Thursday, October 25, 2012

Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand

Title:  Hello Gorgeous:   Becoming Barbra Streisand
Author:  William J. Mann
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/9/2012

Meet the Author:
William J. Mann is the author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, which was named a New York Times Notable Book, as well as several other acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. He divides his time between Provincetown, Massachusetts and New York City.

My take:  

Like the author, I’m not a huge fan of Barbra Streisand.  I think that she has a phenomenal voice, but I haven’t been a huge fan of hers as an actress, apart from her earlier films WHAT’S UP DOC (which is a classic screwball comedy) and THE WAY WE WERE.  While I enjoyed the PRINCE OF TIDES, I thought the last film she directed, THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES, was just one long therapy session. I suspect that if I knew her, I would find her somewhat insufferable.  I totally get that she’s a perfectionist, I suffer from that same malady myself, but she takes it even to extremes.  I remember watching her on the Oprah Winfrey show, where she claimed that she managed to will some bulbs that she had planted in a window box outside her bedroom, to change color so that they matched the wallpaper in the room.  Seriously?

So why did I pick up a biography of Barbra Streisand given my love/hate relationship with the subject? Well, I was intrigued by the fact that Mann focuses solely on the first 5 years of Barbra’s career, I had to order the book from Net Galley.  The book chronicles the trajectory of Barbra's career from struggling actress to reluctant chanteuse, all the way to her triumph on Broadway, portraying Fanny Brice in a little musical called ‘Funny Girl.’ This is a Barbra that has all but been forgotten, the young insecure girl who was determined to ‘go big or go home.’  For Barbra there was no other option. Mann deals with Barbra’s early childhood, the loss of her father before her 2nd birthday and the hole that left in her and her mother’s short-lived second marriage to Louis Kind in a few pages.  He’s more concerned with the impact that it had on her life. 

The reader learns about the men and women who helped Barbra along the way, including her first real love Barry Dennen, who was the first one to hear the potential and Barbra’s voice and did a great deal to shape her early persona of a kooky Brooklyn girl with the big nose and the even bigger voice.  From the beginning of Barbra’s career, her looks were treated as an asset instead of a detriment.  Barbra was enormously lucky that she was beginning her career in the early sixties at the end of the reign of the studios who controlled every aspect of a performer’s career.   If Barbra had come along in the thirties, forties or even the early fifties, everything about her would have been changed from her nose, her name, they would have tried to mold her into whatever niche on their roster needed filling.  By the sixties, a whole new generation of Actors Studio trained actors paying their dues in small theaters Off and Off-Off Broadway were making their mark, including a fellow acting student named Dustin Hoffmann.

Mann does a fantastic job of not just chronicling Barbra’s career but also the changing times from the Puritanism of the 1950’s to the ‘Let it all hang out’ 1960’s, from the standard heavy and novelty tune pop music to the British Invasion bringing back the rawness of the early years of rock and roll. In many ways, Barbra embodies the changing times.  On the one hand, she made her mark breathing new life into old songs, on the other hand, she benefited from the changes in the business.  One of the things that I found fascinating in the book was how Barbra’s publicists were able to use publicity in the forms of the many newspaper columnists who covered show business, as well as the medium of television.  Here was Barbra Streisand at the tender age of 18 years old already appearing on the Tonight Show after only making a few club appearances in New York.  The only equivalent I can think of would be Ellen DeGeneres having the two little girls who became a YouTube sensation singing pop songs but even that isn’t quite the same thing.  Barbra became famous so quick and so early because a) she was incredibly talented, b) she was incredibly focused and determined, one could almost say pushy and c) she was able to attract people to her who knew a good thing when they saw and were determined to make her career happen. Not out of any altruistic sense, but because they saw a money-maker.

One of the more poignant moments in the book comes about half-way through when Mann describes Streisand’s appearance on the short-lived Judy Garland Show.  The contrast between Judy’s life and Barbra’s is fascinating.  You just wish that Judy had had people around her to protect and guide her the way that Barbra did. The meatiest part of the book is of course the second half of the book which details the journey of Funny Girl from concept to execution.  Frankly this could be a whole book on its own, and hopefully someday someone will write a book doing just that. I give Mann credit because he the reader a bird’s eye view not just from Barbra’s perspective but also of the other participants including Lainie Kazan, who was Streisand’s understudy.  For a theatre geek and actress like me, this part of the book was like manna from heaven.  I couldn’t get enough, I almost wish that Mann had continued and given us more from when the show moved to the West End.  I had no idea that Anne Bancroft was seriously in the running to play Fanny Brice, from what I know about the real Fanny Brice (the subject of a future blog post), Barbra seems to have been born to play the role.  She even resembles Fanny Brice.

The book also gives the reader details about Barbra’s first marriage to Elliot Gould, her brief relationship with Tommy Smothers (who knew?), and her affair with Sydney Chaplin (son of Charlie) who played Nicky Arnstein.  Frankly, I felt for Elliot Gould, it can’t have been easy to be in love or even married to a powerhouse like Barbra. Particularly when she walked away with all the acclaim in the musical I CAN GET IT FOR YOUR WHOLESALE in a minor role when he was the star.  Some of this will be familiar to Streisand fans, especially her fraught relationship with her mother Diana who comes across as an overprotective mother who was unable to nurture her daughter in a way that she needed.  Diana never praised Barbra because she didn’t want to encourage her only to have Barbra end up disappointed the way that Diana had been when she had to give up a spot in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera.  You feel for Barbra, and it certainly explains her drive.  When anyone told Barbra no, she couldn’t do something, it just made her all the more determined to prove them wrong.

I can’t say that I liked Barbra Streisand more after reading the book.  There were times when I wanted to strangle her for her narcissism, her inability to thank the people who did so much for her, and her willful blindness to the needs of other people in her life.  However, I certainly feel like I understand her better, and I have sympathy for that fatherless little girl whose mother never talked about her late husband, and who seemed to prefer her youngest daughter to Barbra.  The book is over 500 pages, but it reads more like a novel than a biography.  I found that I couldn't put it down and even though I've read other biographies about Barbra, I had to find out what happened next.


CharmedLassie said...

I have a similar relationship with Barbra - I know she's extremely talented but the self-centred aura she projects infuriates me no end.

You've tempted me to read this, though, mainly because of the little mention of The Judy Garland Show. Their performance together on their is one of the only times I've unreservedly liked Barbra.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The book is well worth it. Mann feels the same way we both do about Barbra, but he came to the conclusion that she was a uniquely talented individual who deserves her place in the pop culture pantheon.