Saturday, March 30, 2024


"The movies were my escape. ...The Loew's Kings was one of those extravagant movie palaces with red-velvet seats, an exotic painted and gilded ceiling, and Mello-Rolls…the best ice cream cones. And the candy! My usual was two packages of peanut M&M's and a box of Good & Plenty, with soft black licorice inside the hard pink or white cylindrical shells. It was like eating jewelry."

Built in 1929 on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, the movie palace that gave birth to many of Streisand's dreams would, in later years, play host to several of her films.  

An essential theme emphasized by Streisand throughout her heavily-anticipated (and heavy) autobiography My Name Is Barbra is her need to find something she can identify within the roles she plays, the songs she sings, and the films she directs. 
I chose the above quote (Chapter 1, page 23)—the adult Streisand recounting what movies meant to her as a 13-year-old growing up in Brooklyn without a father (Emmanuel Streisand passed away when Barbra was just 15 months old)—because, as a person who also prefers to identify with the things I invest my time and interest in, I instantly related to the fantasist she describes. A child who sought escape in the transportive magic of movies and who could come up with a simile as fancifully evocative as "It was like eating jewelry." 

What Streisand shares in that beautifully written paragraph resonated with me like the literary equivalent of looking in a mirror. Indeed, the quote reads exactly like entries I've written for this blog about my own childhood growing up in San Francisco and how, after my parents' divorce when I was 11, the movies I saw every weekend at our neighborhood theater (the ornate and landmark Castro Theater near Market St.) were my primary escape and solace. 
I don't remember a world that didn't have Barbra Streisand in it. 
My parents had her albums. Her face stared out at me from the magazines on our coffee table. Her TV specials always came on at my bedtime. I grew up thinking Barbra Streisand was a contemporary of stars like Eydie Gorme (14 years older) and Judy Garland (20 years older). Imagine my shock when, years later, I discovered that the "grown-up lady in the evening gown" was the same age as Aretha Franklin and Paul McCartney.

The casual, self-reflective tone of Streisand's childhood memory is characteristic of what I most readily responded to in My Name Is Barbra and a large part of why I found the book to be such an irresistible page-turner. Unlike many celebrity memoirs and autobiographies that struggle to conceal the Marie Antionette-esque roots of their genesis (i.e., dazzle us "little people" with a peek at Hi-Ho the Glamorous Life), My Name Is Barbra finds Streisand successfully achieving through her writing what I feel she's always done so masterfully in her acting, singing, and directing: establishing the human connection. 

Streisand's gift as a writer—through uncluttered prose and chummy asides—is in making the reader feel as though they are on the receiving end of a private, marathon heart-to-heart monologue with an old friend—an old friend who just happens to be one of the greatest stars of her generation. 
It's likely not the memoir that Streisand could have written at any other time in her life, for it reads like a woman at peace with herself, with nothing to prove, no facade to keep up, and no axes to grind. She just wants to settle some scores, set the story straight, and replace decades' worth of gossip and innuendo with some clear-eyed, not-always-flattering-but-almost-always funny, truth.
(Page 93) On Streisand thinking then-boyfriend, future-husband Elliott Gould looked like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Jean-Paul Belmondo: "He told me I was a cross between Sophia Loren and Y.A. Tittle. I didn't have a clue as to who Y.A. Tittle was...still don't." 
(Tittle is an NFL Hall of Famer popular in the 60s) 

With the dispelling of diva rumors the object and the demythologization of the Streisand Persona the goal, My Name Is Barbra takes us meticulously through the personal and professional life of this famously close-mouthed EGOT with a breezy alacrity that's…given its length…nothing short of extraordinary.  

Lauren Bacall and Shelley Winters both wrote bestselling autobiographies so comprehensive that they spanned two volumes. Alas, fans of Winters had to wait nine years between volumes (published 1980 and 1989), while Bacall junkies had a whopping 16 years to wait for their next fix (1978 and 1994). Leave it to Barbra Streisand, a self-professed lover of instant gratification, to show her fans some mercy and deliver the entire goods in a single three-pound, 790-page volume. And for this, my inner Veruca Salt (who screamed, "I Want It Now!" when Streisand's book was published) is eternally grateful.  

Streisand goes nose-to-nose with a guest on her 1966 TV special Color Me Barbra
"An 'amiable anteater'? That's how I was described at nineteen
 in one of my first reviews as a professional actress."
You gotta love a book whose Prologue has the iconic actor-singer-director-composer-screenwriter-designer giving a rundown of the paradoxically insulting/exalting things critics have said about her looks over the years.  

Barbra Streisand and I have been living together for some time now.
I arrived late to the Barbra Streisand party (she was off my radar until I saw What's Up Doc? in 1972), but when I fell, I fell hard. 

