Book Review | She Came, She Sang, She Conquered

By | Jan 14, 2024
Arts, Book Review, Featured, Winter 2024
Barbra Streisand looking to her right, in a black and white photo. Only the left side of her face is visible

My Name Is Barbra
By Barbra Streisand
Viking, 992 pp.

My parents were blue-collar Jews who escaped the Bronx for the gentle summer breezes and harsh winter storms of upstate New York. Dad was a television repairman back in the days when TVs were actually reparable, Mom a part-time secretary in a doctor’s office, and the only club they had the social standing and resources to belong to was the Columbia Record Club, which mailed them a discounted album each month.

One day in early 1963, The Barbra Streisand Album showed up among my mom’s modest collection of Broadway show tunes and ancient lacquered 78s. The young woman on the cover had a Jewish nose and full, oval lips, and she sang with a Brooklyn accent and an attitude that declared, “Hear my voice, I come from the same world you do, no compromise, no disguise.” The record started out with “Cry Me a River,” a stinging ballad that Streisand delivered with bitter irony, and included an extraordinarily moving “Happy Days Are Here Again,” slowed down to capture fully the aching longing of each line. Mom played the album almost every day for a month or more.

Sixty years later, Barbra Streisand (I was sure they’d spelled her first name wrong on the album cover) remains the single most powerful and enduring female Jewish cultural figure of my lifetime. Her body of work includes some 70 albums; 19 movies, three of which she directed herself; countless live performances; and a long record of raising and donating millions to philanthropic and political causes. Along the way, she made many allies, had almost as many detractors and overcame countless obstacles—mostly in the form of influential male gatekeepers who sought to rein her in even while exploiting her remarkable talent. And she attracted a vast following of dedicated fans, most of them women, many of them Jewish—along with many gay men—who saw in her not just a cultural icon but someone whose life story embodied the same dreams and frustrations as their own.

Now in the twilight of an extraordinary career, she has come forward with an epic 992-page saga of her life and struggle (also available in a marathon 48-hour audiobook narrated by guess who?).

Streisand by Streisand is part complaint, part confessional, part self-celebration. It teems with her insecurities, her supreme self-regard, her deepest obsessions and her bottomless well of grievances. As with her life itself, there’s no compromise. She tells it her way, with seemingly little editing, no index and no easing of her infinite need for total control—qualities that have helped make her so successful and so deeply annoying.

A lobby card from Streisand’s Yentl. Photo credit: Ricardo Pablo (cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

For loyal fans, the book is a generous gift. But there’s much value here for the rest of us as well—an insider’s look at her storied career and at Broadway and Hollywood during the years when each was at its most powerful and influential.

Our narrator doesn’t waste any time in telling us what most bugs her. Page one opens with a list of disparaging comments in early days from critics about her looks: “an amiable anteater,” “a furious hamster,” “a seasick ferret.” Time magazine called her nose “a shrine” but went on to note, “The face it divides is sad, and the look in repose is the essence of hound.” She confesses, “I wish I could say none of this affected me but it did then and it still does.”

Early on, she lays out her grievances about her Flatbush childhood, about her distant, coldly critical mother and her verbally abusive stepfather, a sourpuss who came on the scene after her brilliant, loving dad died of complications from a seizure when she was 15 months old. Her stepfather’s rejection marked the moment, Streisand says, when she “unconsciously decided that I would never lower myself for any man.” Still, she doesn’t linger on the dearth of money and warmth. New York City offered a wide range of theater, music and cinema even for those in the cheap seats. By the time she was 14, she had scraped together the money for acting classes. But it was her ethereal singing voice—a three-octave range and the lung power to hold a note for three weeks—that first brought her attention and raves in the cheap nightclubs of Greenwich Village.

Streisand graduated from high school a few months before her 17th birthday and never spent a day in a college classroom, heading off instead to Manhattan. She got herself an agent and had her first love affair, dropped the second “a” from her first name just to be different, rejected repeated advice to get her nose fixed and landed her first national TV appearance on the Jack Paar show.

She was 19.

Her rise was meteoric. That first album won three Grammys in 1964, including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance. In her first Broadway appearance, as a supporting character in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, she brought down the house with her only solo number. Soon after, she was cast in the Broadway musical Funny Girl and played Fanny Brice for 21 months to sold-out houses. Then she played her again in the movie adaptation, winning an Academy Award for Best Actress in her first feature film. She moved to Hollywood, starred in a string of hit movies including The Owl and the Pussycat and What’s Up, Doc?, two vastly entertaining comedies released in 1970 and 1972, and The Way We Were, the 1973 romantic tearjerker costarring Robert Redford.

