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Though she has a new Christmas album out this week, Barbra Streisand's first priority is house and husband.


Goodbye, Dolly?

When the notoriously driven Barbra Streisand hinted four years ago that she felt ready to begin easing up on her career, there were probably more howls of disbelief than the last time Elizabeth Taylor declared her latest marriage was the one that was going to last forever.

During the making of nearly 20 films and almost three times that many albums, Streisand developed a reputation for being such a control freak (she prefers "perfectionist") that for many she became a caricature of the career-obsessed Hollywood star.

Even when she married actor James Brolin three years ago, most people probably thought she'd take a few months off, then be back at the storyboards.

But except for "farewell" concerts last year in Los Angeles and New York, she has been fairly silent.

Many Streisand-watchers may see the release of a new Christmas album earlier this week as a sign that she is finally picking up the pace again.

Don't bet on it.

"I like being semiretired," Streisand says softly, sitting in the living room of "Grandma's House," the name Brolin gave to one of the three houses in their Malibu compound. It's a room decorated in comfy New England style and filled with the figurines and family photos that grandmothers favor.

Streisand, 59 and widely regarded as the female pop voice of her generation, is comfortable with both terms--"Grandma's House" and "semiretirement."

In a show-business world where each hyphen by your career accomplishments means more power, Streisand pushed the boundaries for women by becoming a singer-sometimes songwriter-actress-director-producer-Broadway star-concert performer.

It's a body of work, including the films "Funny Girl," "Hello, Dolly!" and "Yentl," that earned her two Oscars, eight Grammys and the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute--the first female director to receive that honor.

Now she seems content with one title: wife.

She still has her motion picture and television production company, Barwood Films Ltd., which has won Emmys for such projects as NBC's "Serving in Silence" and HBO's "City at Peace"

It's just her own plate that is largely bare.

"What would you say Marlon Brando does?" she asks. "If he is offered a great role, he plays it. If I get passionate about something that works out with people who aren't afraid of me, I'll direct another film and I will make more albums. But I don't pursue anything that vehemently anymore."

The difference is that Brando is almost 80, where Streisand is in the same age bracket as such active pop-rock figures as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.

"It is true about artists sublimating a lot of their sadness into being busy with work," she says. "When you get a happier life, you don't have the need to express yourself in another way. You express yourself with the people you love.

"Woody Allen asked me about a movie, but I didn't want to give up my summer," she continues. "I care about my personal life more than my work now. I didn't want to be away from Jim for four months."

She hopes, however, to sing a patriotic number during the Emmy ceremony on Sunday, if she can shake the flu that she has been fighting this week. "There's something very beautiful about the diversity and generosity of this country, the way everybody really did bond together in mutual grief after Sept. 11," Streisand said during the interview, which was conducted Oct. 22.

The only reason she is doing an interview now is to promote "Christmas Memories," her first such collection since 1967's "A Christmas Album," one of the most popular holiday packages ever. It has sold more than 5 million copies and continues to add 100,000 or more to the total annually.

Normally, she'd be spending this afternoon in her rose garden, which she oversees with the help of an expert who comes down once a week from Santa Barbara, or throwing herself into some home project.

"There are plenty of things for me to still be compulsive about around the house," she says, as relaxed as her surroundings in the late afternoon. "I bought a portrait recently of George Washington that was painted during his lifetime. It's hanging in Mount Vernon now, but when I hang it back in my house, I want it next to this chair, which is also from the 18th century.

"I'm trying to find the right navy velvet so it'll be the color of his jacket and I want just the right gold thread so I can put his initials on a pillow."

She smiles at the attention to detail.

"That's just me, the perfectionist, and it takes a lot of time."

That attitude is also present in the new album.

Typically, Christmas albums are thrown together quickly. Someone will come up with a list of old favorites (even Elvis Presley did "Winter Wonderland"), whip up some familiar arrangements and wrap the whole thing up in a couple of weeks. Pop fans aren'tthinking about art on Christmas morning, just some comforting tunes.

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