Barbra Streisand’s Singular Women

In her fifty years on screen, her palpable desperation to be liked has moved audiences or grated on them. But she projects something constant and knowable—the marker of a true star.

Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer based in New York. 

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As a thirteen-year-old girl in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Barbra Streisand would spend her Saturday afternoons huddled in Loew’s Kings Theatre. It was a paradise. She couldn’t resist those comfy seats, air conditioning, gigantic ice cream cones, and double features. 

The movies allowed her to live out a fantasy the rest of her life couldn’t offer. Home was certifiably miserable. Her father died three months after her first birthday, and her mother Diana married a man, Louis Kind, who liked to berate her. He liked to call her ugly.

So, the movie theater was a refuge, insulating her from the merciless taunts thrown at her in school and at home. She vowed, as legend would have it, to have her name up on the marquee at any cost. “It was me up there and those men were pursuing me!” she would reportedly mutter to herself as she walked back home to the housing projects on Newkirk Avenue where she lived.

It worried those closest to her. Her mother, Diana, “couldn’t fathom why she wanted to be famous,” Streisand would later tell an interviewer.

But hers was a determination not even a mother could stifle. Maybe her mother’s worry just made her more determined.

It has been fifty years since Streisand, draped in a leopard and mink coat, coyly glanced at a mirror and uttered her first words on film: “Hello, gorgeous.” She’d say them again when she stepped foot on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in April 1969. Her debut was a home run; she won an Oscar for Best Actress on her first try.

She would go on to make nineteen films throughout her career, directing three. The most recent of her film appearances is 2013’s The Guilt Trip, a mom-son road comedy in which she starred alongside Seth Rogen. The film’s distributor, Paramount, expected her to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, so much that it prematurely aired an advertisement proclaiming that Streisand was a nominee before the nominations were even announced. She was not nominated. Streisand did manage to get one nomination that season, though: a Razzie for Worst Actress.

Take it as a sign that Streisand’s career on film is a study in baffling asymmetry, bracketed by the highest and lowest possible distinctions that can be conferred upon anyone.

It’s easy to see why she divides critical opinion so sharply. Streisand performs in italics; she is, by design, incapable of receding. As a director, she puts herself where she believes she belongs: front and center. She can be a film’s greatest asset or its fatal flaw. To actress Anita Miller, an onlooker in Streisand’s early acting classes as a teenager, Streisand acted with the ferocity of “someone who had been starved.”

Miller was correct. In her best and worst performances, Streisand channels a palpable desperation to be liked. Her presence implies that she has been deprived of something vital somewhere in her life—nourishment, care, love. This quality can move audiences or grate on them. But she always projects something constant, knowable, unfluctuating. This is the marker of a true star.

Throughout her career, Streisand’s detractors have ambushed her with adjectives most of us wouldn’t want attached to our names: egomaniacal, controlling, self-absorbed, caustic, shrill, difficult. Perhaps this is an example of the anti-Semitism and sexism that run deep in American soil. Perhaps her own behavior warrants that reputation.

It says a lot about an artist’s power when she can inspire both such ferocity of devotion and spirited hostility. Her trajectory invites you to consider writerly clichés. She is the fulfillment of the American dream, the ugly duckling turned swan, the unlikely star. She demolished every odd stacked against her, giving America a story as easy to root for as it is to tear down. There are currents of subversion in her star persona. On screen, she is the misfit who normalizes her difference by constantly reminding us of it, toppling the very powers that sought to destroy her. Streisand inverted the predominantly WASP-oriented conceptions of female superstardom, offering, as an alternative, “that double whammy of Judaism and Brooklyn,” as biographer Neal Gabler once put it.

Gabler would speak of entering the very exercise of writing a biography of her with ambivalence about Streisand’s career, aware of her import yet unswayed to parrot the unceasing fandom she inspires. Yet he emerged from the pursuit fully converted to her charms.

There is something about Streisand on film that fosters this allegiance and tugs at our most basic sympathies, compelling us to rationalize the appearance of self-obsession. Fifty years ago, she asked us to see what she saw in herself, to believe in her. Some of us still do.

