Monday evening, Barbra Streisand received the 40th Chaplin Award given by the Film Society at Lincoln Center. As you can guess the award was named after the first recipient Charlie Chaplin. Previous awardees have included the biggest of the big like Laurence Olivier, Federico Fellini, Gregory Peck, Martin Scorcese and every other big name. Looking at the list which has included several women like Susan Sarandon, Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor, I couldn’t help but notice that every other woman who had been feted was an actress, while the men who were honored included actors as well as directors.
It turns out that Barbra Streisand is the first female director to receive the honor. We all know that to say that Barbra is a director is to leave out all the other great things that she has accomplished, but at the ceremony they did pay particular attention to her work as a director.
I found the event quite moving on many levels. First for the clear female leadership at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The first speaker was Ann Tenenbaum, the board chair, who talked about the importance of Barbra Streisand as a role model to her young daughter. (And by the way feting Streisand turned out to be quote lucrative. The FSLC raised $2 million, double what they had previously raised.) She was followed by Film Society Executive Director, the awesome, Rose Kuo.
Being at an event like this reminds me that I missed a lot of her career. I never saw Funny Girl in a movie theatre. I watched What’s Up Doc and The Way We Were as often as I could on TV. This evening gave me the opportunity to spend an evening with those terrific clips of the early Streisand movies on the big screen and that is something I will remember for a long, long time.
My relationship to to Barbra Streisand really starts when she began directing. Of course I have an undying love for her voice, but seeing Yentl on the big screen as a teenager was a seminal moment for me. (You can read all about it in the introduction to my book In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing) What she achieved with that film is still, and probably will be forever unprecedented. Producer, co-writer, director, actress, singer. She probably also did the catering. That movie was her passion project and they made her literally sing for her supper in order to get the financing for it.
Her passion is what is evident in all she does. And as a woman who has always broken boundaries, she has paid the price that female trailblazers pay- they get labeled as a difficult or bossy or bitchy. We all know that Sheryl Sandberg is on a kick to have every girl who is told she is bossy be told instead that she has leadership skills. Clearly, Barbra Streisand did not need Sheryl Sandberg to teach her to lean in. She’s been leaning in for over 50 years.
All the stories that I have read about Barbra Streisand over the years have talked about how she is a perfectionist. And her co-stars that were singing her praises all pretty much attested to that fact. And while it was a celebration, the words of love and respect that poured from most of these men’s mouths (and a couple of women) seemed genuine.
The thing about Barbra Streisand that makes her so rare and special is that she is unique. The line from Funny Girl pretty much sums her up. “I’m a bagel in a plate full of onion rolls.” Why she has endured and is beloved is that there are so many of us bagels out there who can relate to her. When she got up to make her speech after President Bill Clinton introduced her, she talked about her struggles to be a director, her search for the truth, her desire to get the best performances out of an actor.
She also took on the “bossy issue” head on.
“I’ve been called bossy and opinionated and that’s because I am. Three cheers for bossy women. What better job could there be for a person that a director…. I would say I was a pragmatic perfectionist.”
It was such a delight to spend the evening watching a woman be embraced and respected and loved for pushing the envelope, for doing things her way, for doing things differently, for breaking through barriers and for raising the bar.
I am grateful that she has been an inspiration for me and for so many others. Here’s to all the bagels and to the bossy women.
Barbra Streisand, at a Gala and in Memory (NY Times)