Skip to main content

Singer Barbra Streisand performs during a tribute concert to composer Marvin Hamlisch in New York September 18, 2012.LUCAS JACKSON/Reuters

Here's a simple social experiment you can do almost anywhere, and the results will prove a point. At the next dinner or cocktail party you attend, or at the next moment you're poised by the water cooler, just say, "How about that Barbra Streisand?" Say it in the most neutral way possible, so it's unclear whether you're a fan or a detractor. You'll see that the world is made up of two different kinds of people: those who adore Streisand with every fibre of their being, and those who detest her. Interestingly enough, both camps point to many of the same reasons for loving or hating her. A quick run-down:

The quirky, daffy shtick

The role that first brought Streisand to fame was playing the lead in Funny Girl, on Broadway and then in the film adaptation. The part seemed written for Streisand, given her off-kilter looks and sensibility. A student in my Queer Cinema class (who's a fan) at Concordia explained it like this: "The very fact that she is so different, but still manages to be successful on her own terms, that's a huge part of her appeal. She has gained huge acceptance, but has maintained her individualism." (And that also explains her massive gay following – they can identify, and she offers wish fulfillment.) But detractors argue the quirkiness fails precisely because it is so entirely unauthentic, contrived and self-conscious. "There's nothing real about it," one Hater told me, saying her persona was less about her actual personality than about a publicity team's five-point plan. "It's as if it came out of a can."

The Ego

When asked if she had any role models who she looked up to as a child, Streisand apparently responded that she couldn't think of any. This furthers the charge that she can't see beyond herself. The flip side of vanity, of course, is insecurity, and the Haters say that is glaringly represented in too much of her work. Take the scene in the 1991 film she starred in and directed, The Prince of Tides, in which leading man Nick Nolte forces her to look at her own reflection in a shop window, forcing her to face the fact that she is indeed beautiful. Fans counter that Babs is simply facing up to the obvious. As one put it: "When she looks into the mirror, she's just dealing with the reality of the situation: What's not to love?"

The Films

As an actor, Streisand has a wildly uneven filmography, running from the sublime (Funny Girl, What's Up Doc?) to the dismal (Nuts). Critics point out that as she got more control over her projects, they became sheer vanity. Take Yentl, the 1983 cross-dressing musical which Streisand directed and starred in, and in which she is the only person who sings. But a note to the Haters: Take another look at What's Up Doc? Streisand's comic timing is impeccable – she's brilliant in Peter Bogdanovich's 1972 homage to the screwball comedy. She will soon be showcasing her comedic talents once more: She plays Seth Rogen's suffocating mother in The Guilt Trip, to be released in December.

The Voice

On this point, even the most fervent Babs detesters have little argument to stand on. Streisand possesses what is arguably one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded. It's clearly her most potent talent: Her range is astonishing, and her ability to take an ostensibly ordinary song and make it profound is staggering. She concluded her sold-out concert in Montreal's Bell Centre on Wednesday night with her signature edition – this time performed as a duet with her sister, Roslyn Kind – of Happy Days Are Here Again. Her distinctive intonation makes the Depression-era song seem entirely new and fresh again. It brought the crowd to their feet, for the last of several standing ovations. If she was looking for love from the crowd, she certainly got it. Despite the schmaltz, even Scrooge's heart would have melted.

MINI REVIEW: Barbra in Montreal

Streisand confirmed her status as one of the great live performers on Wednesday night in Montreal, effortlessly performing various old favourites and cracking a few jokes about getting on in life. At 70, she's now doing what a number of concert performers do later in their careers: bringing on supporting players to help carry the burden of putting on a three-hour-plus show.

This included the baby-faced Italian singing trio Il Volo, trumpeter Chris Botti and son Jason Gould. Gould's contribution was perhaps the most moving: He sang a duet with his mother, and his voice is actually quite beautiful.

Having so many different people on stage besides the star attraction made it feel like less like her concert than The Barbra Streisand Variety Hour. But when she paused to tell the famous anecdote about why she didn't perform live for many years (during a concert in the late sixties she forgot the lyrics as she was singing), her confession to ongoing stage fright reminded the audience of how rarely she performs in public. That this might be the last time fans would hear her sing live gave the evening an added layer of melancholy

The concert Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn will be performed Tuesday, Oct. 23, at Toronto's Air Canada Centre and Monday, Oct. 29, at Vancouver's Rogers Arena.