*

“I don’t know what other actresses do,” Streisand would say during the filming of Funny Girl in 1967. “Do they just sort of stand around … like mummies, get dressed, get told what to do, move here, move there? That can be pretty boring.”

She’d played the role of Fanny Brice nonstop on Broadway since 1964. What could her director, William Wyler, possibly know about the role that she didn’t? And so, she’d be fidgety on set, adjusting lights and getting angry when her costuming wasn’t finished in time for her to begin shooting. 

Streisand began filming Funny Girl in August 1967, at the tail end of a seven-year period during which she became America’s top-selling female singer. Born Barbara Joan Streisand in 1942—she dropped the second a in her first name in 1960—she left Brooklyn the minute she finished high school at the age of sixteen and moved across the East River to Manhattan’s Theater District.

Life wasn’t easy for her in those days. She got by on unforgiving odd jobs, from operating switchboards to working as an usher for The Sound of Music at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. But she pawed her way onto Broadway. She took acting classes. She worked the nightclub circuit and parlayed those stints into off-Broadway shows. She landed on Broadway, eventually, and knocked everyone’s socks off with a Tony-nominated supporting performance in 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale as a fifty-year-old Miss Marmelstein, a role Streisand played at nineteen. She signed with Columbia Records in 1962. By 1965, she would record three albums and win three Grammys. She guest-starred on The Judy Garland Show in 1963. In 1964, she would begin her wildly successful stint on Broadway’s Funny Girl as entertainer Fanny Brice. That same year, she signed a CBS contract for ten hour-long television specials. And her face, once an object of derision, landed on the cover of Time and Life Magazines and inside Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.

It was quite a face, one unlike any America had seen before.

“Streisand came onto the scene and rewrote the rules of beauty,” biographer William Mann tells me. “She wouldn’t change her nose. She wouldn’t change her name. She was as unambiguously Jewish as you could possibly be. She would not compromise a single part of herself.” 

In Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (2012), Mann traces her formative years before film, demonstrating how, for Streisand, Broadway was merely a pit stop to Hollywood. In conversation, Mann insists to me that Streisand has not quite gotten the respect she’s yearned for, and certainly earned the right to, in film.

“She’s always sought respect for something else [other than singing]—as an actress, as a director,” Mann tells me. “She has the most amazing voice of all time, yet she’d always say, I didnt work for that voice. It just sort of came to be. Ive worked at being an actress. Ive worked at being a director.

To Streisand, Mann explains, acting was more demanding than singing. It required restraint, discipline, effort. Acting was work.

*

Streisand challenged convention surrounding American female stars in cinema. 1967 was a watershed year, a moment of tectonic change in American movies. Filmmakers like Mike Nichols (The Graduate) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) were injecting newer, more dangerous blood into a studio system creaking beneath its own ballast. Streisand was an agent of change.

“The late sixties were a moment when stars who didn’t look like movie stars of old—for instance, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate—were suddenly staking claim to the public’s attention,” Mark Harris, author of 2009’s Pictures at a Revolution, writes me. “Streisand was one of those stars, and she also exuded a kind of forthrightness—a comfort with her talent, with her voice, with her power—that was perfectly timed to the end of the studio system. Unlike many of the young actresses who had been rising in the decade before her, Streisand didn’t seem molded, shaped, or tamed by anyone. That was an important part of her appeal.”

In Funny Girl, Streisand imbues klutziness with majesty, giving the most minute of emotional inflections a sense of grandness. She even projects this in moments of humor. “That color looks wonderful with your eyes,” Nicky Arnstein (Omar Sharif) says to Streisand’s Brice, a total babe in lilac. “Just my right eye,” she quips. “I hate what it does to the left.”

Funny Girl is a classic star vehicle, the kind one may have found, say, a Susan Hayward in, once upon a time. Indeed, elements of Streisand’s persona recalled a bygone era in American cinema in this period of so many tidal shifts. Streisand both embodied these changes and pushed against them.

Funny Girl was, in many ways, a classic star vehicle, but Streisand wasn’t a classic star,” Harris says. “Audiences weren’t used to seeing someone like her in an expensive, plushly appointed traditional studio musical. To take someone who, a decade earlier, might have been relegated to a career as comic relief or the heroine’s wisecracking best friend and put her at the center of a romantic musical was a revolutionary act, even if in its plot particulars and style, Funny Girl wasn’t a particularly revolutionary movie.”

Revolutionary or not, Streisand won the Oscar for Best Actress in a tie with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter and, afterwards, wandered through musicals built around her persona—Hello, Dolly! (1969), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970)—where she was the main attraction. In Hello, Dolly! she was, at twenty-six, flagrantly miscast but still magnetic as Dolly Levi, written as a widowed matchmaker in 1890s New York. Carol Channing, an actress twenty-one years Streisand’s senior, had originated the role on Broadway. Funnily enough, Channing had also beaten Streisand out for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Hello, Dolly! in 1964.

The films were non-starters, financially and critically. Don’t blame Streisand; the American musical was in decline, considering the failure of all the musicals surrounding it, like 1969’s Sweet Charity with Shirley MacLaine, 1968’s Star and 1970’s Darling Lili with Julie Andrews. Not even America’s biggest star could save this bum genre. 

Evidence of Streisand’s growing range came with a triumvirate of comedies: 1970’s The Owl and the Pussycat and 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? and Up the Sandbox. She plays, respectively, a sex worker, a conwoman, and a Manhattan housewife who, in the midst of her third pregnancy, loses herself in surreal fantasies that include hooking up with Fidel Castro and aborting her baby. In each, hers is a magic that seems nearly impossible to deconstruct, because her energy is so singular, her comic timing note-perfect. “I think she has enormous range,” her Up the Sandbox director, Irvin Kershner, said of Streisand’s abilities. “I think she could do anything.”

Her second Oscar nomination for acting would arrive for 1973’s The Way We Were, Sydney Pollack’s atypical love story of a Jewish woman with Marxist politics and a white bread, dreamboat goy (Robert Redford) who first meet in college in the 1940s. At its heart, the romantic drama is treacly, its politics half-baked. Though it is just under two hours, the movie also feels quite long, zigzagging across eras with a lopsided sense of continuity.

The film itself has an undeniable pull largely because of Streisand, though. Katie Morosky is a consummate Streisand heroine, a character who contains what may be the fullest distillation of the Streisand persona in dramatic form. The Way We Were’s finale, in which Katie looks at Redford’s new shiksa girlfriend and proclaims, “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell,” is a line that’s practically sewn into America’s shared cultural consciousness.

But there’s another scene that stands out even more. It’s just after she offers to have Redford’s character stay the night because he needs a place to crash, even though they haven’t hooked up yet; their attraction had heretofore been expressed in covert glances. Here, though, desire practically spills out of her as she begs him not to leave.

“You can’t, you can’t. I’ve got steaks and baked potatoes and sour cream and chives!” she wails, groceries in one hand, a bouquet of daisies in the other. “Salad and fresh-baked pie. I would’ve made pot roast—I make a terrific pot roast—but I didn’t know whether you’ve ever had pot roast, whether you like pot roast. Either way, it should’ve been made the day before. You can’t go yet! You’ve just gotta stay for supper. That’s all there is to it.”

Streisand approaches the scene with a near-comical sense of anxiety, running through her lines with the fury of an Olympic sprinter. She treats it as if Katie might just die if Hubbell doesn’t stay for dinner that night.

Unfortunately, Streisand’s best dramatic work would largely be behind her after The Way We Were. She lost the Oscar; in an earth-shaking upset, Glenda Jackson won, her second, for A Touch of Class.

Streisand’s next few films were middling. She followed The Way We Were with 1974’s For Petes Sake, a comedy where she was game and appealing, and then reprised the role that made her a star in 1975’s Funny Lady. Most of the films she made after For Petes SakeFunny Lady, 1976’s A Star Is Born, 1979’s The Main Event—were Streisand vehicles where other passengers were basically nonexistent.