I'm always disappointed when a film personality writes a memoir and then skims over their movies like they're a footnote. Streisand proves to be the answer to this cinephile's prayers. She backs up her asserted belief that the creative process is more enjoyable than the result with marvelously detailed, chapter-by-chapter descriptions of the making of her films. The passages Streisand devotes to describing her methods of working are like taking a Master Class on Film and the Performing Arts. (A particular favorite is Chapter 40: detailing how Streisand's well-intentioned respectability politics clashed with the confrontational queerness of playwright Larry Kramer in her desire to turn his AIDS crisis drama The Normal Heart into a film.)
Happily, they're lessons from an instructor with a great sense of humor and considerable tea to spill when the subject calls for it. 

Barbra Streisand commenting on her films: 
Page 243: (Commenting on the film's opening sequence shot at The Pantages Theater in Los Angeles) "God, my nails were way too long. It's ridiculous."

HELLO, DOLLY!  (1969)
Page 282: "But I still thought the huge production numbers overwhelmed a flimsy story. So I'm always surprised when people come up to tell me how much they liked the movie. I'm glad someone had a good time."

Page 307: "Daisy is supposed to be attracted to him [actor Yves Montand as Dr. Marc Chabot], and that was a challenge, because there was no chemistry between us. None." 

Page 317: (Joking about the price of movie tickets in 1970 and a topless scene she filmed and later "killed") "We'd have to charge much more if they're gonna see my breasts!"

WHAT'S UP, DOC?  (1972)
Page 346: "It was sort of amusing. I could tell Peter [Bogdanovich] was aching to play my part…not to mention all the other parts as well!!"

Page 363: "Rewatching the movie now, there are things I would do differently. I would fight harder to keep the moment where Margaret and her Black revolutionary boyfriend [Conrad Roberts] kiss. That was in a fantasy sequence where they're blowing up the Statue of Liberty. The Studio made us cut the kiss but they kept the explosion, which says a lot about our world."

Page 378: "And now, all I can think of is, Why do I keep holding that handkerchief in front of my face? I was probably self-conscious about my nose running. This is painful to watch. I can't believe how long my hand is in front of my face. You can't see the eyes. You can hear the emotion but you can't see it. This is where I needed [director Sydney Pollack] to say, 'Barbra, I want to try it without the handkerchief this time. Or pick it up but then put it down. I don't care if your nose runs!'  I wish I could do it over."

Page 410: "I was so disengaged from that movie that I barely remember making it. It's such a blank in my life that it's like a movie I've never seen before …only I'm in it!

FUNNY LADY  (1975)
Page 426: "So I liked the clothes…I liked the funny and serious relationship between Fanny and Billy,  …but I still don't get some of the musical numbers, like 'Great Day.' The set was over the top, the costumes for the chorus were ridiculous, and it went on way too long."

A STAR IS BORN  (1976)
Page 450: "When [negotiations with Elvis Presley to co-star] fell through, Jon [boyfriend-turned-producer, Jon Peters] actually said, 'Maybe I should play the part myself!' He wasn't joking. He was ready to make his debut. I said, 'Jon, who the hell do you think you are? You're not a star. I hate to tell you, but you're only a legend in your own mind.'"

Page 509: “Why am I making this lightweight comedy? I'm not wasting my life on this kind of fluff. I've got to do something I believe in… something I feel passionate about. I’m going to do Yentl.”

Page 534: “Put it this way, it was a mistake to take this part, and I was very disappointed in [Sue Mengers, her agent]. I had a lot of problems with the script and had given the writer notes, which he seemed to agree with, but the rewrites Sue promised were never done.”

YENTL  (1983)
*No spoilers, but it's Chapter 36, it features the phrase "Tough titty," 
and here's a likely depiction of Mandy Patinkin after reading it. 

NUTS  (1987)
Page 663: “When [Leslie Neilsen] was pretending to strangle me, he got a little carried away and was actually choking me too hard. It really spooked me and that’s what you see on-screen. I played it scared because I was scared."

Page 714: " I had a hard time letting go. Maybe that’s where my limitations as an actress come in. Would I be a better actress if I was less in control?  Probably. But no use worrying about it now."

Page 847: "I just wanted to make a movie with a happy ending. Too many characters I’ve played…Fanny, Katie, Yentl, Lowenstein…wound up alone in the last reel. It was finally time for the girl to get the guy."

Page 904: “Dustin and I had so much fun. We treated the script as a starting point and then improvised a lot, just like we used to do in acting class. We knew each other when we were hardly 'star material'… he was a janitor and I was a babysitter. Strange to think that was 40 years ago, since it felt like yesterday.”

Page  917: "Oh, I see I passed right over Little Fockers, which I can’t say much about because I barely remember it..."

Page 917: "But the scene I liked best was a quiet moment, where I tell [Seth Rogen, playing her son] about this one man I loved and lost, while we’re eating ice cream at the kitchen table."

