As both director and diva, as the Von Sternberg to her own Dietrich, Barbra Streisand has made three moderately successful films — all now on video — by taking her image seriously and remaining true to her fans. The movies are old-fashioned love stories or quasi-musicals (heavy strings or Streisand erupting periodically in song) revolving around what the shrinks would call a core fantasy: Ethnic ugly duckling gets Gorgeous Wasp Guy (or Gal, in the case of Amy Irving’s pert goyisheh-like love object in Yentl).
Barbra is always Barbra, whether she’s playing a rabbi’s daughter who dresses as a boy to become a yeshiva student, the psychoanalyst Lowenstein who rescues the Southern windbag Wingo (Nick Nolte) in The Prince of Tides, or the Columbia lit prof in The Mirror Has Two Faces who embarks on a chaste ”union of souls” with a sex-hausted colleague (Jeff Bridges) who, after years of revolving-door affairs with dishy babes, places a personals ad specifying ”looks not important.”
In fact, Streisand’s looks — along with her voice — were always her biggest asset. When she came on the scene, she polarized tastes: While those accustomed to more conventional beauties weren’t enchanted, a huge number admired her because she didn’t de-ethnicize herself. In a business where people twist themselves out of shape to be universally acceptable, Streisand was antiassimilationist.
Strangely, though Mirror was blasted last fall for the egomania of its star (so what else is new?!), it contains more delicious self-irony than either of her other two films. When, in a cotton-candy-pink bridesmaid dress, she says to sister Mimi Rogers, ”I look like an over-the-hill Barbie doll,” it’s reminiscent of that incandescent moment in Funny Girl when Barbra, standing in front of the mirror, exclaims, ”Hello, Gorgeous!” Her tortured love-hate affair with the mirror is a given in her films — and in the paradox of her being a movie star at all.
In Mirror, Streisand handles aging with gusto and grace, also with filters, fitness, and a sparkling cast (Jeff Bridges is a reprise of Ryan O’Neal’s fuddy-duddy in What’s Up, Doc?, only more attractive). The movie pokes fun at Hollywood-style romance — the Philharmonic plays over the first kiss — while happily buying into the ecstatic soul mate idea. Mirror has a few absurdities of its own, not the least being its portrait of the classroom. As a sometime professor at Columbia myself, my favorite scene is the huge lecture hall filled with undergraduates hanging on every word of Barbra’s hip stand-up-comic professor, while she, in turn, knows the name of every one of her students. That’s true romance! B