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JUST THE WAY BARBRA LIKES IT

"You have so much talent that, for years, I have been terrified to come up and have a girl talk. You were too big, too perfect, too wonderful. Once you married, though, you seemed reachable. I could touch you. Let me tell you how much I adore you!"

And that was how a glamorously gorgeous and totally pulled-together Elizabeth Taylor paid breathless tribute to Barbra Streisand at the American Film Institute's gala last week. (Having learned her Golden Globe lesson, this time Miz Liz was prepared!)

There are meatier, more significant film careers than Barbra Streisand's. There are greater actresses. But no star of the last three decades has imprinted such a truly original, iconic stamp on her work, myth and legend -- her cult of personality. And it was indeed the body of Streisand's career -- as a singer-actress-director-producer -- that Hollywood honored last week at the Beverly Hilton. References to her singing talents were left to a minimum, however, which is just the way La Streisand likes it.

Perfectionist that she is, Streisand spent two hours making sure the lights were "right" prior to her party. Some say she had an exquisitely manicured hand in other aspects of the night (table decor, etc.). And why not? At this point, would we have it any other way? Barbra is a fantastic irritant to all those who don't share her unquenchable thirst to polish, polish, polish every aspect of work and life. And she irritates the media because she is so very serious about . . . everything! But, as I have pointed out many times, Barbra is not a funny girl. And, like most stars, her sense of humor, such as it is, stops dead when it comes to herself, especially as mirrored through the press.

In any case, does Hollywood care what the media thinks of its goddess? Nope. The industry -- which has itself gossiped in wicked amusement about Barbra through the years -- turned out en masse to honor her, and it was an AFI night the likes of which hasn't been seen in years. The great star surely would prefer a best director Oscar -- just a nomination, please! -- but she seemed content to be gushed over by her peers until that inevitable honor occurs.

And gush they did. Sitting dead center in the ballroom, with James Brolin to the right of her and son Jason to the left, surrounded by the usual satellites (Donna Karan, Cis Corman), Streisand listened carefully to all the tributes, acting out surprise, amusement, etc.

Then the star herself, in a silver-jeweled black spaghetti-strap dress, took the stage to thunderous applause and accepted her lifetime achievement award. "I was not prepared for this," she said, looking utterly prepared.

She mentioned, as she often does, that she really wanted to be an actress, but got "sidetracked" as a singer, made no apologies for her rep as a perfectionist and will not accept labels ("female" director, etc.).

The future? "I'd like to do nothing for a while, and when inspiration knocks on my door, I can become deliciously obsessed. But now I have someone to come home to."

None of Barbra's strident, ambitious, romantic heroines, pining for their handsome men, could have said it better.

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