Barbra Streisand’s Memoir Is Long And Dishy. Here Are The Highlights.

 

BY LOUIS BAYNARD

In ‘My Name Is Barbra,’ the singer and actress opens up about her life before and since becoming a star'

In case you haven’t heard, Barbra Streisand’s memoir, decades in the making, has just landed like a meteorite in a bookstore near you. It is 970 pages long. (The audiobook is 48 hours.) I have spent the past several days reading it, so perhaps you don’t have to, though there is a lot to love in it (for everyone but Mandy Patinkin and some others). Here are some thoughts and highlights plucked from the sprawl.

Books that are (just) longer than ‘My Name Is Barbra’

“A la récherche du temps perdu,” by Marcel Proust.
“Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand.
“Battlefield Earth,” by L. Ron Hubbard.
“Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace.

Why ‘My Name Is Barbra’ is so long

Because (a) she has a heap more cultural mileage than Britney Spears, who, at 41, just brought out the season’s other big pop-star memoir, and because (b) she came up alongside Bob Dylan and the Beatles, when America was getting its rock-and-roll on, and she was all Broadway and Great American Songbook, and (c) it should never have worked, but it did, and (d) she wound up being the only recording artist to have a No. 1 album across six consecutive decades, and (e) along the way, she became one of our biggest movie stars and … see, if I need to explain the relevance of this doorstop, it’s probably not for you in the first place.

Nor is it for you if you voted for Donald Trump (“a one-man weapon of mass destruction”) or recoil at extended Clinton-family anecdotes (“That’s when I bumped into Hillary’s mom”) or lack a certain curiosity about how “The Prince of Tides” was made. Also, you must let Barbra brag on herself, not directly but in the form of an ongoing fount of testimonials from the many people who have been touched by her, and you are one of them, because, when it comes to loving Barbra, you are, to quote the title of her biggest-selling album, guilty. And you are wondering how, given her well-documented perfectionism and her official status as lone author, she even allowed this book to get out in the world. Because surely she’s already calling it back?

Origin story

This, too, is known to you if you love Barbra. She was an impoverished product of the Brooklyn projects. Her father, a gentle teacher, died when she was 15 months old. On the rebound, her mother married a loutish car salesman with the Dickensian last name of Kind. Also Dickensian: Barbra’s only doll growing up was a hot-water bottle wrapped in a knitted wool sweater. She grew up essentially unparented, no rules or expectations, worked as a cashier at a Chinese restaurant, took acting classes, graduated from high school, then sprinted for Manhattan to make a name for herself. “I have to become famous,” she remembers thinking in her tiny third-floor walk-up, “so I can get somebody else to make my bed.”

No 10,000-hour rule for Babs

Streisand performed without distinction in her high school choir and left in the middle of her first and only singing lesson. She never learned to read music. When friends persuaded her to sing in a local talent contest, she didn’t labor over her instrument for 10,000 hours; she simply unpacked it for a waiting public. Listening now to her live recordings from the Bon Soir, the Greenwich Village nightclub that launched her, it’s astonishing to find one of popular music’s supreme voices already in full flower at age 20: range, passion, control, color, dynamic variety, pinpoint intonation, an uninterrupted continuum between head and chest voice. You’d think singing was the easiest thing in the world.

In 1964, at 21, she was the commanding lead in a Broadway musical. At 25, she was bringing that same musical, “Funny Girl,” to the screen in one of the most assured film debuts ever. (She split the best actress Oscar with Katharine Hepburn.) “I had a vision,” she writes, “and sometimes I think I willed it all into coming true.”

Things you might not have known

She went to high school with Bobby Fischer. (“He wasn’t very friendly.”) She grew her nails long so she’d never have to type. She suffers from chronic tinnitus. She never cared for her given name, so she shaved off an “a,” but she held on to her last name because “how would my old friends know it was me, once I became famous?” It still infuriates her that people don’t pronounce that name correctly. It’s STRY-sand, and it’s “sand” as in beach. If you loved her, you would know this.

Barbra and Judy

Streisand’s 1963 guest spot on “The Judy Garland Show” is one of the most storied crossings in show-business lore. Watch it just for Barbra’s superb take on “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” (perhaps her greatest live performance) and for the contrapuntal joining (Garland’s idea) of their signature songs, “Get Happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again.” The affection between the two women is real; the differences couldn’t be starker. Judy is a chain of nerve endings: warmth, hilarity, anxiety, touch. (“She never let go of me until the end of the song,” Streisand recalls.) Barbra is a study in self-possession: She could be making this same sound in an empty room.

They embody the two paths available to huge talents. One leads outward toward ecstatic connection and, ultimately, annihilation; the other inward, toward mystery and preservation and, ultimately, solipsism. “You will learn and you will love,” Tennessee Williams wrote of Streisand, “but you will not get close.” And this is perhaps why Streisand — like Madonna — has been so preeminently a survivor. She has always kept some part of herself for herself.

