The rise of Barbra Streisand seemed a foregone conclusion. Even from the days of her adolescence, the American star was transparently, unusually talented. By 18, she was making a name for herself as a nightclub singer. By 20, she was singing on Broadway. In 1969, at the age of 26, she won her first Oscar, for her debut film role in Funny Girl, reprising a character she had originated on the stage. Her charisma, in films such as the screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? announced her as a bona fide star. Her singing, on screen and on record, was electrifying and precise. More awards, best-selling albums, and acclaimed directorial credits followed; for a star known as a perfectionist – and, to many, a diva – this all seemed inevitable.
Streisand’s new memoir, My Name is Barbra, does little to disavow you of this impression. Over the course of 992 pages and 60 chapters, the actor and singer, now 81, walks us fastidiously through her life and career. The question of her talent was never really in doubt – for her or for anyone else. In Streisand’s book, though, there’s more than just talent; we are shown graft, intelligence, a winning, rare curiosity. Even for a celebrity memoir, this is a star-studded affair: pages are dedicated to encounters with US presidents (Bill Clinton and a fondly remembered JFK), kings (Charles III and Elvis Presley), and, of course, her Hollywood contemporaries. She remembers chatting about gardens with future friend (and future king) Charles, and getting Kennedy to sign an autograph to her mother (prompting her to remark, “You’re a doll” to the sitting president.... “Frankly, it just slipped out.”)
There are several different forms a celebrity memoir can take. For filmmakers, the richest examples are often granular, revealing insights into the movie-making process, a book such as Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies being a prime example. Others, usually actors, opt for a more lighthearted, gossipy approach, dishing dirt about onset flings and feuds (or, in the case of Brian Cox’s recent book, simply shooting from the hip with intra-industry put downs). And then there’s the third tack: blunt candour (such as Britney Spears’s recent excoriating The Woman in Me). In stretches, My Name is Barbra mixes all of these approaches. For diehard fans, it’s illuminating. As a resource for future biographers, invaluable. But for everyone else, it’s… a little long.
For the most part, Streisand writes glowingly of her collaborators, with passages of the book dedicated to reminiscing about her work with the late Stephen Sondheim on The Broadway Album and other musical recordings. She relished working with James Caan and Ray Charles, and describes giving an over-enthusiastic back massage to Robert De Niro while making Meet the Fockers (“To this day my left thumb joint has never recovered”). In an early chapter, she hits back at the framing of her rivalry with the older Judy Garland, whom she describes as “generous”. At several points in the book, Streisand seems frustrated with the media’s coverage of her. On being directed by William Wyler in Funny Girl, she explains: “It pains me to read that I was telling him, and [cinematographer Harry Stradling], what to do. It was the beginning of the diva myth that has followed me all my life.”
Streisand’s accounts of working with Wyler, a formidable director of his time, show clearly the roots of her later career as a filmmaker herself. (Her oeuvre includes the 1983 period musical Yentl, and the 1991 romantic drama The Prince of Tides.) Not content to just perform, Streisand was always drawn to the decision-making behind the camera, something that rankled with the Hollywood boys’ club. She describes being undermined on the set of Prince of Tides, noting: “I doubt that this kind of thing happens to Martin Scorsese.”
Though generally ungrudging in her assessments of people, Streisand is willing to name names when she feels appropriate. Original Funny Girl co-star Sydney Chaplin emerges from the book terribly. “He did everything he could to upset me. It was as if he wanted to annihilate me. Sydney made me physically ill,” she writes. Walter Matthau too, a friend of Chaplin’s, is called out, having first introduced himself to her with a crass joke about her nose. A Star is Born director Frank Pierson is, says Streisand, a “pathological liar”, while a rebuffed Mandy Patinkin was sulky and difficult on the set of Yentl. Marlon Brando gets his own chapter, with the Method actor’s complex, sexually charged friendship rendered in fascinating detail.
Streisand’s personal relationships are also exhumed, although we are given a somewhat redacted autopsy. Her marriages to Elliott Gould and James Brolin feature, as do a run of other dalliances, including with producer Jon Peters and Miami Vice’s Don Johnson (“I can’t be with a man who is not straight with me emotionally,” she says brutally of the latter). Sometimes, your guess is as good as hers: “Did I sleep with Warren [Beatty]? I kind of remember. I guess I did. Probably once.”
The sheer heft of Streisand’s book will likely put off some fans; clocking in at over 1.4kg, My Name is Barbra is a heifer of a read. The prose throughout is clean and unfussy, though seldom chatty. With the extra girth comes weightier expectations, and while the book obviously holds deep significance to its author – Streisand has been working on the memoir for a quarter of a century – this is rarely more profound or revealing than other far shorter celeb-penned books out this year. Streisand said in a recent interview that she hasn’t “had much fun in her life”. Reading the memoir, it’s hard to believe this was the case – though you’re left with the impression that fun has never been as important to her as the work.
The book begins with Streisand’s nose – that famous nose – and she mentions it again in the closing pages. “I became a movie star, even though I didn’t fit the conventional image ... me with my asymmetrical face, my notable nose ... and my big mouth,” she jokes. But it feels trite. The thousand-odd pages in between narrate the life of a woman whose facial features could not have been more irrelevant to her gifts. Perhaps that’s ultimately the thing with My Name is Barbra: there’s no real way of translating Streisand’s captivating screen power to print. Even with 1,000 words more, I don’t think you could manage it.
‘My Name is Barbra’ is out now in hardback, published by Penguin Random House