The grace, the chutzpah, the voice … the nose. A star was born on April 24, 1942, perhaps the greatest star there ever was. The star in question is Barbra Joan Streisand — and that’s pronounced Strei-sand as in “sand” — the little Jewish girl from Brooklyn who grew up to redefine what being a celebrity could mean. Before Gaga, Madonna, and Cher, there was simply Barbra.
A Broadway legend by 22 for her roles in I Can Get It for You Wholesale and originating the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (which is opening its first Broadway revival since Barbra left the production with Beanie Feldstein), Barbra became known for her powerhouse voice. Despite her unparalleled voice and large output of sweeping vocal albums and televised musical specials, music was more a means to an end to move her career forward than a driving passion. Really, her eye was on the glamour of Hollywood cinema.
Barbra became known for how she commanded everything she worked on. She made sure that the version of Barbra that the world would see on stage and screen aligned with the version she saw herself as, which gave her a reputation as a control freak even in her early movies. She took charge behind the camera, did her own makeup, and refused to give up any control to a man, even going as far as taking smaller salaries on her movies in order to retain the rights. The media was quick to paint Barbra as a diva — demanding, controlling, full of herself — and her critical acclaim suffered from it. Despite every Barbra movie becoming a major social event in where droves would flock to theaters, many described her films as purely ego-driven.
Still, Barbra’s appeal endures, specifically because she remained true to herself. One does not watch a Barbra Streisand movie to see her blend into the role; one watches to see Barbra emote in the way that only Barbra can, from that doe-eyed stare to the flick of her taloned fingers. She made a career out of remaining true to herself — refusing to change her name or her nose, or to give in to the pressures of the Waspy Hollywood beauty standards — and ended up redefining culture because of it.
Below, we rank all 19 movies Barbra Streisand acted in, investigating her ageless and evergreen star power that still echoes across movies today.
19. Little Fockers (2010)
Little Fockers is an easy choice for the worst Barbra movie. It features the least amount of Streisand screen time on the list and acts as the second sequel in the Meet the Parents trilogy repeating her Jewish-mother character Rozalin “Roz” Focker (who will be discussed more in depth later in this list). More to the point, Little Fockers was never meant to be a vehicle for Barbra’s skills. As one of only three movies Streisand has made in the 21st century, this made for an easy paycheck late in her career. However, she’s still the best thing about this movie. To quote Roz, this movie is … “nish keet.”
18. All Night Long (1981)
After Barbra’s illustrious run of hits in the ’70s, she entered the ’80s with a dud. All Night Long follows Gene Hackman after he becomes a night manager for a 24-hour convenience store. His son (Dennis Quaid) is having an affair with Cheryl (Barbra, giving her best Marilyn Monroe), whom Hackman starts to pursue? The French director Jean-Claude Tramont seemed to get a little too far out for an American film, which is at parts experimental and at other parts blah, and he originally wrote the part for another actress.
The story goes that Barbra took the movie as a favor to her manager, became the highest-paid actress at the time at $4 million for the film, and fired her manager after the movie flopped. All Night Long was poorly advertised, placing Barbra in top billing even though she’s a secondary character, but she still makes a cheap blonde wig look chic. Barbra has to shrink herself for the role; Cheryl is a meek character, and Barbra just cannot read meek. Cheryl is an aspiring singer without any musical ability, at one point singing off-key while plodding at the piano. That scene allegedly took the longest to shoot because Barbra couldn’t sound bad enough, no matter how hard she tried.
17. Meet the Fockers (2004)
Although the Meet the Parents trilogy only featured flourishes of Barbra’s comic chops, it is arguably her most recognizable role for younger audiences. In fairness, Streisand rarely lets loose the way she does as the sex therapist Roz Focker, from fighting about saving your child’s foreskin to jumping on a table to give a deep Shiatsu massage. Though Meet the Fockers is about as strong as one can expect from an ensemble comedy sequel with rehashed jokes, Barbra’s performance bumps the movie up a notch.
16. For Pete’s Sake (1974)
The 1970s was when Barbra really built a stake in her film career, taking a step back from lavish musicals for the sake of more variety. She offset some of her bigger blockbusters with a spate of screwball-comedy revival films; For Pete’s Sake was the least successful of the lot.
Barbra plays Henrietta Robins, married to Michael Sarrazin’s cab driver Pete Robins, a lower-class couple trying to move on up. After Pete takes out a shady investment from the Mafia, it’s up to Henrietta to take on odd jobs and save Pete from dire threats. Barbra gives a great comedic performance with her failed attempts of being a call girl, a hired bomber, and a cattle rancher, but it all feels pointless given how lifeless her husband is. This guy is hardly worth any of the effort. The film earnestly tried to make the couple appear broke, but uses its Black characters as mere props to show how poor they are. The main redemption is Barbra’s pixie-cut wig and boho-chic fashion, and the décor of their apartment had me pausing the movie multiple times to take it in — the blue chevron living room and pink paisley bedroom elicited gay gasps everywhere, I am sure.
