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BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT In 'Prince of Tides' actress-director Streisand shines again


New York - It has been 27 years since a knobby-kneed 22-year-old from Brooklyn teetered onstage on Broadway in her first starring vehicle, belted out "I'm The Greatest Star" (a song that now seems more like a prophecy than a show tune), and in the course of the musical's first five minutes became a legend.

Some things, however, never change: Barbra Streisand still knows how to make an entrance.

A rainy Sunday morning: Ms. Streisand has left her Manhattan aerie and is about to descend upon the St. James Hotel, where she will grant a rare interview to talk up her film adaptation of "The Prince of Tides," which grossed $15 million in its first week and which she directed, starred in, and, according to "Tides" author Pat Conroy, who has a screenwriting credit along with Becky Johnston, even wrote. ("Almost every word is hers," he says without malice.)

While they wait, a coterie of publicists counts down La Streisand's arrival as her driver checks in periodically via car phone.

"She's five minutes away . . . three minutes . . . she's downstairs!"

And then, suddenly, the elevator doors part, and there she is.

She's smaller than you expect, a wrenlike creature swathed in Donna Karan black. Nothing -- but for the famous nose, which she refused to bob, thinking it might change the tone of her voice -- is larger than life. Well, except maybe her talon-length nails, which she wouldn't cut even as a teen-ager, thus opting out of a career as a concert pianist.

All in all, however, she is an undeniably electric figure.

"Without Barbra, there would be no Bette, no Madonna," says George Segal, who co-starred with her in the 1970 film "The Owl and the Pussycat." "Barbra is the one who made being unconventional conventional."

Still, a recent review accused her of being professionally reclusive, of being too picky in choosing projects, of not utilizing her talents enough. She claims it's not true -- and she has the resume to prove it -- full of Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, Golden Globes and even Oscars (best actress in 1968's film of "Funny Girl," best original song for 1976's "Evergreen," from "A Star is Born").

She pauses, wanting to talk more about this isolation business. "I have never quite adjusted to being famous," she says. "Even though that was my dream -- to be somebody. But stardom hasn't turned out to be all I thought it would. It's been hard work."

But interviews, she has lately learned, are not. So why's she talking after almost 10 years of "no comments"?

"I want to help my movie. I didn't do any press on 'Nuts,' and I love that movie, and it hurt it."

At first, Ms. Streisand said she was terrified about facing the media. "But I must say, it's been" -- she giggles -- "almost fun!"

Her fear is understandable. Ms. Streisand has been largely vilified by Hollywood throughout her post-"Funny Girl" film career. Why? For doing only what she wants to do. And now she's director of a $35 million movie -- and a female director in a profession dominated by men. This autonomy and power exercised by a woman, she says, has long been confused with being "difficult."

Part of her popularity problem, she figures, is that "when you are a powerful woman, everyone thinks you're fearless. It's nonsense, I tell you, nonsense. I'm terrified all the time."

What is she possibly afraid of? "Humiliation!" she shrieks.

In "Tides," Ms. Streisand plays Susan Lowenstein, a psychiatrist who heals the tormented soul of Tom Wingo (played by Nick Nolte), who is called to her New York offices to help solve the mysterious suicide attempt of his sister, Savannah. "What secret are you people hiding?" screams Lowenstein. Wingo, with much prodding, eventually tells her, thus removing the shackles of painful childhood memories.

Ms. Streisand herself has spent a lifetime in and out of shrinks' offices. The continuing therapy and attendance at "self-help seminars on maturity," she believes, helped prepare her for her current movie.

Thus the storyline, says Ms. Streisand, touched a nerve. Like Wingo, she too suffered from childhood abuses. One time, her stepfather refused to buy her an ice cream cone, explaining "You're too ugly . . . You don't deserve it."

Strangely enough, "The Prince of Tides" seemed destined to be a Streisand vehicle even when it was being written as a novel. "Pat Conroy was playing my music when he was writing it, did he tell you that?" asks Ms. Streisand. "Isn't that weird?"

But there are stories about Ms. Streisand's egomaniacal devotion to the project circulating: At one point, she moved Becky Johnston into her house to work on the screenplay. No sooner had Ms. Johnston left than Ms. Streisand promptly petitioned the Writer's Guild for a screenplay credit for herself. (It was ultimately denied.)

Ms. Streisand, when pressed, does not deny she is obsessive. "People ask me 'Why don't you work more?' The answer is because I like to live in between the work, because I do get so obsessed. I mean, I was obsessed for five years doing 'Yentl.' With this one, I'm in my fourth year right now."

All the obsessiveness and hand-wringing, however, has, it seems, been worth it. Barbra Streisand can get just about any project she wants made.

But though "Tides" is certainly a high point of her career, it is not the capper. She wants to do a comedy next, she says, but "I just can't find one that is as intelligent as it is funny, like those old movies of the '40s. The Roz Russell parts. That's what I like."

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