Books: The way she was

Despite his good intentions, Neal Gabler manages only a reductive look at the complex icon Barbra Streisand.

Barbra Streisand performs in 1969 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Barbra Streisand performs in 1969
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Growing up, I never understood the thought process behind the narrative of Barbra Streisand, “the ugly duckling.”
Looking back at photos of the 27-year old proudly clutching her Oscar for Funny Girl, clad in a delightfully risqué transparent getup that was so very chic in 1969, she seemed, to me at least, every inch the movie star.
Yet, of course, Hollywood and the rest of the world had other thoughts.
While it is interesting to delve into how the gentile world superficially judged her for her (Jewish) appearance, dedicating the majority of a book to that particular subject is problematic because, for someone as iconic and groundbreaking as she was, much can be written about her that goes far beyond how she changed Hollywood’s beauty ideal.
Unfortunately, Neal Gabler’s Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power does just that.
“Streisand stood for every plain girl who had ever been rejected,” he writes in the introduction.
This even though on screen she has locked lips with Hollywood hunks such as Jeff Bridges, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Redford. And her off-screen romances are even more impressive: tennis champion Andre Agassi, Warren Beatty and current husband James Brolin. If only every “plain” girl had that kind of dating CV.
True, at times Gabler points to Streisand’s sheer gumption, will to succeed and strength as qualities that lured men (and viewers).
“She became an example of empowerment – first as a star who made her own decisions; then as a producer who controlled her own films; and then as a director who bullied her way into Hollywood’s creative sanctum where women had never been welcome,” he writes.
But instead of focusing on Streisand the virtuoso, Streisand the maverick and Streisand the creative powerhouse, Gabler focuses on Streisand the victim.
Much of the justification for this is through psychoanalyzing her early family life. Unconventional looks, a verbally abusive mother and a father who died when Streisand was an infant set her up for a life of longing and needing to be loved, Gabler theorizes.
“If the death [of her father] would later adumbrate her life as a kind of ticking clock of mortality, it had a deeper, more immediate and more enduring impact” is certainly a weighty theory to come from a biographer who never had the opportunity to speak with his subject.
Much of the book relies on old interviews with Streisand herself, film critics, former lovers and those who knew her.
The use of secondhand testimony to determine the nuanced inner depths of person is problematic at best and lazy at worst.
In the introduction, Gabler asserts his book is a “biographical essay that explores who Streisand is and how she became what she became, and examines her position in our culture cosmos.”
Which would be interesting, if Gabler hadn’t relied on the same Rolodex of people to weigh in on who Streisand is, and if much of the book wasn’t repetition of his unoriginal thesis where no new ground is broken and no new insight of Streisand is revealed.
The book does redeem itself with interesting anecdotes of those who interacted with Streisand, especially in her early days when she was largely unknown.
For example, most people are probably unaware that she got her big break dressing as a kook in New York night clubs, or that Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim found her voice was “too nasal,” or that executives within Columbia Records (erroneously) thought she got ahead only because she was supported by Jewish community members in the entertainment industry.
But the real question is, does anybody really think Streisand looks so hideous that there should be several hundred pages of a book dedicated to explaining how some people managed to find her attractive? In 2016, that very question does a disservice to what Streisand stood for – looking beyond appearances and allowing sheer talent to blow away expected cookie- cutter conventions.