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All The Barbras: Why Streisand Means So Much To So Many

Streisand receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015

Her name is Barbra, and today, April 24th, is her birthday. She’ll be 74.

And, yes, of course, we’re talking here about singer-actress-director Barbra Streisand (“like sand on the beach,” she used to inform people), but you probably know that already. Everyone is aware of Streisand — even those who claim not to like her. (Man, are they missing out.)

Funny Girl (1968)

Once, she was just another “Barbara.” In his loving 1997 memoir, My Life with Barbra, Barry Dennen, who met a Brooklyn girl named ‘Barbara’ Streisand when she was 17, recalls the night in June 1960 when she won a career-launching singing contest at the Greenwich Village gay bar, The Lion. Afterwards, at a coffee shop, the future greatest star took a napkin from the table and printed out: B-A-R-B-R-A. As it was written, so it became.

The rest is history: A string of successful club dates (thanks to the gay boys at The Lion). A record deal. A classic TV duet with Judy. Her own TV specials. Emmys. Grammys. Funny Girl, on Broadway, and on screen. An Oscar.  A wildly successful movie and recording career (she owned the 1970s). That moment when her gloved hand brushed back Robert Redford’s hair. “See ya, Hubbell.” A Star Is Born. Another Oscar. The Neil Diamond duet. Yentl (star, writer, director). The Prince of Tides (star, director). And when she was 58, a great love (with James Brolin), and a happy marriage: hope for all us late bloomers.

Yentl (1983)

My friend Joe Daquino called the Yentl soundtrack, “the Sgt. Pepper of Adult Contemporary Pop.” Such a great line and so true. It’s a genius record. Joe died this past December after a heroic fight against brain cancer, and in those last days, in hospice, when he was half-aware, but terribly agitated, I’d play him Barbra songs. And he’d calm down, instantly. It was the damnedest thing. Barbra’s voice soothed him. I think she did for him what she does for me, whenever I need her to: she took Joe to that soul-deep place where he was still himself. It was a blessing, and a gift and I’ll owe her forever.

Joe loved Yentl (1983), and the two Broadway albums (’85 & ’93), but he’d only drop in on the 2000s work. He had his Barbra; he was good. Conversely, my Barbra begins with The Way We Were studio album (I was 12), and I’m still listening, still watching. Today’s Barbra speaks to me, but I know fans who yearn for some other version—eccentric ‘60s Barbra, or soaring, sexy 70s Barbra. I try. I play them killer tracks from The Movie Album (2003) or Love Is the Answer (2009), but. . . they don’t quite listen. They’re holding tight to their Barbra.

And yet, on the verge of her third act, with a new album, and two new movies in the works, including Gypsy, Barbra hasn’t really changed. She’s still herself. Much happier, which is grand, but at 74, Barbra Joan Streisand remains the crazy talented, wildly ambitious girl who wrote her new name on a napkin. That’s grand, too.

Joe and I loved this moment: In a 1993 TV interview, when Streisand made a joke about her pupik — Hebrew for “belly-button”– Barbara Walters said, “You sound like the old Barbra.” Without missing a beat, Streisand replied, “I am the old Barbra. And I’m the new Barbra. I’m all the Barbras.”

Happy Birthday, funny girl.

Chuck Wilson is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has been published in Village Voice and L.A. Weekly.