the first film she co-produced. She plays a depressed, unfulfilled housewife who has a vivid fantasy life. She also has a smothering, overly critical mother (an echo, perhaps, of Streisand's own notorious issues with her own mother, and a stock character in future Streisand movies). The movie takes place against the backdrop of what was then known as the women's lib movement, and a lot of the characters look cartoonish and cliche'd today, but not Streisand's who seems like a vivid, real, fully fleshed person.
"The Way We Were" (1973). Sydney Pollack's romantic tearjerker is a modern classic. Streisand and Robert Redford make for a perfectly swoony couple. The movie's politics (this is still one of the few movies to address the Hollywood blacklist era) still have some bite. And that theme song, penned by Marvin Hamlisch, remains one of Streisand's best-loved tunes. A touchstone for modern romance, as viewers of the on-again-off-again relationship of Carrie and Big in "Sex and the City" know.
"For Pete's Sake" (1974). The last of Streisand's brief run of screwball comedies sees her playing a Brooklyn housewife who embarks on some Ralph Kramden-worthy schemes to come up with the cash that hubby Michael Sarrazin needs to buy into a supposed sure-thing investment. The mechanics of this farce are forced and strained, and the lumpish Sarrazin hardly seems worthy of all the debasing efforts Streisand's character is putting forth on his behalf. Like her character, Streisand seems to be working overtime, but to diminishing returns.
"Funny Lady" (1975). Streisand returns to her breakthrough role of Fanny Brice in this sequel no one asked for. It has its moments, but not enough of them.
"A Star Is Born" (1976). Streisand produced this third remake of the classic she-rises-he-falls showbiz weepie, and her complete control over the material is apparent (leading, for the first time, to accusations that she was a diva making a vanity project). It's too bad she couldn't get her first choice for the male lead, Elvis Presley (Col. Tom Parker turned her down; imagine, though, the screen couple they would have made). Kris Kristofferson and Streisand do make a sexy pair, though he's too recessive an actor for the showy decline his part requires. Streisand won her second Oscar as co-composer of "Evergreen," a memorable tune that successfully re-worked her "The Way We Were" mojo in a new context.
"The Main Event" (1979). Once again, Streisand spars with Ryan O'Neal (he's a palooka, and she's the manager who's purchased his contract). Alas, the wit and chemistry of "What's Up, Doc?" is absent here. Streisand sings the title tune, a forgettable piece of disco kitsch.
"All Night Long" (1981). A minor comedy, this really belongs to Gene Hackman, as a man having a spectacularly self-destructive midlife crisis, rather than to Streisand, miscast as the blonde sex bomb who is a catalyst for much of Hackman's family chaos. She's oddly restrained here, considering both the nature of the character and that she's Barbra Streisand. She does break into song once, deliberately poorly. A mess.
"Yentl" (1983). The initial complaint, when Streisand took on the herculean task of adapting Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story into a musical starring herself as a teenage Yeshiva scholar in drag, is that the 40-year-old star was too old for the part and made up for it with Vaseline-lensed close-ups. This is unfair. It's a musical, with Streisand frequently breaking into song, so some suspension of disbelief is in order. Sure, Streisand's Yentl is the center of attention, but only as part of a compelling narrative that explores issues of gender, theology, and tradition. The Academy may have snubbed Streisand, but she was a good enough director to guide Amy Irving to an Oscar nomination. Her script manages to turn what could have been a snickering sexual farce into a tragedy of frustrated romance and thwarted intellectual aspirations. It's a beautiful piece of work, and it deserves a bigger following.
"Nuts" (1987). In this courtroom drama, Streisand is a high-class call girl (about a million miles uptown from "The Owl and the Pussycat") who would rather stand trial for murder than be declared mentally incompetent. The overbearing mother figure plays a key role, and Streisand seems even more determined than in "Up the Sandbox" to portray her character as a misunderstood feminist martyr. For once, her feistiness spills over into shrillness, though you have to give her credit for choosing to play someone so unlikable, without softening the edges. Streisand composed the music, too, not that it's especially memorable.
"The Prince of Tides" (1991). Again, Streisand the director was accused unfairly of lingering too long on flattering shots of Streisand the romantic lead. But the movie, based on Pat Conroy's novel, is more about emotionally damaged Nick Nolte (and his horrible mother, and an unspeakable childhood trauma) and how he finds healing. With a sure hand, Streisand deftly handles would could have been a maudlin or over-the-top story and gets Oscar-nominated performances from Nolte and Kate Nelligan (as his mother). You can laugh at Streisand for the fingernails, or for casting her son Jason Gould as her son (he's fine, but really, nepotism much?), but as a star, she makes for one sexy shrink, a woman who manages to learn and grow from the experience almost as much as her patient. It's a film full of compassion and honestly-earned emotion, and Streisand should have received more credit for making it work.
"The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996). Adapting a French farce, Streisand directs herself as a mousy academic who settles for a sexless marriage to a math professor (Jeff Bridges), only to realize that she wants the whole package (sex, romance, passion), and that she's lovable enough to deserve it. (Standing in the way of that realization is Lauren Bacall, as the most witheringly critical mother in any Streisand movie.) Then again, the heroine doesn't get to have those things until she makes herself over from second-hand Rose into sleek, svelte Streisand. You could accuse her of vanity, but that's kind of the point of the movie. That said, it also undermines the point of the movie, and despite fine performances from Streisand herself and Bacall (who earned an Oscar nod), the muddled thinking behind the project helps sink it long before Rose finally has everyone eating out of the palm of her hand. For the theme song, Streisand recorded a generic power ballad ("I Finally Found Someone") as a duet with similarly overwrought Bryan Adams.
"Meet the Fockers" (2004) and "Little Fockers" (2010). For once, Streisand plays the overbearing mother, and the result is kind of a hoot. (It's also the first time since "Nuts" that she's appeared in a movie directed by someone else, and the first time in her career that she's played a supporting role.) She and Dustin Hoffman make a believable couple, and their quirks go a long way toward explaining Ben Stiller's character's foibles. She's also fearless in her confrontations with scary in-law Robert De Niro. The "Fockers" films aren't classic comedies by any stretch (in fact, "Little Fockers" is pretty terrible), but something about not having to be in charge has liberated Streisand to be as zany, freewheeling, and yes, sexy as she used to be.