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Interview of a lifetime: What it was like to talk with the legendary Barbra Streisand

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There are few performers who are easily identified by one word - Cher, Bono, Beyonce and Streisand. Streisand is, of course, the legendary singer, actress and director Barbra Streisand. And today Streisand's memoir, "My Name Is Barbra," is out. To mark the publication, she sat down with our colleague, Brittany Luse. She hosts It's Been A Minute, and she joins me now to tell us all about that interview. Hi there.

BRITTANY LUSE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Brittany, before we get into this interview, I want to talk about you a little bit here.

LUSE: (Laughter).

SUMMERS: I have heard that when you asked Barbra Streisand to do this interview, you told her that this is an interview that you have spent your entire life preparing for. Tell us about that.

LUSE: That is absolutely right. I am a recovering theater kid, so I obviously grew up loving Barbra and watching her movies. As I've gotten older and I understood just how much she was up against as a young woman in Hollywood, I really grew to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for just how much she's accomplished and how influential she is.

SUMMERS: I can already tell by hearing you describe this that this is going to be an incredible conversation. And we're going to hear some of it now, so I'm going to hand it over to you. Can you just set up the tape for us?

LUSE: Yes, yes, yes. So we all know Barbra Streisand is one of the greatest performers of all time, especially for her voice. But I like to think of her as one of our most influential image-makers of all time, particularly through her work as a film director. So, of course, her film directorial debut was "Yentl" in 1983. We talked about all she went through to try to get that movie made. She made sure that I knew it took her 15 years, for the record. But one of the reasons why it took so long for the film to get made is because she was told by sometimes other Jewish executives that the story was too Jewish to be appealing to mainstream audiences. And I asked her how she felt about that, and she gave this really measured and reasoned explanation of where she thought that attitude had come from.

Was it infuriating to you at the time? Like, were you ever insulted, or did you have sort of the same evenhandedness in thinking about it? How did you see it then?

BARBRA STREISAND: Yeah, I think so. I mean, again, when I went to the studios with this little short story "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy," my agent - when I found out he never told me about that offer to do something with that story, I asked, why wouldn't you tell me what was offered to me? Well, he says, you know, you just played a Jewish girl in "Funny Girl." And so you don't want to play a Jewish boy, do you? - you know, that kind of thing. I was like, but that's not for you to tell me.

LUSE: Right.

STREISAND: The story interested me because it was about gender inequality - that a woman couldn't study. You know what that feeling is. You - to be you. You became what you wanted to be. I became what I wanted to be, but I don't want somebody telling me what I can't be.

LUSE: You know, we all know about your influence on the industry as a performer. But I wonder - how do you see your influence on the entertainment industry as a businesswoman?

STREISAND: I don't think I do, really.

LUSE: How do you mean?

STREISAND: It was only sort of expressions of - I just never thought about, really, the business aspect. I just thought about it from the control aspect.

LUSE: That is something that came up...

STREISAND: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Again and again and again in the book.

STREISAND: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

LUSE: I think the end of one chapter just said...

STREISAND: Right. I have to...

LUSE: ...You know, I have to be in control.

STREISAND: I'm the director - that's right. The first time I got a contract - again, I wanted to be an actress, so it didn't matter to me if I got a record contract to sing. My manager, Marty Erlichman, who became my manager when I was 19 - and, you know, he brought Columbia Records down to see me. And they wanted to sign me. I said to Marty, I don't care what I get paid. I just want to be able to control my work - what songs I sing. What's the cover of the album look like? At the time - what is that, 60 years ago, I think? - they were suggesting I call my album "Sweet And Saucy Streisand."

LUSE: (Laughter) I'm sorry.

STREISAND: But I wanted to control that, and I got that. You know, I was able to call my album "The Barbra Streisand Album" 'cause I said, that's what it is. And so I was able to have that, you see? That's what was important to me.

LUSE: Was control.

STREISAND: Control of my work.

LUSE: You say all this about control. I wonder, do you see this book as a form of control over your legacy?

STREISAND: Yes.

LUSE: Like something...

STREISAND: Yes.

LUSE: ...Like the ultimate director's cut of your life.

(LAUGHTER)

STREISAND: Very well said. Very well put. Yeah, it is.

LUSE: I got one more question I want to ask you.

STREISAND: Yeah.

LUSE: There is this 1991 interview...

STREISAND: Yeah.

LUSE: On "60 Minutes." I was watching it - rewatching it recently, and there's this moment in the conversation where you look back on your performance with Judy Garland on TV in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET HAPPY/HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Forget your troubles.

STREISAND: (Singing) Happy days.

GARLAND: (Singing) Come on...

LUSE: And you're remembering how surprised you were that Judy's hands were shaking...

STREISAND: Right.

LUSE: ...With nerves when she held your hand. And you said that you didn't understand her fear at the time.

STREISAND: Right.

LUSE: But in '91, at 48, you understood Judy was afraid of falling out of public favor, of being forgotten, becoming obsolete.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

STREISAND: Ready to say she's going downhill or her career is over, or they want it to be over - not the public, mind you.

LUSE: And you seemed to be processing and understanding Judy's perspective and that fear at that time - in that interview in 1991. But now you're 81, and your book doesn't have any of that anxiety.

STREISAND: Really?

LUSE: You seem pleased with your life.

STREISAND: Why do you think it took me so long to write it? Ten years - because I have that same anxiety. You know, I do. I understand. I understand what she was shaking about. I didn't understand it when I was 21.

LUSE: Right.

STREISAND: Her vulnerability - you know, I became like her, in a sense. Very - well, I...

LUSE: You mean you became vulnerable in that way over time?

STREISAND: Over time, more vulnerable, even, than I was, yeah. You know, the fear of forgetting the words, not being able to sing till there was such a thing as teleprompters, the fear of letting down the audience - was I good enough? Was my voice good enough? Was - I just had to do concerts because I had - you know, I had to pay the rent.

LUSE: Right. I wonder, though, like, you know, your book - you seem so pleased with your life. I wonder - what shifted between 48 and 81? I'm trying to get some secrets, some advice, some - what's to come? Like, what change within you happened between those two points in time that got you to the point where you feel this contentment and you were ready to look back in this way?

STREISAND: Yeah. I wasn't ready for the longest time. I thought I had more to do. But then I came to a point where I think what I did was enough. And then you say, you know, OK. Let me just live my life. Let me see what that is, you know?

LUSE: Well, Ms. Streisand, thank you so much for joining me today. It was a pleasure to have you.

STREISAND: And thank you. I really appreciate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARBRA STREISAND SONG, "THIS IS ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS")

SUMMERS: That was the legendary Barbra Streisand in conversation with It's Been A Minute host Brittany Luse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS")

STREISAND: (As Yentl, singing) I can open doors, take from the shelves all the books I've longed to hold. I can ask all the questions, the whys and the wheres as the mysteries of life unfold. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.