15. The Guilt Trip (2012)
As of now, this is the last movie of Streisand’s film career (she’s been teasing a movie comeback in a remake of Gypsy for almost 20 years that most fans have moved on from). While not her most groundbreaking role by a long shot, it’s a sweet and tender comedy to bow out on. Barbra plays the overbearing mother of Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen), a failing salesman with a one-of-a-kind cleaning product that he cannot manage to sell with his uptight personality. Andy decides to take his mother, Joyce, along as he road-trips from New Jersey to San Francisco. Though her cluelessness and his callousness lead to some roadblocks along the way, the two have a natural chemistry that elicits plenty of laughs and makes you want to call your mother. What really brings this down is Rogen’s character, who is often downright mean to his mom, but maybe it’s a moral about how thoughtless we can be toward those who have always been there for us. Barbra reportedly did everything she could to get herself fired, demanding a four-day workweek and that the entire movie be filmed within 45 minutes of her Malibu home, and yet they still pulled it off.
14. Funny Lady (1975)
Any attempt to follow up on Funny Girl (more on that later) is a cursed venture. Streisand felt similarly, at first threatening a lawsuit against the producer Ray Stark if she had to rehash the Fanny Brice shtick, but contractual obligations and an added emphasis on Fanny’s newfound maturity made her pull through.
Everything about this movie should be a hit; James Caan is great casting as Billy Rose, a stage producer who helps Fanny find her footing after the collapse of her whirlwind romance with Nicky Arnstein, but the mess he makes of her career serves as reminder that Fanny Brice is best on her own and not tied to some schlub. Barbra wows whenever she’s singing, but the movie drags whenever she isn’t. The wardrobe is full of glitter and fabulous headpieces designed by Bob Mackie, and the songs hit as responses to the original Funny Girl soundtrack, but by the end of the movie’s bloated two-plus-hour run length, not much of anything happens. Some think it’s so bad it’s camp, but even with the theatrics, this was the only Barbra movie I actually fell asleep watching.
13. Nuts (1987)
Courtroom dramas aren’t always a crowd-pleaser, but despite the slow-moving, dialogue-heavy script and monochromatic brown-and-gold color palette, I never lost interest in Nuts. Barbra is giving capital-A Acting as Claudia Draper, a call girl convicted of killing one of her clients in self-defense. Her family hires a public defender, played by Richard Dreyfuss, to get her declared mentally incompetent to stand trial, but Claudia is determined to prove her innocence despite what others think of her erratic behavior. With an overall serious tone, the humor from Barbra’s performance might not be intentional — she reads like she’s in one of her screwball comedies and recalls Alaska’s Mae West impression on Snatch Game — but calling it camp patches up a lot of the film’s loose ends.
12. The Prince of Tides (1991)
Though one of her more respected films, The Prince of Tides came at the height of ’90s prestige cinema that traded big names for quirk and character. Based on Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel of the same name, Nick Nolte plays Tom Wingo, whose sister Sandy had been seeing Streisand’s Dr. Susan Lowenstein leading up to one of her multiple suicide attempts. With Sandy incapacitated, Tom becomes his sister’s memory, helping to fill in the cracks in Sandy’s childhood stories in sessions with Lowenstein as the two fall in love.
It’s a tender film about abuse and trauma that allows Barbra to flex her directorial muscles, but playing a stoic psychologist suppresses her personality, and the derivative romance gets in the way of more pressing subject matters. Still, it was a smash as one of the top-grossing movies of the year and was nominated for seven Academy Awards.
11. Up the Sandbox (1972)
Barbra was always a vocal proponent of women’s issues, but it was not until the feminist movement took a stronger footing that she was able to dissect them in film. As the first film made by Streisand’s production company Barwood Films, Up the Sandbox tackles the plight of housewives on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Margaret Reynolds is already a mother to two young babies when she finds out she is pregnant with another she is unsure she wants to keep. Instead of telling her husband, Margaret indulges in wild fantasies, including running away with terrorists to plant bombs on the Statue of Liberty, discussing communism with Fidel Castro (who is revealed to be transgender), and visiting the fabled Masai tribe in Kenya for their childbirth rituals that promise a painless delivery. Critics praised Barbra’s performance as the subdued homemaker, but it ended up being one of her lowest-grossing films. However, as one of the first films to explore women’s issues at the time — and to even present abortion as an option — it deserves a look back.
