At the risk of sounding stereotypical, I’m a huge fan of Barbra Streisand. I adore her.
But I didn’t start out that way!
It was the death of Omar Sharif last month that reminded me of how it all happened. I was deeply saddened by his passing, though not because I’d followed his career or seen many of his movies. He played Nick Arnstein, the suave, handsome gambler who captured the heart of Fanny Brice in the movie, Funny Girl. (1968)
I knew about Barbra before seeing the movie, though I’d never heard her sing. I was an avid reader of the Entertainment section in our Sunday newspaper, as well as my Mom’s movie magazines. So I knew about her reputation of being difficult on the set of Funny Girl, including articles suggesting problems with co-stars such as Anne Francis, who felt she'd been essentially edited out of the movie by Barbra. (cf: TCM covers some of these problems in this article.)
I reluctantly went to see the movie with my girlfriend. (Yes, I had a girlfriend in high school!) This was during the final vestiges of an era when big movies were shown in big theaters. When we arrived, we were given a full-color, 40+ page souvenir program, that had photos, biographies, and listed all the songs in the movie. I clued on the second one: I Am the Greatest Star. Before I knew the word ‘Diva,’ I distinctly remember thinking it fit perfectly my preconception of the arrogant star who would be singing it. When the movie began, the first words uttered by Ms. Streisand, as her character walks past a mirror, are “Hello, Gorgeous.” Again, it fed into my distaste.
But about 10 minutes into the film, Barbra begins singing the very song I judged in my mind, I Am the Greatest Star. The longer she sang, the more captivated I became. By that last, amazing note, I was literally on the edge of my seat and holding my breath. At intermission, following the rousing Don’t Rain on My Parade, I was captivated. When the movie ends with My Man, I had tears in my eyes. (Which I quickly wiped away in the dark, lest my date see how emotional I was.)
A fan was born!!
I went back and saw the movie at least 11 more times. I had posters of her on my wall throughout high school. I’ve seen all her movies, even the bad ones. (I still think What’s Up, Doc? is among the funniest movies of all times.)
Years later, one of my best friends, who was also a huge fan in high school, came out as a lesbian and we reconnected. “From your love of all things Barbra," she joked. "I guess I should have guessed about you.” My Mother even asked me once if Barbra "made" me gay. (Obviously, it doesn’t work that way.)
Omar Sharif will be missed! I remember when he came on screen that first time in the movie. He was strikingly stunning in his good looks (which he retained to his death), his ruffled shirt, and the “polish on his nails.” He is a happy memory from my past, mainly because he was there for the birth of my Barbra love affair.
I’m not a naïve fanboy or groupie. (Though seeing her live, in concert, is still one of the items on my "List of Things to Do Before I Die.") I’m not blinded to the realities of her strong personality. But as sappy as it sounds, her music has been a part of my life for many years, including some rough times. Perhaps it was her strength, her courage and her determination that got me through those times; I could put on my headphones, and she was a respite.
Today, I appreciate her political position, and value her support for equality. But above all, it’s her voice; it can still take my breath away, and move me to the edge of my seat.