April 28, 1965  -  Newspaper ad apparently inspired by a kidnap ransom note 

The breezily conversational style of My Name Is Barbra resulted in my zipping through this voluminous and surpassingly entertaining memoir far more quickly than I would have liked. It turns out that the story of Streisand’s life was one rabbit hole I had no inclination I’d take so much delight in descending into, so despite its 970 pages, I wasn’t quite ready to stop reading at the point Streisand ultimately decided to stop writing.

Upon completing the final chapter ("and so, we bid a reluctant farewell to…”), I was aware of feeling a kind of exhilarated exhaustion…you know, the sort of thing one usually associates with having accomplished some heroic task or Herculean feat. I must admit that part of me DID feel as though I were an armchair adventurer who’d just been on an extensive expedition to the uncharted territory of La Streisandland, so perhaps there was indeed a trace of Indiana Jones in the way I closed the hefty hardback, stared again at that gorgeous Steve Shapiro cover photo, and settled back onto the sofa to give my thoughts on all I’d read some time to marinate a little. 
My first thought was that I would most definitely be purchasing the My Name Is Barbra audiobook. The second thing to pop into my head was (of all things) I Love Lucy.
Specifically, the "Lucy Writes a Novel" episode and the scene where Ricky, Fred, and Ethel are reading aloud from Lucy's thinly disguised roman à clef, "Real Gone With The Wind" (for any youngsters out there, "real gone" is archaic slang for "outrageously cool"), and they come across this hilariously cryptic passage pertaining to the Mertzes: "The best thing about Fred was that when you met him, you understood why Ethel was like she was." 

And there it was. I'd arrived…albeit by way of a curiously non sequitur route…at the most concise, succinct, and clumsily worded paraphrase to sum up my overall impression of Barbra Streisand's singularly sensational autobiography: The best thing about My Name Is Barbra was that after I read it, I understood why Barbra Streisand was like she was. 
Behind that sentence's comical lack of nuance is me expressing that I’ve always admired Streisand for her talent and accomplishments, but after reading about her life--which she writes about with remarkable humor, candor, and introspection--I now respect her in a way I never had before. 
And I felt empathy, for the memoir reveals a traceable path from all Streisand lacked growing up (a father, love, validation, safety, permanence, encouragement) to all she had to develop within herself in order to protect Barbara Joan Streisand... the little girl dreaming in the dark at the Loew’s Kings Theater in Brooklyn.

If I'm being honest, I think this book made me fall a little bit in love with Barbra Streisand. 
All over again. 
Francesco Scavullo photo shoot
Streisand set my gay heart aflutter when she got on the disco bandwagon (a tad late) in 1979. First with the movie theme "The Main Event/Fight" in June, then in October of that same year, a collaboration with disco's reigning queen, Donna Summer, for "Enough is Enough (No More Tears)." Both songs composed by Oscar winner Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts.

MAD MAGAZINE - June 1971 (click on image to enlarge)
On a Clear Day You Can See A Funny Girl Singing "Hello Dolly" Forever


1. Favorite Comedy   -  What’s Up, Doc?   (1972)
2. Favorite Musical  -  On a Clear Day You Can See Forever  (1970)
3. Favorite Drama  -  The Way We Were (1973)
4. Favorite Studio Album  -  Stoney End (1971)
5. Favorite Single -  The Best Thing You’ve Ever Done 1970 (M. Charnin) released 1974
6. Favorite Album Cover - Classical Barbra  / Francesco Scavullo  1976
7. Guaranteed Waterworks  - You Don’t Bring Me Flowers  1979 (Diamond, Bergman)
8. Favorite Guilty Pleasure Song - I Ain't Gonna Cry Tonight  1979  (Alan Gordon)

9. Restored Footage Wish -  “Wait Till We’re 65” from On a Clear Day     
10. Favorite Underappreciated Performance -  The Guilt Trip (2012)

AUDIOBOOK NOTES   (Purchased less than a week after I finished the hardback)
I've always been crazy about Streisand's speaking voice, and it's such a treat to hear her swear so much and say "motherfucker" (Chapter 41) with such aplomb. But I especially love that she refuses to say the word "fart" (quoting Walter Matthau) and has to spell it out instead.

Reading about the Funny Lady biplane episode is amusing.
Listening to her telling it is priceless.  

Given how much it annoys Streisand to have her last name mispronounced (to the point of contacting the head of Apple and getting Siri to say it correctly), actress Jacqueline Bisset might want to give Streisand a call after Barbra mispronounces Bisset (which rhymes with "Kiss it") as Biss-ette.

Streisand's favorite quotes and credos
Never assume.

"He who tells too much truth is sure to be hanged."   George Bernard Shaw  - Saint Joan

"We're all mad. You're mad. I'm mad. The only difference is I respect my madness." - Her therapist

"At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you" -  Gothe.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2024