Fifteen years have gone by since Barbra Streisand’s last serious directing credit (“The Mirror Has Two Faces“), so you might imagine that filmmaking was simply a phase she’d outgrown. Remember though, we are talking about a woman who has an entire fake store full of dolls in her basement. So for better or worse, Babs is back in action, determined to overthink and overact in a brand-new adaptation of “Gypsy,” the award-winning Sondheim musical inspired by the memoir of notorious burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Who cares what Warner Brothers says — haven’t they seen this woman’s barn? Her chickens lay green eggs. You don’t mess with the Streisand.
Classic though it may be, Lee’s own account of her life story is especially noteworthy for its … shall we say “relaxed” attitude toward factual accuracy. “When Gypsy wrote memoir, it wasn’t only her monument – it was her chance for monumental revisionism,” says Karen Abbott, whose biography American Rose closely examines the star’s self-made mystique. “She transformed every painful experience into a punchline or omitted it entirely. In the musical, her mother is plucky and eccentric rather than a demented sociopath (and murderer!). She never associated with shady characters or did things that later brought her shame. I think she got away with it because Gypsy got away with everything – nearly everything, anyway.”
According to Abbott, the glamorous persona that Lee invented for herself became an incredible burden: “She adored her creation for all of the things it gave her – money, fame, autonomy, distance from her mother – but she also loathed it for its limitations; she lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set. Every time she tried to expand the parameters of who Gypsy Rose Lee was, people didn’t know quite how to react. Gypsy’s sister, June Havoc, made a very telling comment: ‘It wasn’t hilarious and funny at all, when you got back to the dressing room,’ she said. ‘Gypsy put on this wonderful, sophisticated, glamorous, I-know-more-than-you-do attitude with such conviction, she convinced the world. But she would come home and cry because she’d been on an interview and all they wanted her to do was take off her gloves, slowly. They wanted to leer. It made her sick, and nobody ever knew that.’”
Before her death in 2010, Havoc (herself a dance prodigy and successful actress) spoke with Abbott at length about the unique damage that Lee’s revisionism had exacted upon her. “Even at ninety-five years old, she was still angry about it,” Abbott recalls. “She believed the characterization of Baby June thoroughly distorted the girl she remembered being. ‘It was like I didn’t own me anymore,’ she told me. She begged to be written out of it entirely. She thought her sister was ‘screwing me out in public,’ and that the whole ordeal was ‘an example of a non-love I didn’t understand.’ In addition, June didn’t really benefit monetarily from the musical. She got a percentage of the royalties from the first run, and that was that. If there’s an afterlife, I think Gypsy and June are hashing out lingering resentments about the musical – among many, many other things.”
As for the upcoming Streisand joint, whom would Abbott’s dream cast include? “I think Natalie Wood was so perfect; it would be difficult to top her,” she comments. “I’d actually love to see a version of the musical that incorporates the sisters’ later years and examines their complex dynamic. To that end, I’m thinking Reese Witherspoon as June and Winona Ryder as Gypsy. And maybe Jane Lynch as Mama Rose! I know the ages of those three wouldn’t quite jibe, but damn, that would be a fantastic cast. And just to top things off, Alec Baldwin as Herbie.”