Barbra Streisand is very bad at lip-synching and doesn’t like mornings. She’s very good at throwing dogs’ birthday parties and, when she needs a little push to portray the sensation of yearning, she imagines chocolate cake. These are the things I now know to be true.
If one can ever imagine sitting around Barbra’s Streisand’s home — perhaps in a nook of her underground mall, sharing stories about the legendary diva with her old pals and learning Babs’ “She’s just like us!” quirks — that was the vibe of last night’s Film Society of Lincoln Center gala, where Streisand received the 40th annual Charlie Chaplin Award for lifetime achievement. The multihyphenate, EGOT-ing artist and humanitarian was joined by a collection of her old friends — and, though many of them first met her professionally, they genuinely have become friends, some for decades. In addition to video tributes by Robert Redford and Omar Sharif, Streisand was treated to speeches and performances on stage by the likes of Bill Clinton, Liza Minnelli, Kris Kristofferson, Wynton Marsalis, George Segal, Amy Irving, Pierce Brosnan, Blythe Danner, Oscar-winning composer Alan Bergman, and Ben Stiller. Below, the highlights of the night.
Event co-chair Ann Tenenbaum opened the evening with an introduction to the Brooklyn-born Streisand, calling her a “true legend and hometown girl.” She noted, “As a mother of a young girl who doesn’t yet know that the world is probably going to try and get in her way, I can say this: Thank you, Barbra, for being an incredible woman. Thank you for your unique and beautiful style and pizzazz. Thank you for embodying the coexistence of remarkable creativity and razor-sharp intellect. Thank you for showing us that Funny Girls can be huge stars and can contribute to the world in poignant and compelling ways.”
The star-studded speeches were warm and enlightening, whether it was Sharif recalling catching films with his Funny Girl co-star and quipping, “Barbra was a person I loved most — I don’t mean sex-love. We were friends,” or Yentl leading lady Irving getting into the saucy spirit by saying Barbra was “the best girl-on-girl action” she’d ever had. Brosnan wasted no opportunity to mock his less-than-Streisand-level singing voice in Mamma Mia. Stiller, in his introduction for former president Clinton, joked about posing as a Funny Girl fanboy in order to coax Streisand to play his mother in 2004’s Meet the Fockers (he also invited Chappaqua neighbor Clinton over for a House of Cards marathon, so there’s another house party you can imagine crashing). And, for the record, it was Danner who spilled the tea on the Babs-ulous birthday parties Streisand throws for her beloved dog Sammie.
For a 15-time Grammy winner (and a 57-time nominee) — not to mention an actress who pioneered live on-camera singing “40 years before Les Mis,” as Segal pointed out — it was only natural the night featured a lot of music. Minnelli described this particular tribute as a “family affair” for her since she and her mother had gone to see Streisand very early in her career at Hollywood’s Coconut Grove (Minnelli’s reaction? “Bam! Just chutzpah!”), well before Minnelli’s father Vincente directed Streisand in 1970’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. She sang a medley of Funny Lady‘s “Isn’t This Better,” and Marsalis led a jazzy rendition of “Hello Dolly.” But no moment felt more like family than when Streisand’s Yentl lyricist Bergman sang a special, extended version of “The Way We Were,” complete with Streisand-centric lyrics, over a picture of the honoree with him and wife/writing partner Marilyn Bergman.
Clinton promised to keep his speech “short and serious,” though he did offer a shout-out to his wife Hillary in the crowd, was predictably eloquent. “When I was president,” he shared, “we had a small list of members of Congress that we called the ‘Just Say Yes’ list because they were so dogged that you knew you were going to give in to them sooner or later, and it saved a lot of time to just say yes. That’s the way dealing with Barbra is” — a familiar theme in a night dedicated to the fruits of the driven auteur. In honor of the award’s namesake, he said he’d watched The Great Dictator just a few nights before and admired the film’s sweeping final speech. “‘We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world,'” he quoted, then said, “Barbra has made that new world her life’s work in song and movies, producing, directing, acting, writing, and fighting for causes and people she believed in. She has lifted a lot of clouds.”
Though clips and songs had speeches had illuminated much of an already storied, well-explored career, Streisand gave the kind of insight that no montage ever could. Of her early life, she remembered, “I always wanted to be an actress. I liked escaping reality. I wanted to play the great classical roles, but nobody would hire a 15-year-old Medea or Hedda Gabler. When I couldn’t get any acting jobs, I started singing in nightclubs. I thought of each song as a three-act play and somehow it caught on.”
And as for that chocolate cake, her anecdote started on a surprisingly philosophical note: “Even from the beginning when I was going to acting classes, I realized the power of the truth. If you want to be good, you have to be real and honest. I remember I was doing a scene from Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent. I was supposed to be yearning for the leading man, but I wasn’t even attracted to him. So I put a piece of chocolate cake offstage so I could look over his shoulder and see the cake and at least be attracted to that,” she laughed.
She told of the great talents with whom she’d worked — the time she suggested Funny Girl helmer William Wyler incorporate a comedic takeoff on Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina, then receiving a director’s megaphone from him as a parting gift (still a treasured possession); a poignant, impromptu scene from The Mirror Has Two Faces with Lauren Bacall. And she drew a thread between herself and fellow “hyphenates” Clinton and Chaplin, all of whom grew up without their biological fathers: “Maybe hyphenates need to accomplish a lot, to get it all in, to make life as full as it can be because we’re trying to make up for our father’s lives that were cut too short.”
Perhaps most importantly, she recognized the power of movies in times of sadness — whether personal or national, such as last week’s many tragic events. “At first I thought it would be hard to talk about film with all that’s happening these days,” she said. “However, I realized that movies are very relevant at this time. They allow us to escape our reality for a while by taking us outside of ourselves. They enable us to access our deepest emotions of elation and sorrow, and give us the ability to connect with each other through a common medium.”
As a visionary director-writer-producer, reaching that grand goal has had its challenges. “You have to compromise” in art, she admitted. “Sometimes the reality is, you can’t get what you want. But if you accept what the universe if presenting, that can lead to some very interesting choices. I would say I was a pragmatic perfectionist,” she said, then added, “As a matter of fact, I did 29 drafts of this speech.” And, for those of us in the crowd experiencing an intimacy that defied the room’s 2,738 seats, it felt like we’d been with her every step of the way.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly mistakenly stated that Streisand’s dog Sammie had passed away.