Thursday, December 13, 2012


BARBRA HAD MET the blond, boyishly handsome twenty-nine-year-old O’Neal at a dinner party in Hollywood a year earlier, and sparks had flown between them immediately. She found herself attracted to Ryan’s healthy physicality and surfer-boy looks, which fit right in with her new image as a slim, tanned, long-haired, blond-streaked California girl. An ex-boxer, O’Neal made her feel physically safe when they went out together. And he had quite a reputation as a sexual swordsman. “He’s an incredible lover, totally devoted to giving a woman pleasure,” vouched his first wife, the actress Joanna Moore.
     O’Neal had gained a strong fan following in the mid-sixties by appearing in over five hundred episodes of television’s popular nighttime soap opera Peyton Place as stud-louse Rodney Harrington. In 1970 he got his big break in movies and made the most of it: his role in the wildly popular tearjerker Love Story won him a Best Actor nomination.
     Because O’Neal had not yet divorced his second wife, the lovely actress Leigh Taylor-Young, Barbra and Ryan attempted to keep their relationship under wraps. They were successful for a while, but when they showed up together at a party, then attended a James Taylor concert together in Los Angeles, a buzz began. On January 10, 1971, they went to a private dinner party, then to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for a Mama Cass Elliot concert. Ryan’s younger brother, Kevin, went along as a beard: he was supposed to be Barbra’s date, and Ryan their chaperon.
     Peter Borsari, one of the Hollywood paparazzi, tried to take a picture of Barbra and Ryan together as they left the party, but they refused and ran to their car. Borsari followed them to the concert, waited until they came out, and tried again. Kevin O’Neal grabbed Borsari’s camera.
     “Don’t fight me. I can sue,” the photographer yelled.
     “You can sue me for as much as you want,” Kevin shouted back, throwing a punch. “I don’t have any money anyway.”
     Borsari’s camera was damaged, and Barbra and Ryan wound up splashed across the front pages of the national tabloids. The more cynical Hollywood gossips tittered that Barbra Streisand had found herself a toy boy, a cute hunk with a hard body and not much upstairs, and that Ryan O’Neal had linked himself up with the most powerful actress in Hollywood to further his career.
     The cynics had it wrong. “Barbra’s far too bright to ever be with somebody just because he’s a hunk.” said Steve Jaffe, Ryan’s public relations man at the time. “And Barbra had a lot of choices of men she could have dated. I’d be at her house and the phone calls that would come in! Extraordinary men would be on the line. But she wanted Ryan, and it wasn’t just for his body.”
     Although Jaffe saw “a wonderful physicality between the two of them, like two fighters sparring,” he felt that Ryan’s attractiveness to Barbra was based on “his wit, his charm, his mind, and then his good looks. Ryan has an incredibly quick wit, and the mental sparring between him and Barbra was fantastic because she’s incredibly responsive to quick-witted people. Ryan made her laugh a lot, which she loved, particularly because most people were afraid to be themselves around her, and that deprived her of a lot of humor.” Barbra loved the fact that Ryan rarely used her real name; instead he’d call her Ceil or Hilda or Sadie.
     According to Jaffe, Ryan had a lot to teach Barbra. “Ryan O’Neal is a philosopher by nature. He liked to expound on things, and his opinions sounded like they’d been tested. He knew where the bodies were buried and how you could get into trouble in Hollywood. Barbra would soak it all up like a sponge.”
     “Ryan and I had an argument on our first date,” Barbra said. “He won. I never felt better losing.... Ryan isn’t afraid of my image; he respects my talent, but he’s not in awe of my career. I guess that’s what made me like him at first.”
     The romance blossomed through the early months of 1971. The couple held hands at parties, went shopping together, and played on the beach in Malibu with Jason. On June 14, Barbra performed five songs and her marijuana routine at a Los Angeles fund-raiser to benefit the Motion Picture and TV Relief Fund. For most of the show she and Ryan sat in the front row, holding hands and watching performances by Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, the Fifth Dimension, and other acts. After Barbra’s performance, the next-to-last of the evening, she rejoined Ryan to watch Frank Sinatra give what was billed as his farewell performance. (He later un-retired.)
     Four nights later Ryan escorted Barbra to the opening of his latest film, The Wild Rovers. This time the couple let themselves be photographed, and newspapers across the country ran the pictures under headlines like “A New Love Story.” By now neither Barbra nor Ryan cared who knew about their relationship. They were young, in love—and about to start a movie together.

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