Stories of Streisand’s on-set difficulties, her tendency to war with her directors, grew more intense in this period. A Star Is Born was, in particular, a plagued production. “A Star Is Shorn,” a January 1975 cover of New Times Magazine declared, bearing an illustration of Streisand’s bald head. Inside was a scathing story that alleged Streisand had almost single-handedly turned the production, a remake of the 1937 movie that was also remade in 1954, into “Hollywood’s biggest joke.”

To make matters worse, just before its December premiere, the film’s aggrieved director, Frank Pierson, penned an extensive cover story for New West Magazine (and, later, a modified version for New York Magazine) titled “My Battles with Barbra and Jon.” The latter referred to Jon Peters, Streisand’s boyfriend who produced the film along with her. The story contained allegations of Streisand’s explosive temper. In the space of a few thousand words, Pierson confirmed every rumor about Streisand’s behavior as a megalomaniac.

The film was a smash success financially. But absent from A Star Is Born, and other performances in this period, is the sense of vitality and charge that made Streisand so unique and watchable. Even her fans were growing bored. “Again as Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand is no longer human,” Pauline Kael, an early Streisand advocate, would write in her review of Funny Lady. “She’s like a bitchy female impersonator imitating Barbra Streisand.” Hell, she herself was growing bored. “Her commitment was not one-thousand percent to the film,” her Funny Lady director Herbert Ross would say. “Funny Lady was virtually a movie that was made without her.” 

Something about the Streisand America had grown to know and love had changed. She hadn’t exactly flat lined, though; financially speaking, she reigned supreme throughout the decade, as critic Molly Haskell tells me. What drew audiences to her so continually? Maybe it’s the fact that Streisand was, in some skewed way, her era’s Doris Day, Haskell says.

Doris Day was code for that “creaky, sort of prurient cinema in the late fifties and early sixties [new filmmakers] were trying to get away from,” Haskell says. “Streisand was a persona. In a funny kind of way, she’s both Doris Day’s antithesis and an analogue. They both had fantastic musical gifts and began as singers, they both took naturally to the camera. They both had defined personas.”

Hollywood was changing even more aggressively into the late seventies. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese wanted to get away from old-school Hollywood glamour with its stylistic flourishes, from careful and delicate framing to Vaseline lenses. With this shift came a total disruption of the conception of what a star could be, what a star looked like.

Streisand suggested the edginess of an outsider, yet there was something confident and brassy about her that held appeal for mass audiences. There was a touch old-school about her, too, her glamour.

For Streisand, like Day before her, came with her own persona and packaging. Audiences knew what they’d get once they stepped inside the theater and the lights dimmed, and that was reason enough to go to the movies.

*

“What the hell does Barbra Streisand know about directing or editing a movie?” The New York Daily News would ask in its pan of A Star Is Born. The production of that film had, per Pierson’s notorious cover story, been surrounded by rumors that she even insisted on directing portions of the film herself and demanded she receive co-director credit. “I’ve directed at least half of this movie,” she reportedly told Pierson. “I think I should have the credit for it, don’t you?”

She knew quite a bit about directing, it’d turn out. With Yentl, her 1983 directorial debut, Streisand demonstrated she could more than hold her own with the men who’d directed her before. Maybe she was better. 

Streisand had been directing herself in one way or another since 1968. Sure, she’d developed a reputation for tinkering and meddling with a director’s vision. “Barbra’s Directing Her First Movie,” a New York Magazine story from April 1968 by Joyce Haber joked. But she’d always felt she’d guided herself to her best work, her directors be damned. “I never thought about it back then,” she told Stephen Holden in 1991 around the time of the Prince of Tides’ release, “but I was always directing. I always saw how things should be.” 

She’d been fighting the itch to adapt Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1962 short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” since she first read it in 1968. Streisand was utterly transfixed by this story of a shtetl girl in early 1900s Poland who wants to study the Talmud. She faced funding and distribution roadblocks, with Orion Pictures backing out after the titanic failure of 1981’s Heavens Gate, until United Artists stepped in.

