Barbra Streisand does not inspire indifference. Either you think everything she says and does is the greatest gift to mankind since sliced rye bread, or you cover your ears and shield your eyes at the mere mention of her name. But even Streisand’s most devoted fans (and, yes, I admit membership in that club) have to acknowledge that she is more than capable of making bad decisions. Still, a Streisand misfire is often more intriguing than a standard-issue talent’s success.
Case in point: the 1972 comedy Up the Sandbox is a baffling mess where Streisand tries (and fails) to ride the women’s lib vibe of that distant era. The film is rooted in elitism – she is the wife of a Columbia University professor who is expecting their third child – and it plays to the emotions of the day in having its emotionally vibrant yet socially (and, considering who finances her lifestyle, economically) repressed heroine rebel against the domestic prison where life deposited her and her Upper West Side peers.
Yet the film, based on Anne Richardson Roiphe’s minor novel, liberates Streisand’s character via the safety of elaborate daydreaming fantasies. She can revolt against the suffocating repression of her bourgeois mother by engaging in a brawl – but it is all safe because it is only a daydream and no one really gets hurt. She can escape her quotidian child-raising and husband-worshipping world by imaging she is exposing Fidel Castro as a drag king or joining black activists in a plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty – the inanity of these considerations are instantly erased with a nod of the head and a nervous smile. And she can romp in the middle of Africa, engaging in some politically incorrect humor (still acceptable in the early 70s) without creating any offense because, once again, it is all in her mind. By the time film reaches its denouement, Streisand’s character accepts her role as a housewife and stay-at-home mother, but gives a cryptically bland warning that she may not be willing to make that her permanent responsibility.
But that is where Up the Sandbox fails. The film tries to be a spoof on feminism and a tribute to headstrong women, but it is unable to have it both ways. And the star’s tries very hard – obviously too hard – to bring relevance to this rickety work. Whatever her vices, Streisand gives 110 percent of herself – even if it a 110 percent deposit in the wrong place – and she raises this misguided mess into a full-throttle star vehicle that depends entirely on her skills to succeed. (The film’s lack of A-list supporting talent also betrayed Streisand’s penchant for monomania.)
For many viewers, the film’s intense personality is fueled by uncommonly strong direction from Irvin Kershner, who would later one-up George Lucas in the direction of an adventure in a certain franchise from a galaxy far, far away. Little did Kershner realize that being at the helm of a Streisand movie would prepare him for setting up Darth Vader’s paternal angst.
Up the Sandbox is a failure, but it is a classic failure because it reflected a time when the film world was both unready and unwilling to acknowledge the changes in American society and to reflect on how the women of the day were migrating away from the kitchen and into new educational and occupational worlds. But unlike Ibsen’s Nora, Streisand’s Up the Sandbox character lacks the will and the mania to carve out her own identity in a hostile world. She has it good, and she knows she can have it better – but, ultimately, she’ll stay with the safety of what is merely good. And that, of course, is the ultimate cop-out.
To her credit, Streisand admitted this was not one of her sterling efforts, telling an interviewer, “The film has many flaws, but that’s part of life. It would have been better if there had been more time, but there comes a time when you just have to let go.”