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Barbra Streisand, circa 1960's. Photo: Screen Archives/Getty Images

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How Streisand’s Life Story, ‘My Name is Barbra,’ Eats Up 1,000 Pages

The singer, actress and director writes about sexism in Hollywood, her neglectful mother, deep insecurities – and did we mention food? / BY Elizabeth Renzetti / December 14th, 2023


The first thing you should know is that Barbra Streisand is hungry. For artistic success? For acclaim? For gender equality and world peace? For a cloned dog? Yes, all of those things. But mainly she is just hungry. For Brazilian coffee ice cream (always two cones). For the egg rolls she loved in in her Brooklyn youth. For pastries and pastrami and scones with strawberries. She knew she was in love with her husband, James Brolin, when she gave him the last bite of her favourite dessert, molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.

I cannot tell you how refreshing it is, in the pinch-faced era of Ozempic, to have a major female star revel in her love of eating. I found myself scribbling the word “food” over and over in the margins of her massive new autobiography, My Name is Barbra. I would write “food” and then head off to the kitchen myself in search of the sustenance needed to heft a nearly 1,000-page book. But I adore Streisand, and always have, so I was thrilled to be nearly crushed by the endless details of her clothing, her affairs, her recordings, her feuds, her campaigns for justice, and her dog Sammie (who died, and returned as two cloned pups.)

 

Barbra Streisand

 

If any life deserves 1,000 pages, it’s Streisand’s. Not just to contain the triumphs – the many awards and top-selling records, the distinction of being the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a feature film with Yentl – but also the contradictions, which are more interesting. She is a gourmand who doesn’t cook, a glamour puss haunted by the belief she isn’t pretty, a singer who is afraid of performing, a world traveler who hates flying, a titan of self-belief plagued by self-doubt.

“At the core of my being are two fundamental qualities …  a confidence in myself and also a deep insecurity,” she writes. This insecurity is founded on the early loss of her father, a thoughtful scholar, and the neglect of her mother, who never realized her own dreams of becoming a singer. “Neglect” is actually too kind a word. Streisand tries to be generous about her mother, but the woman seems to have been a monster. She disparaged her brilliant daughter in the press, missed the opening night of her star-making Broadway turn in Funny Girl, and once asked, “Why would they pay you so much to sing?” She also – and I cannot believe I’m typing this, or that Streisand lived through it – would cut out the negative reviews of her daughter’s performances and mail them to her. No wonder Babs turned to crullers.

 

Barbra Streisand
Streisand, who played the starring role of Fanny Brice in ‘Funny Girl’ on Broadway in 1964, won an Oscar for the same role in the 1968 film. Photo: Bettman/Getty Images

 

Some people experience that kind of pain and crumple, and others brush the hair off Robert Redford’s forehead and make movie history. Bob was a dreamboat during the making of The Way We Were, Nick Nolte adored her on the set of The Prince of Tides, and Jeff Bridges was a complete mensch when she directed him in The Mirror Has Two Faces. But they were the exceptions in male-dominated Hollywood, which did not like to take orders from this Brooklyn upstart. Mandy Patinkin was a pill and drove her crazy during Yentl, and Walter Matthau, fuming during Hello Dolly, told Streisand, “I have more talent in my farts than you have in your whole body.” Get those farts an agent, because they’d have to be talented indeed!

That sexism prevented Hollywood executives from seeing the promise in a project like Yentl, the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to study the Torah. “I was an actress, as far as the men who ran the studios were concerned, and I should stay in my place. … These men seemed to have the antiquated notion of an actress as some sort of frivolous creature who could not be fiscally responsible. I thought the Victorian era was over, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to them.” Yentl was a hit, but at Oscar time Streisand was robbed of a best director nomination. Later, The Prince of Tides was nominated for seven Oscars, but Streisand was again snubbed as director, leading Billy Crystal to sing at the ceremony, “Did this film direct itself?”

 

Barbra Streisand
Streisand, who was the first woman to direct, produce, write and star in a feature film, played a girl who passes as a boy in order to study the Torah in 1983’s “Yentl.” Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A lesser personality would have been crushed, but if there’s anything Streisand is not it’s lesser. Instead, she became a crusader for women’s rights in Hollywood and in politics. If we could distill her confidence and bottle it as a cologne, it would sell a million bottles. I mean, who else asks Stephen Sondheim to rewrite the lyrics of his songs for her? (He did, over and over again.) Who else would have the nerve to phone Bill Clinton – when he was running a country! – to tell him he did not seem contrite enough in his apology to the American people over his affair with Monica Lewinsky? Is it any wonder that when President Obama summed up her achievements while giving her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, he said “That’s what’s called chutzpah.”

But it’s not just chutzpah. As Streisand makes clear throughout her memoir, she has an almost pathological need for truth-telling. She keeps coming back to one of her favourite lines, from George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan: “He who tells too much truth is sure to be hanged.” And when it’s a “she” telling the truth, the gallows is already waiting. Streisand may be a perfectionist, but she takes umbrage at the slur “difficult.” She’s not difficult to work with, she just wants everything to be as ideal as it is in her mind’s eye. It’s a hunger, insatiable and necessary, that drives her. We’re just lucky to be invited to share her feast.

 

THE SCROLL

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