There is something enchantingly preposterous about the notion of Streisand, 40 at the time of filming, playing a teenager in Yentl. But she affects anyway. Streisand exhibits a lightness of touch as a director, threading musical numbers with grace and ease into the film’s tangled story of a teenage girl who cosplays as a yeshiva boy. Her performance relies on trademark Streisand mannerisms, like line readings that scale from leisurely to frantic within seconds, but the performance is gentler than the ones she’d given in the years prior, even in 1981’s pleasant but unremarkable comedy All Night Long. 

Yentl suggested that perhaps Streisand knew something her previous directors didn’t, that she could tap into reserves only she knew she had. The film was a critical and commercial juggernaut.

Reviews were largely glowing, even from those who’d been hard on Streisand just years before. “In a Star Is Born and The Main Event,” David Denby would write in his 1983 New York Magazine review of the film, “Movies she starred in, produced, but did not direct, Barbra Streisand seemed to be transforming herself into a monster right before our eyes. The aggressive yet tender funny girl had become hard, blustery, and greedily insensitive.”

But Denby had exceedingly kind words for her directorial debut. To him, Yentl represented a comforting return to form. “[T]he sweetness and even delicacy of her finest moments as a young performer have returned, taken fresh root, and really flowered,” he would observe.

There’s a sense, within these reviews, that Streisand was coming into her own after years of creative stasis, reinvigorating her career. “In fact, it’s possible that Streisand’s directing ability … may transform her movie career,” Gary Arnold would write in The Washington Post. “Ironically, in the process of portraying a girl who aspires to a privileged position traditionally reserved for men, Streisand may have created a new professional and artistic role for herself.”

For Streisand’s critics, though, this wasn’t enough. Bashevis himself was no fan of the end result. “Miss Streisand is always present,” he would say in the New York Times. “While poor Yentl is absent.” She could not win. The Razzies pelted her with a nomination for Worst Actor (not Actress, for the body couldn’t possibly make a joke in good taste).

The greatest insult of all, though, may have been her omission from the list of Best Director nominees at that year’s Academy Awards, in spite of the fact that she’d managed to outright win in the same category at the Golden Globes. Her absence from the Oscar list would blunt the triumph of her being the first woman to win a Golden Globe for directing. It provoked mass outcry, and its effects linger. Streisand would tell Variety earlier this year that she simply saw her omission as “strange,” for it revealed “the sexism. I thought by not being nominated, I put a spotlight on the issue. I thought, ‘Wow. This is so transparent.’”

Streisand became, in other words, a martyr for the cause. This was no more apparent when Streisand presented 2010’s Best Director Academy Award to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the category. Going into that night, Bigelow was the perceived favorite to win. Seeing Streisand on that stage seemed like a symbolic compensatory gesture for the directing nominations that could’ve easily been hers.

She wouldn’t direct her second movie for eight more years; in that intervening period, she acted in 1987’s Nuts, based on a 1979 Tom Topor play about a call girl who’s a survivor of serial sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. This truth trickles out as she stands trial for murdering a client.

The role is the kind that could collapse in the wrong actor’s hands. Sadly, that’s exactly what happens with Streisand. It’s a role that is gerrymandered to engender audience sympathy—or, if you’re an utter cynic, to win awards. She studied hard for it, reportedly hanging around sex workers and mental institutions in Los Angeles; the result is a highwire, strident performance. Even though reviews were charitable, commending her for playing against type so strenuously, time hasn’t been kind to the performance. Streisand is unable to break from her persona, delivering grandstanding monologues in search of an Oscar.

As she was filming Nuts, Streisand found herself drawn to adapting Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel The Prince of Tides. Conroy’s was a dense, diffuse novel about Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), a man from South Carolina and the ghosts from his past he carries with him as an adult football coach and teacher; putting this story to film was a Sisyphean task. 

The film has its grace notes, but much of it is indefensibly maudlin and earnest, operating on a superficial understanding of its principal character’s trauma that pivots around an event buried in his past.  In one scene, Streisand’s character, in the role of Wingo’s therapist-turned-lover, throws a dictionary at her patient’s head in an accidental fury. Streisand pitches another sequence, in which Nolte’s character threatens to throw Streisand’s husband’s precious Stradivarius across a ledge, with such sincerity that the outcome is cringe worthy.

