Kennedy Center Honoree Barbra Streisand

A look at the career of the celebrated singer, actress and director, a recipient of the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors.
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

MALIBU, Calif. -- The first building you encounter, driving into Barbra Streisand's oceanfront compound, is a henhouse. So who knew: chickens? They're penned in a prominent spot on her exquisite grounds, amid the drop-dead Pacific views and a collection of houses decorated so meticulously by the superstar that a visitor could hyperventilate from sheer overstimulation.

The landscape's mesmerizing impact even makes poultry look radiant. As you pass the rustically immaculate chicken enclosure, you're tempted to catch the eye of one of the birds and whisper: "Hello, gorgeous."

"Barbra gives some of the eggs to her neighbors," says her assistant Sara Recer as she conducts a tour of the gently sloping property, on which a chlorinated stream leading to a lap pool meanders past grassy embankments and manicured rose gardens.

Our destination is the newest addition to the compound, an amazing house overlooking the water that has been Streisand's consuming project for five years. She freely admits that it's a structure, a shrine of sorts, to her passion for early American design, to which she's devoted as much thought and time and energy as any work that brought her an Oscar or an Emmy or a Grammy. She says she's even written a script for the house that explains why she had "1790" carved into its stone silo, and why on another side of the house she has inscribed "1904." The year contains her lucky number, 4. It also happens to be the year in which her directorial debut film, "Yentl," was set.

"Oh, honey," Streisand says, when asked later whether the house had kept her up nights. "I used to have like a hundred notes every weekend, walking through. Then it came down to 75. A few years later, it was about 50, 35. But it's my work. Instead of directing a film, I directed the building of a house."

Atop this breathtaking promontory, where every vista looks as if it belongs in a movie, the 66-year-old Streisand wants you to understand what she has been up to the past few years, between occasional recording sessions and the rare big-screen appearance (in "Meet the Fockers"). She is sitting in a formal living room of her main house, a few steps from the recently finished showplace, which, with its handsome, automated screening room, she mainly uses for entertaining. She eagerly launches into a discussion of the new house's origins, how during summer driving trips up the East Coast, she stopped with a tape measure to record the dimensions of clapboard siding; how every interior reflects an influential architect at work in 1904, from Charles Rennie Mackintosh to Hector Guimard to the firm of Greene and Greene.

She catalogues other details, the sort you'd take in only if her homes formed the basis of your doctoral dissertation: "I don't know if you noticed, but outside of every house the flowers are only the colors of the rooms . . ."

The stories of Streisand's perfectionism -- spun in the press at various times in her career as evidence of integrity, or insufferability -- find traction in the intensity of her talk of brass and Stickley and moldings and black-to-gray and burgundy-to-rose.

"You see," she says, "it's an obsession. You know, a movie is an obsession when I'm doing it; the house became an obsession. I just didn't think it would take five years."

Whatever drives her obsessiveness, the fruits of Streisand's labors are undeniable, whether directed toward brick and mortar or vinyl and celluloid. She is, without a doubt, one of the greatest singers in history, a recording artist who has amassed 50 gold, 30 platinum and 18 multi-platinum albums, a magnitude of success second only to Elvis's. She's won Oscars in two categories: acting (for the 1968 "Funny Girl," in a famous tie with Katharine Hepburn) and songwriting (for "Evergreen," from the 1976 remake of "A Star Is Born"). She's directed movies of deeply personal significance (from the underrated "Yentl" to the underbaked "The Mirror Has Two Faces") -- and, if you will, recast the idea of Hollywood beauty in her own image.

"People always talk about her as a perfectionist, but what does that mean?" asks her friend and longtime collaborator Marvin Hamlisch, who met her as a rehearsal pianist on "Funny Girl," the 1964 Broadway musical that launched her as a phenomenon.

When Hamlisch assembles the musicians for a Streisand tour, for example, he tells them that if they're not willing to bend the rules and work serious overtime, forget it: "If we're going to do this by the letter of the law, then don't do this," he instructs them. "I'm not going to stop if she is on a creative roll."

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