That has its risks, too. The vulnerability and sensuality that characterize her early film work ebb away through the years, and you feel, in her close descriptions of making a movie like “Yentl,” how deeply she welcomes the power and omniscience that directing brings her. “I like to be in control,” she writes, and even if you don’t love her, you know that about her.

What Barbra wants …

She asked Stephen Sondheim to rewrite whole lyrics for her, and he complied. The day before her 1998 wedding to James Brolin, she asked the major news networks not to fly helicopters over her house, and they complied. When she found out Siri was saying her name wrong, she called Apple CEO Tim Cook and asked him to fix it, and he complied.

Things she’s still second-guessing

Why is her hair in “Funny Girl” so big? Why didn’t director Sydney Pollack take away her handkerchief during the big crying scene in “The Way We Were”? (“I can’t believe how long my hand is in front of my face.”) Why didn’t she sing the movie’s title song at the Oscars? Why weren’t there more reaction shots in the final number of “A Star Is Born”? What about those two scenes cut from “Yentl”?

Keep ’em in stitches

Beatnik kook was her earliest persona, and her intuitive comic timing still makes “Funny Girl” a genuinely funny experience. Yet early interviewers struggled to get anything amusing out of her, and the humor of “What’s Up, Doc?” seems to have eluded her, though she is charming in it. She admits that jokes have to be explained to her, and “I don’t think most things are funny.” In short, she has always been dead serious, and that quality carries into her political discourse, which occupies the same large chunks of the book as it has in her life.

People who come off well

First husband Elliott Gould (though he gambled).
Jerome Robbins (a horror to others but beloved of Barbra).
Donna Summer. (“She was a doll.”)
Pat Conroy (“dear friend,” “great writer”).
Every cinematographer who said yes.

People who don’t

Agent Sue Mengers, who turned down roles without permission.
Richard Gere, who turned down the chance to be her “Yentl” co-star.
Actual “Yentl” co-star Mandy Patinkin, who allegedly told her, “I thought we were going to have an affair.”

Every cinematographer who said no.

Men in her life

Pierre Trudeau. (“My brain was in love, but not my body.”)
Ryan O’Neal. (“I think I was too serious.”)
Warren Beatty. (“Did I sleep with Warren? I kind of remember. I guess I did. Probably once.”)
Don Johnson. (“Fun while it lasted.”)
Andre Agassi. (“He was very in the moment, with that deep animal groan as he hit the ball.”)

Movies she turned down

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
The Jane Fonda trinity of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”; “Klute”; and “Julia.”

Movies she wishes she’d turned down

“Hello, Dolly!”
“For Pete’s Sake.”
“All Night Long.” (Deeply underrated, if you ask me.)

Things rich and famous people get to say

“Whoopi Goldberg kindly lent me her bus and drivers ...”
“Pierre Cardin gave a party for us at Maxim’s ...”
“My friend Donna Karan and I went up to Deepak Chopra’s institute in Massachusetts for a retreat ...”
“As the pilot was revving up the engines and getting ready to taxi out, I called, ‘Stop the plane!’ I had ordered scones with fresh strawberries and clotted cream as a treat for everyone, and the scones had arrived but not the cream.”

“Apparently no one brings a dog to the White House, but I didn’t know that.”

Do you know how wonderful you are?

That question was posed to her at the Bon Soir by lyricist and future bestie Marilyn Bergman, and the book, as if to reassure Streisand, keeps rushing in with new testimonials; but, to cite another of her songs, when is enough enough? Maybe now we should speak of Barbra’s mom: an avid amateur singer herself who offered her daughter no support or approval growing up, who blew off the opening night of “Funny Girl” and missed no opportunity to bring her child down a peg. And if she hadn’t? “You get great art only from mutilated egos,” Camille Paglia once said. “Only mutilated egos are obsessive enough.” From here it’s a short step to young Streisand: “I always knew it was all or nothing for me. I had to go right to the top or into another profession.”

The gift

We like to think that, if people are really good at something, they’ll want to keep doing it because it brings the world joy. Not Streisand, who treats singing like the job it has always been. “I don’t sing at home,” she writes, “I don’t sing in the shower, and I don’t sing at parties.” She goes on tour when she wants to buy a painting. The book’s most surprising chapter details her rather passionate (though unconsummated) friendship with Marlon Brando, who despised and slighted his own gift. “We should have done more when we were younger,” he tells her, had a lot of sex, “had children. Go kiss yourself in the mirror for me.”

Barbra and her gay men

We were there from the start, weren’t we? At least one of her earliest mentors was gay. The Lion, where she won her first talent contest, was a gay bar, though it took her a second to figure it out. The boys who flocked to see her at the Bon Soir were gay, and so is a solid proportion of her concert audiences, as she well knows. We’re all out there listening, watching — and reading her book, even through all its fatuities. What do we find in her that we don’t find anywhere else? Are we hoping that when we finally open our mouths, something will come out, some music, that the world can’t help but love?

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