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!
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.