The film was well-received, in any event, and would go on to net three Golden Globe nominations, including one for Streisand’s direction (Nolte would win in the Best Actor, Drama category); a Directors Guild nomination for Streisand; and seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. But, once again, Streisand wasn’t nominated for Best Director.

Streisand’s exclusion from that list, in spite of the film’s Best Picture nomination, was a Rorschach test: To her most firm supporters, it was an oversight tinged with sexism. To her naysayers, it was simply evidence of the Directors’ Branch’s good judgment. “I do not think that people vote or don’t vote because of gender,” Mike Medavoy, then-chairman of TriStar Pictures, told the Los Angeles Times in the aftermath of the nominations. “To say anything else is not to give credit to the people who voted.”

This perceived slight became a cultural punchline. “Seven nominations on the shelf,” Billy Crystal sang in the opening monologue for the Oscars that year. “Did that film direct itself?” Flash cut to Streisand, leaning back in polite, awkward laughter as the audience erupted in applause.

“And to think, a poor little miskite from Brooklyn made this masterpiece, and she’s not getting any recognition for it,” Madonna’s Liz Rosenberg crumples into tears on Saturday Night Live’s Coffee Talk, while Mike Myers’ Linda Richman gets unbearably verklempt. (Moments later, Streisand herself walks on.)

As biographer Thomas Santopietro puts it to me, Streisand possessed a lightness of touch as a filmmaker that’s easily overlooked. She was a more skilled technician than most would’ve liked to admit. “I think she is a very good film director,” he tells me. “Her strengths? She has a great eye for composition. In both Yentl and Prince of Tides, there are a lot of lovely, long, flowing takes. She has a real artistic sensibility about what the screen image should take.”

Santopietro admits that The Mirror Has Two Faces, her 1996 film, does not hold up well. She plays a slovenly English professor flirting with spinsterhood, and it feels like an exorcism of Streisand’s insecurities. 

“Mom?” she’d ask her character’s acerbic mother (Lauren Bacall) in one scene, staring in a mirror. “When I was a baby, did you think I was pretty?” It summons the memory of that exact frame from Funny Girl where she utters “Hello, gorgeous” while glancing at a mirror. But she’s asking for affirmation and flattery here rather than commanding it; it’s a pale simulacrum of that earlier, iconic scene. Watching The Mirror Has Two Faces, one gets the sense that the Streisand fantasy had come full circle and lost its charm.

*

Streisand would meet her man, James Brolin, in 1996, and marry him two years later. She retreated into the comforts of a domestic life in Malibu. She had it all: She got her goy. She decided to direct her energies towards building a new home. “Basically,” as biographer Neal Gabler would write, “She was living with her movie.”

She would return to film after an eight-year hiatus with 2004’s Meet the Fockers, an unchallenging comedy. This fate seems to be an unavoidable condition of growing old in Hollywood, a town where advanced age demands you inhabit films that don’t necessarily deserve you. Just take a look at her costars in the movie, the improbably talented Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Blythe Danner. She’d follow this with 2010’s Little Fockers and 2013’s The Guilt Trip.

These second innings pale in comparison to the first if we’re purely considering the quality of the films themselves, though Streisand is looser and freer in those movies than she was earlier on, less self-serious and strenuous, as if she is done being her worst enemy. She possesses the same game, sly impulses that guided her in the early 1970s. Don’t let the Razzie nomination fool you: She dials it back in The Guilt Trip, tender and hugely entertaining in an otherwise inconsequential mom-son road trip comedy. The Razzie nod seemed like the unfortunate result of a lazy cultural reflex, as if there is no need to take Streisand seriously.

Last we’ve heard, she wants to play Mama Rose in Gypsy, a role originated by Ethel Merman on stage and Rosalind Russell on film. The film lost its backer in 2016. 

Cosmically bored housewife, college Marxist, wannabe yeshiva boy, murderous call girl—Streisand has played it all in nineteen films, though it’s easy to overlook that when the first, and sometimes only, character she plays is Barbra Streisand. Streisand pulls no disappearing acts in the vein of actresses who subsume their own personas as part of her craft to convince audiences that they have fully “become” the women they play. She’s always Streisand. Your mileage may vary.

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