10. The Main Event (1979)
Many of Barbra’s biggest fans have problems with what is referred to as her “perm years,” the period from the mid-’70s to the early ’80s where many likened her appearance to a poodle. These people are tasteless — I ask my hairdresser partner weekly if my hair is long enough to perm yet.
The Main Event rekindles the sparks between Streisand and Ryan O’Neal from What’s Up, Doc? — and the couple’s affair in the early ’70s — but it’s also absolutely ridiculous. The first shot of Streisand is her schnoz taking a big whiff of a perfume sample. Her nose is its own character as she plays perfume tycoon Hillary “The Nose” Kramer on the verge of finding the perfect scent when she loses her entire fortune to an embezzlement scheme — all except for her contract with the retired boxer Eddie “Kid Natural” Scanlon (O’Neal), whom she decides to get back into fighting shape in order to win back her money. Hillary’s ignorance of the basics of boxing can be annoying (audiences reportedly booed the ending and left theaters during its box-office boom), but the chemistry between the two actors can support the material enough. And we can’t ignore Barbra’s first foray into disco with the 11-minute-long dance mix of “The Main Event Theme.”
9. The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)
Barbra made only two films in the ’90s, fully immersing herself in both projects as director and producer. The Mirror Has Two Faces sits cleanly in between a prestige film and a charming romantic comedy, and makes for an altogether more well-rounded movie than The Prince of Tides. The humble Brooklyn professor Rose Morgan is a much better use of Streisand’s personality in the more mature role, but the cast is stacked with Jeff Bridges as a fellow professor and Lauren Bacall masterfully playing Rose’s biting mother. The film builds a charming nerdy romance between Barbra and Bridges, and reflects Barbra’s own ugly-duckling syndrome. (Her mother tried to dissuade her aspirations for fame because she didn’t think Barbra was pretty enough.) A lot of critics said that it was unbelievable for Barbra to play ugly; if the film’s worst crime is that she looks too good, that sounds like a pretty good report card to me!!
8. Hello, Dolly! (1969)
The final project by musical legend Gene Kelly helped to cement Barbra’s career as a virtuoso. She was already an icon thanks to Funny Girl, but a repeat spectacular performance showed that her talent wasn’t some fluke. Streisand soars as Dolly Levi, the “matchmaker, meddler, opportunist, and a life-loving woman” of Yonkers.
The costumes are lavish and the colors are sumptuous — so distracting that you almost fail to notice the 27-year-old Streisand is starring in a role later played by Bette Midler … at the age of 73. Though Carol Channing originated the role in four different productions of the play, studio executives didn’t think she could carry the weight of such a high-budget film. Barbra and her co-star Walter Matthau got along so poorly he almost refused to kiss her when filming the final wedding scene, and at one point said Streisand had “as much talent as a butterfly’s fart.” She responded deftly, “The film is not called Hello, Walter,” and she retains that same swagger onscreen. Though the story itself raises a few questions, it’s best to lose yourself in the costumes, the color, and the excess of beauty dripping off the leading lady.
7. The Owl and the Pussycat (1970)
The outfits alone in this movie became staples for drag queens for decades after its release. But beyond that, it’s Barbra’s first nonmusical role that shows she isn’t just glamour — she’s got some grit to her as well.
Another sex-worker role, The Owl and the Pussycat takes place over one night after Felix (George Segal) rats on Doris’s (Streisand) clients and gets her kicked out of her apartment. With nowhere else to go, she demands Felix take her in. Zaniness ensues. At one point, the pair is trying to go to sleep when Doris says she can’t sleep without the TV on. Without a TV to speak of, Felix pantomimes a news broadcast from behind a fish tank in a precious example of how far a schlub will go for a gorgeous girl like Doris.
In ways it watches like the reverse of For Pete’s Sake, where Barbra now gets to play the screwup. Doris is salty, sardonic, and kind of a ballbuster, but she’s nothing if not charming. Felix can’t even resist her after a scene where she pummels him with gay slurs. (Barbra is a noted friend of the gays, and I will allow it.)
6. On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever (1970)
Barbra’s last musical veers psychedelic in the Technicolor calamity of On a Clear Day. She plays the mouthy Daisy Gamble, who sees a doctor to get hypnotized out of her smoking addiction. It turns out Daisy is clairvoyant, and while being hypnotized gets in touch with her past life as Lady Melinda Winifred Waine Tentrees, a seductive 19th-century coquette who was born the illegitimate daughter of a kitchen maid. The doctor she sees ends up falling for Daisy’s alter ego, but what’s most impressive is Barbra’s dual-starring role. She also has a magic power to make flowers grow, which adds little to the story but makes the movie a bedazzling kaleidoscope of color with Barbra’s signature belting — what more could you want?
