Review of “My Name Is Barbra”: Streisand’s tale is enchanting, chaotic, risque, and humorous.
Barbra Streisand’s unique vocal quality remains a mystery, even to herself. The two small masses of tissue in her throat vibrate and amplify, creating a powerful sound that Streisand first discovered while singing in the stairwell of a Brooklyn apartment. When she was 14, her mother took her to a recording studio where Streisand unexpectedly belted out a melody. A decade later in the musical Funny Girl, Streisand’s impeccably controlled and amplified voice stunned the world. In an iconic scene, she stands at the front of a tug boat in New York harbor, holding a bouquet and outshining the Statue of Liberty’s torch. Streisand’s voice reverberates through the sky as she commands the stormy weather not to ruin her moment.
Her autobiography matches the commanding noise she makes. Almost 1,000 pages long, it lacks an index because Streisand – who always demanded what she calls through clenched teeth “creative control” – insists on directing the way we read and debars us from looking up titbits about her adolescent exploits as a shoplifter, a night spent playing footsie with Ralph Fiennes, or a romp with Pierre Trudeau that involves the Canadian prime minister swimming naked in an icy lake. Exhaustive and exhausting, the book relitigates Streisand’s life by revisiting the rare occasions on which her will was not done. She re-edits the films she directed, kvetches because 50 years ago Sydney Pollack cut a close-up of her from The Way We Were, and manoeuvres Stephen Sondheim into altering his song lyrics to accommodate her. Watching Yentl on television, she objects to the volume of the commercial breaks, phones the network and bullies the sound engineer into turning the knob down two decibels. Invited out to dinner, she redesigns the table lighting before she sits down and advises her hostess to find taller candles that will place the flames at eye level.
She utilizes her vocal abilities to influence the people she collaborates with, admitting that while directing Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides, she aimed to manipulate him like a musical instrument and extract the full range of human emotions from his imposing persona. She also acknowledges that there are certain aspects of life that she cannot change, such as her father’s death when she was a baby and her mother’s envy of her success, which often manifested in dramatic outbursts during performances. However, Streisand finds ways to reinterpret these difficult truths. She reconnects with her father through a seance and portrays him as a kind Talmudic scholar in Yentl. Later on, she adopts Bill Clinton’s mother, who affectionately refers to her as “my sweet, wonderful daughter,” as a surrogate parent.
Ultimately, everything becomes enchantingly mystical, as if Barbra Streisand were truly controlling nature, as she seems to be in Funny Girl by the harbor. While meditating, she experiences her soul separating from her body and drifting into the dark universe, much like a note she has sung. She explains her fascination with Marlon Brando by referencing the interconnection of particles in quantum physics, and believes that her portrayal of the androgynous Yentl, a young woman who pretends to be a man in order to study the Talmud, resolves the “masculine-feminine dichotomy” that plagues us. When the afternoon sun perfectly illuminates a film set, she declares that “the universe conspired to help me”. At one point, she has to put down her pet dog, a coton de tulear that, judging from a photo in the book, is not the most lovable ball of fluff. However, she envisions its resurrection as a fluffy cloud floating above her swimming pool, complete with a tail, two hind legs, and two ears sticking out. In a clever move against nature, Streisand has the dog cloned, and welcomes two identical copies into her circle.
Fortunately, there is raunchy and chaotic humor present along with blissful Californian joy. Singers have a tendency to speak excessively, and Streisand’s words are matched by what she consumes. She is constantly snacking, with a diverse menu including quenelles, whitefish, large amounts of ice cream, and during her trips to England, turkey sandwiches with Branston pickle or scones with clotted cream and – once again, her control takes over – mashed strawberries instead of jam. Streisand refers to filmmaking as “a consuming process”: her goal is to devour the entire world, and she evaluates men’s attractiveness by examining their teeth.
Barbra Streisand, in a contemplative moment about the pressures of being a celebrity, reflects, “I was seen as a persona before I was seen as a person.” It is unfortunate that her book ends with a distant tone, portraying her as a public figure who receives accolades, gives generously to charity, and engages in discussions about world peace with prominent leaders like Nelson Mandela and Shimon Peres. Despite years of therapy, she still holds onto the belief that she can bring healing to the world and trusts Jesse Jackson’s words when he says she has been “touched by a higher power.” However, in her autobiography My Name Is Barbra, she also shares her insecurities and insatiable desire for fame, which could never make up for the neglect she experienced as a child. She even ponders if her famous singing voice is the result of a deviated septum and the unique structure of her nose. But ultimately, the mystery of her talent remains unsolved. What truly matters is that she used her voice, and although she no longer sings, her powerful writing still speaks volumes.