On Monday, April 22, 2013, Barbra Streisand was honored at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 40th Anniversary Chaplin Award Gala. She was introduced by President Bill Clinton, who presented her with the award. Here are her complete remarks as delivered on stage at Avery Fisher Hall.
Mr. President, my dear Mr President. Thank you for taking the time to be here with us tonight. It means so much to me, especially given how busy you are, doing important things for people all around the world. You’re a wonder, an inspiration and a very loyal friend, thank you.
The last few speeches I’ve given were about women’s heart disease. I’m interested in climate change and the bees disappearing, which could seriously affect our food supply. I’m also heartbroken by the tragedy of senseless violence in our country. But, its ok, don’t worry, I’m not going to speak about any of those subjects tonight. Tonight is a celebration and I am very moved and proud to be here.
At first, I thought with these past events it would be hard to talk about films with all that’s happening these days. 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.
Charlie Chaplin’s films did just that, by making us laugh he lifted the spirits of people living through the Great Depression and so I’m very honored to be given an award bearing his name. He was a trailblazer who exemplified the idea that true creativity has no limits. An actor-director-writer-producer-composer and he also ran his own film studio.
It’s interesting about ‘hyphenates,’ Mr. President, you’re definitely a major hyphenate: Rhodes scholar, teacher, lawyer, Governor, President of the United States, your mother’s son, author, statesman, even saxophonist. I guess I’m sort of a hyphenate, too, and I was thinking about what we all had in common. So, I did a little research about Chaplin and it turns out that he was a baby when his father left him. My father died at 35 when I was a baby and President Clinton’s father died before he was born. And 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 fathers’ lives that were cut so short, perhaps.
But I’m getting too psychological here so I think I’ll talk about something less complicated, which is acting and directing!
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, you know I looked funny. So 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. Thank God I was given a good voice, and I’m so grateful for all that music has brought into my life, especially since it opened the door for me to become an actress. 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 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 off-stage. This is God’s honest truth. So, I could look over his shoulder and see the cake and at least I could be attracted to that, you know!
I was 16.
When I first auditioned for the role of Miss Marmelstein, the secretary in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, I asked for a chair for two reasons. One, I was nervous. And two, I thought it would be funny to sing her song rolling around the stage in a secretarial chair.
Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was thinking conceptually like a director and I’ve been fortunate to learn from some wonderful ones.
Jerry Robbins, the original director of Funny Girl on Broadway was brilliant, enigmatic, charismatic, sexy. I really wanted to impress him. For the film of Funny Girl, I asked producer Ray Stark to hire someone known for directing dramas, not musicals. I always thought musicals were dramas with music. I was so blessed to work with the great William Wyler who made The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, and Wuthering Heights, the man who had directed twelve actors to Oscar-winning performances, that’s more than anyone before or since.
Willy was a man of few words, but he knew the truth when he saw it. I adored him. Every morning I would bring him my folders of scenes from out-of-town tryouts, rehearsals and so forth. He was always open to suggestions, even from me, who had never done a movie before. On the first day of shooting at a railroad station in New Jersey, I asked him, “What if we do a take-off on Garbo’s entrance in Anna Karenina where this beautiful woman appears at the top of the stairs through a cloud of smoke, except Fanny would come out coughing through the smoke?” He didn’t go for that, but he did let me do a version of it a little bit later at the bottom of the stairs.
The last day of shooting was the song “My Man” and the next day in the projection room, after watching dailies everyone started applauding and congratulating each other. Willy turned to me and asked what I thought. I said, “I think I could do it better.” The room became silent as you can imagine. I thought I really needed to do it live, to able to be in the moment, not knowing where your emotions were going to lead you. How could I feel the emotions if I was trying to lip-sync to a recording we made three months before?
I’m very bad at lip-synching. So I said, “Willy, can we do it over?” And he did. And perhaps that’s why I became the thirteenth actor to win an Oscar under William Wyler’s direction.
By the way, when we were finished filming Willy gave me one of my prized possessions, which is a director’s megaphone, encouraging me to direct. It is one of my most prized possessions.
I’ve been privileged to work with some other great directors, like my close friend Sydney Pollack, who did The Way We Were, and I remember that we were doing a scene where I was supposed to cry, but I couldn’t. Sydney just took me in his arms and the tears started to flow. He understood the power of touch.
Liza, you were wonderful tonight. I was sitting up there and I heard you singing this song and I thought god that’s an interesting song, Liza, where did you get that, I may want to sing that one day and then realized as you were half way through, you were singing my song from Funny Lady, I can’t remember the scene I even sang it but I thought of course you’re singing a song from one of my movies.
We are getting on, aren’t we?
But, your amazing father, Vincente Minnelli, was such a lovely man, we had such a good time together – I had lots of fun with Herb Ross and Irvin Kershner.
As an actress, I like to serve the director’s vision, hopefully he or she has one. Some of them don’t you know, some of them don’t. Peter Bogdanovich certainly did. He directed What’s Up, Doc? and he didn’t like any of my ideas but I appreciated that he knew exactly what he wanted, so I just did what he told me to do.