A 1962 portrait of Streisand. (Photo credit: LOC)

They say A-list Hollywood celebrities often turn into ego monsters because they are surrounded by enablers who never tell them no. But Streisand faced down many men who thought they could bully her into submission. Her enemies list includes producer Ray Stark, who derided her talent while forcing her into one-sided contracts; Sydney Chaplin, her costar in Funny Girl, who viciously abused her after she rejected his advances; Walter Matthau, her Hello, Dolly! costar, who exploded at her on the set for her constant suggestions—“Why don’t you shut up and let the director direct?”; Mike Wallace, who made her cry during a 60 Minutes interview by quoting her mother saying Barbra “hasn’t got time to be close to anyone”; and Larry Kramer, who undermined her efforts to bring his landmark 1985 play The Normal Heart to the screen.

The most obnoxious of these characters was her decade-long partner Jon Peters, a reckless narcissist whose capacity for self-absorption was as Herculean as her own. The former hairdresser did for a time what no other man could do: He dominated her, taking over as her manager and business partner and using her as a springboard for his own ambitions. She says she eventually concluded he was a liar and a thief and dumped him, but she mostly ignores her own bad behavior during their years as Hollywood’s most infuriating couple.

Together they did a remake of A Star Is Born (1976) as a rock ’n’ roll tragedy. Critics skewered it as a vanity project, and director Frank Pierson publicly called it the “nightmare that has no end.”

Still, audiences showed up in large enough numbers to make it her most financially successful movie. Her own self-serving conclusion: “I’ve found that the best way to please an audience is to please myself.”

The making of Yentl, which she co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in, is in many ways the highlight of the book because it brings together so many of the main themes in her life and her work: her Jewish heritage, her longing to honor her late father, her dogged determination to overcome all obstacles and prove her critics wrong. The movie took her 15 years to make, beginning in 1968 when she first came across a copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, about a young Jewish woman in 19th-century Poland who poses as a man to study Torah. She fought with various studio heads who warned her the story was too Jewish and too obscure to succeed at the box office. She finally got one to agree to back the film if she turned it into a musical, worked within a shoestring budget, put up a half million of her own money and surrendered the right of final cut to the studio.

Yentl is in many ways an old-fashioned melodrama, but with a distinctly modern layer of gender and sexual ambiguity. Yentl, the young woman pretending to be a man, falls in love with Avigdor, her handsome study partner. Avigdor loves Hadass, his beautiful new bride, but begins to have feelings for Yentl—as does Hadass. And Yentl develops feelings for her. Streisand’s richly layered screenplay, her fine performance and those of Amy Irving and Mandy Patinkin tease out the humor and the longing in this ultra-Orthodox menage a trois.

The movie won Streisand Best Director and Best Picture at the Golden Globes, but she was devastated when the film wasn’t nominated for Oscars in those categories. She quotes critic Gregg Kilday of The Washington Post, who wrote that Hollywood wasn’t ready to celebrate a strong-willed woman for directing, producing, writing and starring in a movie of her own and that Jews in the Motion Picture Academy did not “look kindly on a fellow Jew who dares to raise the issue of Jewish identity in the midst of popular entertainment.” But she takes solace from her buddy Steven Spielberg. “Don’t change a frame,” he tells her after she shows him a preview. In interviews he called Yentl “the best directorial debut since Citizen Kane.”

Early in the book Streisand confesses that “I’m very attracted to attractive men,” and she backs it up with a long list of romances and flings, from Elliott Gould, her first husband, to Anthony Newley, Pierre Trudeau, Omar Sharif, Ryan O’Neal, Kris Kristofferson, Don Johnson, Andre Agassi and many (many) others. She didn’t sleep with Marlon Brando, she says, although God knows he tried—he was too intimidating and weird even for her. She applauds some of the great men who helped her along the way, including movie director William Wyler, who collaborated on Funny Girl and set her on the path to direct her own films; and Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, who even acceded to her insistence that he write new lyrics—new Stephen Sondheim lyrics!—for “Send in the Clowns” for her 1985 album of show tunes.

For those seeking a nuanced perspective on Streisand’s life and times, I refer you to cultural historian Neal Gabler’s brilliant Jewish Lives book, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power. At 296 pages it’s a fast read—and it has endnotes and an index! Still, for genuine Barbra fans and fanatics, the 992-page opus is the must-read. She’s the female version of Julius Caesar: She came, she saw, she conquered, although, as with Caesar, she was feared more than loved by many of her peers. Perhaps that’s the price of glory—and there’s no doubt that Barbra Streisand is glorious.

Glenn Frankel, a Moment contributing writer, is the author of three books of Hollywood history. 

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2 thoughts on “Book Review | She Came, She Sang, She Conquered

  1. Charles Saydah says:

    Any idea how Streisand could recognize her biological father as brilliant when he kicked off before she was a year and a half?

  2. Rand Tenor says:

    My cousin saw her in Greenwich Village when she was just starting out in the 1950s. They were both from Brooklyn and about the same age.

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