Barbra Streisand

updated 12/27/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/27/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Barbracadabra! The lady has vanished. For almost a year Barbra Streisand has not performed in public, appeared on screen or made a record.

Is she pregnant? Tired? Round the bend? On the snuff? All sung out? Or just too rich to care anymore?

None of the above. Barbra is the same old Barbra: an anxious, touchy, shy, suspicious, pushy, raucous, abrasive, street-smart, lonely: driven, spoiled, fastidious, homely, alluring, hugely talented bombshell of a performer. And she has had a hundred-ton, bright orange whale of a year.

It was marked by a milestone—on April 24 Streisand turned 40—and by an obsession: Yentl. Based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Yentl is a movie about a Jewish girl (Barbra) in a Polish ghetto who disguises herself as a man in order to become a rabbi and then, to maintain her masquerade, marries the fiancée (Amy Irving) of the man (Mandy Patinkin) she loves.

Streisand has been fighting for 14 years to get Yentl off the page and into the can. Studio bosses were worried that In attempting to write, produce, play a major role and make her directorial debut in a movie musical that courts comparison with Fiddler on the Roof, her reach exceeded even her considerable grasp.

In order to raise the $14 million she needed, Streisand had to give up some artistic control of her film—the precious right to make the "final cut." As she put it, "I had to eat (bleep)." But she is determined to confute the skeptics.

In collaboration with Jack Rosenthal, she prepared her script with fastidious attention to Talmudic authenticity. The experience quickened her feelings of Jewishness—Barbra conscientiously sends her son Jason Gould, 15, to Hebrew school—and revived the memory of her deeply religious father, Emanuel, a high school teacher who died at 35 when Barbra was 15 months old. Longing to know him, she sought out a medium and held a séance. With rapping sounds (hat corresponded to letters, the medium's table "spelled out my name," Barbra told novelist Chaim Potok. "I was so scared. Then it spelled out S-I-N-G. Then it spelled out P-R-O-U-D."

Because she was "absolutely terrified" at the prospect of directing. Barbra took ingenious precautions. During pre-production, she used friends and associates to block out scenes and musical numbers, men shot and edited them on inexpensive videotape. When the real shooting started, Barbra knew what she was aiming for.

Even so, she found directing an ordeal—partly because she insisted on eyeballing every buttonhole, vetting every camera setup, casting every chicken in Yentl's barnyard. In her chronic passion for perfection, she drove cast and crew to the limit—but not as hard as she drove herself. On location in Czechoslovakia, on the sound stage in London, Barbra worked 18 and 20 hours a day and never slept more than five hours, yet she showed up every morning at 8 o'clock crackling with vitality.

Has Barbra produced a hit or a miss? Too soon to say—the movie won't be released until next December. But the score of Yentl—by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman—is complete, and co-star Amy Irving says Barbra's singing is "incredible."

Last week, back in Los Angeles with her longtime housemate, Jon Peters, 37, Barbra was dodging questions: Is she planning a 12-city concert tour—her first in-person performance since 1966—to promote the movie? Will she make a safe sequel to The Way We Were with Robert Redford? Or will she at last dare to do what she has been wanting to do for years—take a crack at Chekhov, Ibsen or Shakespeare? "Now's my time," she reasons, as she contemplates her forties, "for taking chances."

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