“Stand up, move there, sit down and it was great,” and that was absolutely fine. We laughed a lot and I still don’t understand the movie, though. What suitcase went where? Just shut up and act.
It was hard for me to get the opportunity to direct. Pitching my idea for a film based on an obscure short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, called Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy, was a hard sell. To say the least. A girl dressed as a boy who wants to study Talmud in Eastern Europe seemed entirely relevant to me, but it wasn’t exactly Oklahoma. But, it’s funny how things always come back to music, how it saves me. The only way the studio would finance Yentl was if I sang in it and Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote brilliant lyrics to Michel Legrand’s beautiful score and took home Oscars for it.
So, that was nice.
Movies fall through, relationships fall through but music has always been there for me.
Sometimes I take it for granted and I shouldn’t.
The Prince Of Tides wasn’t easy to get made either by the way. There, we had a best-selling book by the great novelist Pat Conroy but the studio’s response was, “Well, the movie can’t possibly be as good as the book. So that was hard to get made.”
There are always obstacles at every turn.
I guess I love directing because it involves so many things that interest me — art, fashion, architecture, psychology. I get totally caught up in the research phase — writing, exploring, being a perpetual student. And then there’s the excitement of working out all the details. I love the details. But, what fascinates me most is the challenge of how to tell the story, how to get the best performance out of an actor.
Actors are like instruments to me. You have to learn how to play them.
I noticed something when we were doing A Star is Born. I was standing on the side and I was watching the beautiful Kris Kristofferson do a very sensitive scene. And the director yelled, “Cut,” and I thought, oh my god. Look at him. He’s still in character and there’s a quality that’s beyond acting, it’s a moment that’s so unaffected, so vulnerable. And that particular moment wasn’t captured on film.
That taught me something that I used when I got the chance to direct. I would tell the crew to keep rolling a bit after I said, “Cut.” You didn’t know that, Kris, did you? Thanks for being here, Kris.
On The Mirror Has Two Faces, I had the pleasure of directing the legendary Lauren Bacall. After working all day we were rehearsing a scene that we were going to shoot the next morning and I could see that she was very tired. Her hair was messy, she had a toothpick in her mouth. And I thought, this is good, this is good, keep the toothpick, this is it, let’s just stay here, we’ll stay a little later and get this on film right now.
She said, “But I don’t know the lines yet.” And I said, “That doesn’t matter, they’re on the chair over there and you can look if you need to. Meanwhile, just talk to me. Tell me what you feel. Tell me about your life now.”
She started off with something like, “I thought I was going to be young forever.” And then, by engaging her in real conversation beyond the script, the scene now had this whole other layer, about growing older. She was letting us into her life. It was a golden moment, the kind I always look for on screen. They reach out and touch everyone because they’re so true. And the Academy recognized her performance with an Oscar nomination.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been called bossy and opinionated and maybe that’s because I am. Three cheers for bossy women! But, what better job for a person like that than to be a director, because, when I started out, actresses were not supposed to have opinions. But, as a director, you better have them. You also have to be prepared to compromise.
I’d like to dispel the myth of the un-compromising artist, “the perfectionist”.
When you’re making a movie, there’s a budget and you always have to reconcile the financial with the aesthetic. Sometimes the reality is you can’t get what you want but if you accept what the universe is presenting that can lead to some very interesting choices. So I would say I was a pragmatic perfectionist.
I mean as a matter of fact I did 29 drafts of this speech. 29.
Then there’s insecurity.
When I was in the process of trying to write my version of Yentl, I was so insecure that I wouldn’t put my name on the script, I didn’t want people to not like it before they read the first page.
I asked two of my friends, who happened to be Paddy Chayefsky and Bo Goldman, to read my first draft and thank God they liked it because without their words of encouragement, I wouldn’t have continued.
So it proves that a person can be insecure and opinionated at the same time. As a matter of fact, they probably balance each other out.
Before I go, I’d like to thank all of the extraordinary actors here tonight whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with and direct. My old friend George Segal, we had fun in that movie, who was so funny in The Owl and The Pussycat. And the luminous Amy Irving, who embodied the feminine aspect of Yentl. The lovely Blythe Danner, a joy to direct in The Prince of Tides. Pierce Brosnan — I couldn’t believe I had James Bond playing a cad in The Mirror Has Two Faces. As well as Ben Stiller, my put-upon son in Meet the Fockers.
I want to thank all of the wonderful artists who performed for us tonight. Liza, Wynton, Alan. I thank you all so much
I just loved seeing my leading men again. Kris, thank you for being here. I wish I could give you all a big hug. I mean the leading men, not everybody in the audience.
I want to finally thank President Clinton for his eloquent remarks and the Film Society of Lincoln Center for honoring me with this prestigious award and I want to thank all of you for being here with me to share some of these memories.
Now I should sing a song… but I won’t. I won’t.
Good night and thank you.