It is not easy to characterize the artistry of Barbra Streisand. The unprecedented scope of her talent encompasses all the major disciplines — acting, directing, singing, composing, producing and writing. To excel in just one medium is rare indeed; to excel at the lot is nothing less than extraordinary. She is, accordingly, universally recognized as a true Renaissance Woman.
The recipient of an Honorary Doctorate in Arts and Humanities from Brandeis University, Streisand is a rare honoree, the only artist to earn Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globe, Cable Ace and Peabody Awards. She has been honored by France as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, and she has received America’s Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The forces that drive Barbra Streisand stem from a rich amalgam of personality traits stretching back to her childhood: a longing to express herself, an uncompromising vision and a healthy dose of chutzpah. While the breadth of her creativity transcends gender, Streisand’s artistic choices have indisputably been informed by her femininity, particularly by the absence of her father, who died when she was just 15 months old.
Although Streisand got her start as a singer, performing as a teenager at The Lion, Bon Soir and The Blue Angel in Manhattan, her first love was always acting. She describes herself as “an actress who sings.” She won two Grammy Awards in 1963 for her first album, “The Barbra Streisand Album;” currently, she has a career total of 10. She is still the highest-selling female recording artist ever, with 42 gold, 26 platinum and 13 multi-platinum albums. She has had #1 albums in each of the last four decades.
After starring on Broadway as Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” (for which she won the New York Drama Critics Award) and as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” Streisand segued easily into television, where she received an Emmy for her first network special, MY NAME IS BARBRA. In 1968, Streisand reprised the role of Fanny Brice for her film debut in FUNNY GIRL. This was no typical ingenue; rather, Streisand’s delightfully bawdy, refreshingly ethnic, highly original Fanny forced critics and audiences alike to take notice. Streisand had effectively used her unconventional looks and style, blended with her enormously original talent, to assure herself a place in American cinema history. Her screen debut earned the newcomer a Best Actress Academy Award, and she later became the first female composer to win the Best Song Oscar, for “Evergreen.”
Over the next 15 years, many films followed, including hits such as WHAT’S UP, DOC?, THE WAY WE WERE and A STAR IS BORN. During this time, Streisand was drawn to a project that had been close to her heart since 1968, when she first read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy.” Upon reading the story’s first four words — “After her father’s death” — Streisand felt a visceral connection to the material. Film rights finally became available in 1978, at which time Streisand acquired them and began to plan its film adaptation. And she needed all the confidence and fortitude she could muster.
Naysayers were numerous, but Streisand’s fervor never wavered. She immersed herself in the world of YENTL, becoming the first woman to produce, direct, write and star in a major motion picture. Author/rabbi Chaim Potok was struck by the level of her commitment. “At times it is difficult to determine where Barbra ends and Yentl begins; the edges of the two personalities blur into each other,” he remarked. “She seems filled and possessed by the work.”
YENTL proved to be not only a huge personal success for Streisand, but also, in a broader context, a triumph for female filmmakers during an exceedingly fallow creative period. Whereas in 1916, there were 12 female directors making films, 67 years later, in 1983, while Streisand was shooting YENTL, she was one of only two women shooting a major motion picture. “I felt pressure working on YENTL because it was one of the first big budget movies made by a woman, and I thought, ‘My God, if this doesn’t succeed in some way, then it’ll hurt a lot of female directors in the future.'” Fortunately, for those future directors, she won Golden Globes for both Best Director and Best Picture.
Following YENTL, Streisand directed THE PRINCE OF TIDES (1991) and THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES (1996). THE PRINCE OF TIDES was the first motion picture directed by its female star ever to win a Directors Guild of America nomination, as well as seven Academy Award nominations. Barwood Films (formed in 1972 and through which she produced these three films, as well as UP THE SANDBOX, NUTS and A STAR IS BORN) has focused on creating television movies and documentaries that explore pressing social, historical and political issues — issues that have only received such wide broadcast due to the force and conviction of Barbra Streisand’s involvement.
Barbra Streisand’s passions extend to humanitarian causes, most notably through her work with the Streisand Foundation and her unabashed participation in the political process. Her acclaimed speech, “The Artist as Citizen,” delivered as an address to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is reproduced in Sen. Robert Torricelli’s book, “In Our Own Words,” which compiles “the most extraordinary speeches of the 20th century.”
The Streisand persona has always been larger than life. Call it perfectionism, call it conscientiousness, but reduced to its simplest element, you are left with a woman to whom the quality of the work is the final arbiter. She is an artist whose commitment pushes her to the heights of excellence. Yet, that very same commitment often invites criticism, perhaps because she is a woman — a woman who speaks her mind and dares to succeed.
Barbra Streisand’s career defies conventional definition. She has conducted herself on her own terms, remaining unbowed by Hollywood pressures to change her appearance, to tone down her personality and to ease up on her attention to detail. A strong, willful, vulnerable, honest woman, Barbra Streisand serves as a role model for young women everywhere, as an example of passion, commitment, fortitude and determination. For the tremendous joy this consummate artist has brought to audiences worldwide as she transports us with her wondrous talents both in front of and behind the camera, the American Film Institute is honored to present Barbra Streisand with AFI’s 29th Life Achievement Award.