Would Barbra Streisand Have Worked In “Cabaret”?

The legendary singer told The New York Times her biggest regrets, which included not taking roles in Cabaret, Klute, and Julia


Barbra Streisand answered fan letters in The New York Times, and her most interesting response concerned what (relatively insignificant) regrets she has about her career. The 70-year-old legend said she wished she hadn’t turned down starring roles in ’70s classics Klute, Cabaret, and Julia, noting, “If I had known that the directors were going to be Bob Fosse, Alan J. Pakula and Fred Zinnemann, I would have said yes immediately… But I’m glad my girlfriends Liza Minnelli and Jane Fonda delivered such strong performances.” 

Indeed, Fonda took home her first Oscar for Klute and her third of seven nominations for Julia while Minnelli won her sole Academy Award for Cabaret. But Barbra’s words spark a debate: Would she have been better in these roles?

Here’s the thing about Barbra Streisand in movies: If the movie is good, she’s the best thing about it. If the movie is bad, she’s never its problem. The Glee generation understands that Barbra is a singular performer and one of the towering Broadway talents, but what’s often forgotten is how unbeatable a straight actress she was and, frankly, is. Did you see The Guilt Trip? For a movie that all but promised middlebrow entertainment, Barbra gives a funny, layered, and down-to-Earth performance as Seth Rogen’s nagging mother. Her character is a fully realized piece of work. Yes, I did tell her that before our interview.

But to think of Barbra as Sally Bowles does feel slightly jarring. For one thing, Liza Minnelli not only pops in the role of the showstopping, bleakly superficial Sally, but something of Liza’s actual essence was channeled into that role. Her vigor and carnality shined through Sally, even if it’s hard to believe a gigantic talent like Liza would ever be stuck in a trashy Weimar cabaret. Surely Barbra would’ve imbued the role with a similar verve, but think about her talent in the MC’s freakish world. It’s an even bigger stretch, and I think it’s fair to say her essence is more directly in line with Fanny Brice’s than Sally Bowles’.

As for Klute and Julia, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that Jane Fonda is my favorite movie star, a woman whose apparent intelligence, conversational ease, and self-possessed conviction onscreen were such breakthroughs for female roles. What actress before Jane Fonda could be vulnerable, powerful, cynical, and weak in the space of a single role? Bette Davis comes close, but Fonda added the depth of self-conscious, cerebral feminism in her work. Streisand has the chops to play Bree Daniels (the prostitute in Klute) and Lillian Hellman (the playwright at the center of Julia), but would she have been as urgently straightforward with her dialogue? As fiercely unsure when a scene demanded vulnerability? I imagine Barbra would be smart and able in these roles, but I doubt she’d bring Jane’s level of jaw-clenched, yet weary defiance.

What do you think? Would Barbra have topped Liza and Jane in these roles?