5. A Star Is Born (1976)
I’ll lock my Twitter from Gaga stans before publication, but her version of A Star Is Born cannot touch Barbra’s version. Though the 1976 version is rated the worst of the four movies on Rotten Tomatoes, it does an amazing job at making a music movie. From the overwhelming roar of the crowd as Kris Kristofferson stumbles onto the stage hours late, to the chaos as he rides a motorcycle into the crowd at another show, to seeing Esther Hoffman learning to become a star on her own, it feels like watching Spinal Tap or Woodstock with an emotional core. Barbra is so stunning in every shot, she looks like a trophy — and that’s all before the music. Yes, “Shallow” is great, but how am I supposed to take “Why Did You Do That?” seriously when compared to Barbra belting out the epic “The Woman in the Moon”? Her final scene is the most emotional we ever get to see her; with tears pouring and snot running out of her nose in the middle of her final number, she knows when she needs to get ugly.
4. The Way We Were (1973)
The Way We Were is a confirmed tearjerker, even for the most stoic among us. Streisand’s Katie Morosky is a vocal communist and journalist at the height of McCarthyism who sees an old fling, Robert Redford’s early-himbo prototype Hubbell Gardiner, and is immediately taken back through the memories of the pair’s romantic and turbulent courtship. How could anyone not fall in love with her — intelligent, headstrong, confident, funny, wanting life to work out just a little too much to not fail. You know the relationship is doomed from the beginning, but seeing two people continue to fight to be with each other still makes you think they could potentially work: Spoiler alert, they don’t. Even the title track from the soundtrack, one of Babs’s signature songs, is enough to make you weep.
The character of Katie Morosky has become a reference point for so many leading ladies, including Rachel Green in Friends as well as Sarah Jessica Parker’s inspiration for Carrie Bradshaw, so it’s not a stretch to say that we would never have met Che Diaz without Barbra Streisand.
3. Yentl (1983)
Barbra fought hard to bring Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl: the Yeshiva Boy” to life on the silver screen. She bought the rights to the story with the intent to produce it as her follow-up to Funny Girl, but ran into issues for nearly 15 years until she was able to see the project through. She was almost convinced she was too old for the role by the time production began, but honestly, who else would’ve made a musical about a cross-dressing Jewish woman in a Polish shtetl who wants to learn the Talmud into such a runaway success?
From a directorial standpoint, Barbra makes a rich, gorgeous film with browns, earth tones, and laces in her first director’s job — Spielberg even called it the best directorial debut since Citizen Kane. As director, producer, writer, and star, Barbra became the first woman to do all that in one film, and was the first woman to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Director. She remained the only woman of the title for over 40 years until Chloé Zhao won for Nomadland in 2020.
2. What’s Up, Doc? (1972)
What makes What’s Up, Doc? so good is how the entire cast is on the same level as Streisand — so much so that Madeline Kahn almost edges her out as the star, deepening the side character of Eunice Burns to a master class in playing the straight man in a comedy. Ryan O’Neal and Barbra’s offscreen romance is palpable onscreen — she fast-talks breathlessly as too-smart-for-college dropout Judy Maxwell, and O’Neal as the bumbling geology professor Howard Bannister just tries to follow along.
It’s Barbra’s first foray into the screwball-comedy revival, taking cues from many films of the ’30s and ’40s but especially Bringing Up Baby, and it’s hands down the best attempt thanks to Peter Bogdanovich’s directing. The car-chase scene at the end really cements its legacy — it was the longest scene to film and took an entire quarter of the film’s $4 million budget (Barbra took another quarter for herself). After her first decade performing all those musical numbers, it’s refreshing to see Barbra let go so much in this classic, wacky comedy.
1. Funny Girl (1968)
This is not to say that Barbra peaked with her first film; rather, Funny Girl encapsulated absolutely everything that makes her the star she is right off the bat. After all, the first words she ever spoke onscreen, “Hello, gorgeous,” has become one of the most recognizable film quotes in history. Not many others can say that.
The (debatably) autobiographical musical follows the life of Fanny Brice, the vaudeville legend’s rise to fame as a part of the Ziegfeld Girls. Despite always being told she was too ugly, Fanny found the love she was looking for in a fast-burning romance with noted gambler and con artist Nicky Arnstein.
The truth to Fanny Brice’s own story is questionable at best; Funny Girl can instead be read as the story of how Barbra herself beat the odds and became a legend, told through the scope of Fanny’s legacy. The movie has some of Barbra’s most showstopping numbers in a career full of showstoppers, from the waltz-y ballad “People” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “My Man,” but everything she does is done to the same otherworldly caliber. Timing? Physical comedy? Personality? Outfits? Check marks all around.
There’s something about Fanny that everyone can see themselves in; in the woman told her dreams are too big, that she could never compete with the beautiful girls, that she just can’t have it all. The appeal of Funny Girl, and Barbra as a whole, is in making you feel like you can.