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.
Streisand came along at a time when the music business was bigger than movies, but putting them together made audiences nervous. In the ’30s and ’40s, she could have appeared in concert form: a guest at parties where she’d wow everyone with her voice. Now she has to deal with more serious subjects and sing off screen. But in The Prince of Tides, as Nolte’s neurotic Southern boy learns to bare his soul under her tough-love tutelage, there’s plenty of Inner Life music — strings and more strings — on the soundtrack. Glam and confident, Streisand’s therapist is all legs, glossy lips, and fingernails (in fact, perfect manicures are a trademark in most of her films), turning Nolte on with her impeccable restaurant French. Kate Nelligan (Nolte’s contemporary playing his mom!) and Blythe Danner are kept in the background, so that we can shamelessly enjoy every cliche of this union of opposites. B+