Bar­bra Streisand: Redefin­ing Beau­ty, Fem­i­nin­i­ty, and Power

Neal Gabler
  • Review
By – July 21, 2016

Well-regard­ed for his books on the enter­tain­ment indus­try, Neal Gabler now turns his atten­tion to the career of Bar­bra Streisand. In ten brief Yid­dish/Y­ing­lish-titled chap­ters, Gabler reviews Streisand’s life, from her scrap­py Brook­lyn roots to her cur­rent diva-hood. He draws main­ly on pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished mate­r­i­al, although his con­ver­sa­tions with musi­cian Roger Ames do add inter­est­ing insights into Streisand’s unique vocal­iza­tion tech­niques. While Gabler eager­ly high­lights any­thing about Streisand with a Jew­ish angle, he reverts too often to the old stand­bys: her Brook­lyn accent and her nose.

Essen­tial­ly, Gabler agrees with the com­mon notion that since Streisand was obvi­ous­ly Jew­ish and not con­ven­tion­al­ly attrac­tive, it might have been quite a reach for her to suc­ceed on Broad­way and in Hol­ly­wood. How could she make it with­out fix­ing” her accent and her nose? Eas­i­ly, accord­ing to Gabler — when­ev­er Streisand opened her mouth and sang, she con­vinced crit­ics that, in Pauline Kael’s words, tal­ent is beau­ty.” (That she may also have had to endure sex­u­al assault on the cast­ing couch” is not an issue that Gabler explores.) So Streisand’s enor­mous tal­ent brought her suc­cess after suc­cess, even if true love elud­ed her in her pri­vate life.

And this, the author argues, is reflect­ed in the sto­ry lines of her biggest movies, from Fun­ny Girl to A Star Is Born; the awk­ward ingenue uses her enor­mous tal­ent to make her way to the top, more or less demol­ish­ing the man she loves on the way. In movie after movie, (espe­cial­ly The Way We Were) the strong, Jew­ish woman falls in love with the shaygetz” (anoth­er of Gabler’s chap­ter titles), and it does not go well. Gabler implies that Streisand was drawn to these movie projects because the sub­ject mat­ter reflect­ed her per­son­al dynam­ic. Whether this is actu­al­ly true is unclear, since Gabler chose not to inter­view Streisand. He blames his reluc­tance on Streisand’s rep­u­ta­tion for being fierce about her privacy…and on his open­ing premise, that this is a biog­ra­phy of the metaphor of Streisand,” so an inter­view sim­ply wasn’t nec­es­sary.”

Still, Gabler does col­lect here the Streisand per­spec­tives of Kael, John Simon, Camille Paglia, and oth­er smart peo­ple, which are always inter­est­ing to read. If you’re left want­i­ng, just rent Fun­ny Girl!

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions