No More Hunger and Thirst? On Barbra Streisand’s “My Name Is Barbra”

By Dolores McElroyMarch 6, 2024

No More Hunger and Thirst? On Barbra Streisand’s “My Name Is Barbra”

My Name Is Barbra by Barbra Streisand

WHEN I READ that Barbra Streisand’s memoir, My Name Is Barbra (2023), would be 970 pages long, a devilish chuckle bubbled up from deep within me. There was something ecstatic about this moment—How pharaonic the ambition! What an absolute thrill that a woman famous for show business—and not, say, the Nobel Peace Prize—believes her life story worthy of such an expansive word count. I am grateful that someone, somewhere, isn’t endlessly struggling to feign correct attitudes, that someone believes there is time and space to read 970 pages about the life and times of Barbra Streisand, one of those someones being Barbra Streisand.

Streisand knows that there is something socially “tone deaf” about her. She talks about this at length in her book. Throughout her life, she just can’t seem to tell the public what they want to hear. Early on, the press would ask if she was thrilled with her success, implicitly demanding a “golly gee whiz, I sure am” response. She just couldn’t give it. While on Broadway starring in Funny Girl, she’d say things like, “I always knew I would be famous, but to be honest I hate performing the same show every night.” That’s not how you play the game.

Why do people mind Barbra Streisand’s self-regard? What does it cost them? In the memoir, and throughout the years, she is sometimes dazzled by her own success, and the world responds with, “Who does she think she is?” She doesn’t express the humility we would like her to express. She should be grateful to us, we imply with our disapproval. She should know her place, which is at the tip of our sword—we want her to sing for her life, recognizing that we could just as easily slit her throat as knight her with that blade.

But one must kneel to be knighted. Barbra Streisand prefers to keep her chin up. She rose to the top on wings of sheer self-belief, against all advice and in the absence of a single forebear who looked or sounded like her. She needed the world because she needed its recognition, but she was the one with the superior vision, not us. The world stretched to accommodate her original presence (and benefited!). She did not stoop to accommodate it.

So, while I would never join the haters in their scoffing, the scope of this near-thousand-page tome engenders in me a fraught appreciation of the Streisand star-image. Mine is a pleasure/pain which emerges precisely from the same root as the word count. Greatness is Streisand’s right to claim in terms of talent and scope of accomplishment: Broadway, recording, television, film—acting, directing, writing, composing, producing. She is as significant as she believes, and one should mistrust the drive to diminish her self-regard or put her in her “place.” In fact, Streisand is vital, in part, because understanding the discourse around her forces us to grapple with the implications of our culture’s tendency to do just that.

Yet “greatness” here also characterizes a sort of elephantine heft (as in, “greatness” of size), an overly produced surplus of stuff. This is the Later Streisand: rosebushes; Vaseline filters; the ultrafeminine pastel color palette that has washed over all of her films and albums since at least the 1990s; My Passion for Design (2010), a coffee table paean to this aesthetic, notable for its insanely detailed account of seemingly each and every artistic decision that went into building, planting, and decorating her Malibu home/garden/barn/Victorian shopping mall; and the fact that she cloned her dog.

I am torn. There is a mix of the ordinary and extraordinary that speaks to me here, something I both love and hate. On one level, the aesthetic is so suburban, so Long Island mom, that witnessing it lifted—via Streisand’s reputation and wealth—to the realm of the sublime is nothing short of camp. There’s Streisand’s supreme talent as a performer (rare, utterly unique), juxtaposed against the increasing ordinariness of its setting over the years (soft-lit romantic comedy, duets with Michael Bublé and Andrea Bocelli). There is something that does not match about that kind of artistic talent and voice—which disturbs the listener in all the best ways by its plaintive quality, its unexpected phrasing—being set in mind-numbingly “safe” adult contemporary material. I can’t help but see Streisand as a rare bird, increasingly insulated from the world by Hollywood.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The experience of reading My Name Is Barbra is delightful; Barbra is good company. The book is written in her own distinct and distinctly Brooklyn syntax. One can imagine the scene: Streisand speaking into a tape recorder, an assistant transcribing every word (“exactly as spoken!”), endless memos to and from Viking, insisting that the prose be verbatim, except when direct quotations are needed to convey the words of others. (I made this up; I have no inside scoop on the editing process.) Sentences frequently begin with “Put it this way,” like she is talking to you at a neighborhood coffee klatch.

The first motif one notices when reading is that Barbra Streisand is hungry. My Name Is Barbra is full of memorable baked potatoes, oversized egg rolls, knishes, and Campbell’s tomato soup. Her unabashed appreciation of humbly delicious things, no matter how vast and excellent her culinary experiences, is one of her many endearing qualities. The Czech woman who let Streisand stay in her home while the star was filming Yentl (1983) left out a plate of pastries for her every morning. Streisand remembers them and finds them worth writing about 40 years later.

This is an artist who benefits from hunger—from the get-go, Barbra is hungry to prove herself. The most fun-to-read and charming passages of the book recount her life as a teenage outcast, in love with Sarah Bernhardt, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Konstantin Stanislavski, and the Actors Studio. She has so much eagerness for knowledge and experience, hanging out in the New York Public Library and ushering on Broadway, eating plays and symphonies and records. Her musical influences are a combination of the expected and the unexpected: Judy Garland (of course), but also Ornette Coleman, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, Billie Holiday’s 1958 album Lady in Satin (a surprising choice of a ragged-voiced, if utterly profound, Holiday recording for the famously perfectionist Streisand), Maria Callas’s “Senza mamma,” and the Hebraic music with which she was raised.

Streisand’s grandfather was an occasional cantor, and she spent Friday afternoons at the synagogue with him. You can hear all of this in her singing: the choice of the blue note, the tendency to go for the odd chord, the preference for some dissonance, bright but pained, like violins in a Marc Chagall painting. As for the voice, high and reedy, there’s nothing like it—she seems to belt right up the scale with no break between chest and head. There’s that lament too, her own version of the “Caruso note,” that high cantorial strain.

Two wounds shape Barbra Streisand and leave her ravenous for recognition and love: the loss of her father, and her mother’s lifelong animosity. Like many other descendants of Jewish immigrants in New York, Streisand’s mother and father had gained a tenuous foothold on a lower-middle-class life by the early 1940s. Streisand’s father, Emanuel, pursued a career as a teacher, and provided for his small family, which included his wife, Diana; their son, Sheldon; and baby Barbara (before she deleted the middle “a”). Emanuel was a lovely man: by all accounts, friendly, as well as athletic. He earned his PhD in literature at Columbia University and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. But he died unexpectedly after a seizure when Barbra was just 15 months old, leaving his young wife to fend for herself and their two children. The small family ended up moving back in with Diana’s parents—five people in a one-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—until Diana hooked up with Barbra’s stepfather, Louis Kind (who was not kind to Barbra at all). One can imagine Barbra’s—and Diana’s—despair.

It is not until around page 800 that the reader is allowed to encounter the dark heart of the book. In the chapter entitled “My Mother,” Streisand recounts the most hair-raising scenes where the titular character interrupts a family gathering soon after her daughter gains fame with cries of “I’m the mother! She’s nothing without me!” Or a similar breakdown at an event in 1984 where Streisand is given an award, and her mother howls, “Why are they honoring her? Why aren’t they honoring me?” to a ladies’ room full of strangers paralyzed with horror at the sight. Streisand’s mother wanted to be a singer, but she didn’t quite have the chutzpah to pursue a career. She told The New York Times, “I never thought of [Barbra] as an actress. I was against it. I thought she wasn’t good-looking enough.”

“That hurts,” writes Streisand in a stand-alone line.

In the romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces (directed by Streisand, 1996), Streisand’s character is preoccupied with two things: grappling with insecurity about her looks and assembling “the perfect bite” on every plate of food she’s offered. For Rolling Stone that year, Peter Travers made light of this wound for which all of those snacks (and awards) seek to compensate:

Is it our fault that no one told Barbra Streisand she was pretty as a child? It must be, because she keeps making movies that punish us for our sin by trotting out a string of leading men (Omar Sharif, Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Nick Nolte—name your hunk) who declare her the fairest of them all. […]

If that’s what it takes to get Streisand to stop squandering her talent on her ego, let’s go for it. All together now: “You're beautiful, Barbra.”

Travers implies that women are trivial because they—inexplicably and through no fault of a patriarchal culture that measures each and every woman by her appearance—obsess over their looks. This is just one small example of the type of criticism Streisand has faced throughout the years. It is not that the films aren’t worthy of criticism—in the later work, especially, the schmaltz is off the charts—it is that the criticism is uniformly misogynistic. These reviews all accuse her of narcissism and egotism, usually revolving around the way she frames her on-screen image (flatteringly), proceeding from assumptions that she is insecure about her looks. The tenor of the critiques implies that this narcissistic wound is both a punch line and a distinctly feminine moral failing. (It is still worth saying that her director-star colleagues like Kevin Costner and Warren Beatty seldom faced similar charges, although they all displayed themselves favorably in their own films.)

Streisand’s performance style was forged in these fires of indifference and disdain. Onstage, she needs no one. As a teenager, she graduated high school one year early and fled from her nonresponsive family to door after door that shut in her face, the industry unable to envision her in the leading lady roles she sought. As a result, Streisand’s artistry is internal. She is different from Judy or Liza, who reach outward, begging the audience to love them, fueling their flames with the interdependence. Streisand reaches inward, traveling her own path toward the truth of the song. You’re lucky if she lets you watch.

Those early performances are characterized by anger, irony, and desperation. She couldn’t get a job acting, so she sang. She took FDR’s campaign song—“Happy Days Are Here Again”—and slowed down the tempo, caustically milking it as a dirge to what might have been. She sang “Cry Me a River” for in-the-know Greenwich Village audiences with so much ruefulness that double middle fingers are seared on the mind of the listener, and car explosions seem to follow in the wake of every note.

There was—is—nothing like her. Streisand looks like no one else and sounds like no one else. There is something Byzantine about her, something asymmetrical and unexpected about her face, her hands, her voice, her phrasing. She is familiar, yet unfamiliar. During the first decade of her career, she dug deep into the Great American Songbook, ferreting out underappreciated gems from Harold Arlen, reappropriating Leonard Bernstein songs for children, and turning deep cuts from Broadway musicals on their heads through unexpected tempo changes and offbeat dramatic interpretations, choosing unpredictable notes to end upon. She thought of herself as “an actress who sings.” Listen to her rendition of “Who Will Buy?” from Oliver! to see how a relatively straightforward appreciation of a sunny morning can become the jaded lament of a world-weary woman.

People with a sense of irony are always on the outside, cursed with the knowledge that society does not always reward things of value (talent wrapped in unconventionality, for instance). Irony was Streisand’s stock-in-trade: Ironic that I had to fight so hard (with this voice). Ironic that you find me beautiful after a lifetime of being told I was ugly. Ironic that you don’t believe the things you say you believe. Ironic that you are all shallow hypocrites.” Streisand isn’t shallow. And she isn’t a hypocrite, not in the important ways.

Jacques Brel once dissed Streisand for being too bourgeois when she came backstage after his concert, wearing a full fur outfit, complete with hat and muff. What he missed is that a full fur outfit is not the look of the bourgeoisie. That’s the look of a working-class girl who made good. There is something both refreshing and frustrating about Streisand’s unabashed desire for conventional success. What’s refreshing is that she is not a snob—all along, she wanted to be a movie star, a performer with mass appeal.

But that does not mean that Streisand is self-aware. For a performer with such a distinct personal vision, she was oddly adaptable to cultural trends. Yet too often, Streisand loses sight of the type of work that her talents can best illuminate. The term “sellout” doesn’t make sense to apply here. This is a person whose first musical number on-screen is called “I’m The Greatest Star”—niche appeal was never the goal. But she was still affected by the fact that the style of music she best understood was older than she was. Streisand really gets the Great American Songbook and Broadway show tunes and is an absolute master of those forms. But she came of age during the height of rock and roll. It’s wild to look at the Billboard charts from the mid-1960s where Streisand’s albums of show tunes are vying with the Beatles and Joan Baez for top spots. By the early 1970s, she had demurred to the vision of Columbia Records’ new president, Clive Davis, who decided that she had to sing rock or at least a sort of pop rock—an idiom for which she has no feeling—to stay relevant. This forced compromises from which she never really recovered.

Streisand doesn’t necessarily frame this shift in terms of regret, but she seems conflicted: “I was open to suggestions … as long as [the producer] didn’t try to turn me into something I was not.” She openly admits: “I wasn’t sure what I could add to these songs. […] I was always a bit leery of commercial success […] was I losing my edge?” She writes that for the longest time (49 years), she didn’t understand the meaning of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” which became a big hit for Streisand when it was released in 1971. And Streisand admits that her biggest contribution to her 1980 album, Guilty, was the cover. Yet this collaboration with Barry Gibb remains her best-selling album of all time.

Perhaps herein lies the key: Streisand explains that around this same time, beginning in the early 1970s, she was finally beginning to enjoy the fruits of her labor. She had a beautiful home and was beginning her romance with Jon Peters, spending time with her son, and playing on the beach. Who can blame her, after the previous decade of extreme hustling, recording, filming, and EGOT-winning? Yet one can’t help but see this material comfort as the beginning of an artistic death.

Meanwhile, the abandoned projects during this period are like arrows to the heart: a Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht album that Davis forced her to abandon in favor of the Paul Simon and Beatles covers of 1969’s What About Today? (Barbra, why didn’t you fight?); a version of The Merry Widow with Ingmar Bergman shelved due to disagreements over the script (Bergman didn’t wish to revise, but they remained mutual admirers); an invitation by George Balanchine to appear in a revival of Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, deferred indefinitely because of her total involvement with the bloated A Star Is Born (1976) at the time.

What happens to Streisand’s material is what happens to all mass culture by the late 1960s: a switch from a dominant mode that spoke to all audiences by appealing as broad entertainment and sophisticated commentary at the same time (think the musicals made by the Freed Unit at MGM or the screwball comedies of the 1930s) to a fracturing of audiences (youth versus adult, for instance) that has led entertainment to aim not at “high” and “low” at once but instead at a soggy middle. Streisand has been willing to play to the mostly sorry state of popular entertainment since the 1970s, and it has made her a lot of money.

What gets lost during these years is what was exciting about Streisand in the first place: namely, her status as the underdog. That’s also what motivates her—an “I’ll show you!” attitude that pushes her to the heights. For this reason, Funny Girl (1968) and Yentl remain touchstone Streisand texts. Both feature interior monologues in song (“Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein!”; Yentl’s score consists only of the character’s inner thoughts). Reach inward for what you need, Streisand teaches, but it is in dialogue with resistance from without. There has to be an inhospitable world to push against for the Streisand genius to come to the fore.

Funny Girl is the foundation of Streisand’s star image (and only tangentially a biopic about Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice). Fanny Brice’s narrative is Barbra Streisand’s narrative: a “funny-looking” Jewish girl, an “ugly duckling” who proves through her talent and her chutzpah that she can become beautiful in the eyes of the public, the greatest star. This was her first leading role on Broadway, her first role on film, and the role for which she won her first Oscar (Best Actress) and the Star of the Decade award at the Tonys. Funny Girl embodies her essential spirit.

But Yentl is the more interesting case because it is the one film that breaks through that post-1970s corporate haze in Streisand’s career. Again, hers is a star image that thrives on resistance, and she had to fight for this film. It took Streisand 13 years to get Yentl made. Investors weren’t eager to back a film about a Jewish girl who dresses as a boy to attend yeshiva in 19th-century Poland. And she wanted to produce, star, sing, and direct (she ended up writing the script too), a feat almost unheard-of for a woman in Hollywood history. (Yes, there was Ida Lupino, a fabulous talent, but those were B movies, and she wasn’t singing).

There was a lot at stake—as a first-time director and the main visionary behind the project, Streisand had to bring the film in on time and on budget. Her memories of that time seem charmed—she loved working with her British crew, and her recollection of the challenges of filming on a relatively small budget (often in natural light) in then-Czechoslovakia is detailed and exciting. There were no five-star hotels for her to stay in, so the cast and crew were put up in local homes. One can’t help but think that there was something valuable about this encounter with reality, a reality from which she was becoming increasingly alienated in daily life, that gave Yentl its vitality and sensitivity.

As the 1980s roll on into the 1990s, the picture of Streisand’s life becomes more cloistered. The references in her account become repetitive: another ski trip to Aspen, another song by her friends Alan and Marilyn Bergman, another romance with another Hollywood hunk, another dress by Donna Karan, antique furniture, rosebushes, friendships with world leaders, and so on. Although she continues to write passionately about her artistic projects, by this point they reflect an acceptance of convention instead of a challenge to it. Still, she’s engaging and funny, and it’s hard not to get that old camp thrill reading that she had an actual tree branch painted outside her window to maintain the artistic vision (hers, not Nature’s) of her view, like a 21st-century Des Esseintes. Amusing as this is, the book loses its hold on the reader as Streisand floats far from the ground.

Fortunately, marriage to the handsome and laid-back James (Jim) Brolin since 1998 seems to have mellowed Streisand and tethered her in the best way. She writes about him with great affection throughout the book. In her life, as in her films, her relationships tended not to last, and it’s hard not to see her life with Brolin as a happy ending. It is refreshing to celebrate a diva narrative that doesn’t end in addiction and ruin. Streisand writes that Judy Garland once said to her, “Don’t let them do to you what they did to me.” And she hasn’t. It is possible that Streisand needed that increasingly gilded cage to shield herself from the harsh winds of fame and a rapacious industry, at least until she could find another way to gain strength.

The memoir ends with a description of Streisand’s life now. Barbra and Jim often decide to get in his pickup truck and head out on the road. She has discovered the glory of motels (“no lobby to walk through”) and all the great food they have at truck stops (“roasted almonds, hot dogs, ice cream, and even the best rice pudding!”). Turns out, Barbra Streisand is still hungry. Let us rejoice that she is finally getting out of the house.

LARB Contributor

Dolores McElroy is a lecturer in the Film & Media Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book, Passionate Failures: The Diva Onscreen, is currently under contract with Oxford University Press.


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