Christopher Bray

She’s the top

Even Neal Gabler’s flattery can’t make the stunning singer likeable. Luckily, Streisand thrives on being disliked

She’s the top
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Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power

Neal Gabler

Yale University Press, pp. 284, £

This book is the latest in Yale’s series of Jewish Lives — though in this case Jewish Loves might be nearer the mark. Neal Gabler adores Barbra Streisand. He purports to have written a critical biography, but pretty much the only bad thing he has to say about Streisand’s 50-odd-year career (and counting — who would bet against her returning to the White House to carol the Clintons come next January?) is that Peter Bogdanovich’s picture What’s Up, Doc? is ‘junk’.

Actually it’s a work of genius, with Streisand at the top of her considerable comic game – though that’s a judgment you mightn’t want to trust any more than Gabler’s. Because when it comes to movies and records I love Barbra too. I fancy this Cleopatra per viam Modigliani something rotten. Like Gabler, I’m knocked out by the sight of her in those ‘tight satin shorts that hug her derriere’ in the boxing romcom The Main Event. Every time I hear her sing I think she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.

Certainly her voice is matchless. If you want to hear Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’ do what it says on the tin, you have to hear her version. If you want the lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman to sound as if they make sense you have to hear Streisand sing them. And don’t get me started on ‘Guilty’, a duet with the Bee Gees’s Barry Gibb that ought to be laughable but instead is turned into high comedy by the way Streisand’s soaring mezzo spirals around his falsetto blur like a prick-teasing boa constrictor.

Reading about Streisand is more difficult, though. Not even the most worshipful of her biographers can disguise the fact that she’s a pain in the ass, ready to take offence at the slightest slight. Gabler, who like Streisand can’t see a top without going over it, gives it his best on the whitewash front. But not even his flattery and fawning can make her likeable. How could it? Streisand thrives on being disliked. She once said:

People look at me and say, ‘Success has gone to her head.’ But that’s not true. I’ve always been this way. I’m no good at dealing with people or being tactful. I say whatever is on my mind.

Roseanne Arnold, herself no slouch in the ball-busting department, says that when she met her Streisand came on like the ‘queen of the United States’.

In fact, she’s a princess — a Jewish princess, and one quick to see any disparaging remark as anti-Semitic at root. When it comes to Variety editor Abel Greene’s review of one of her first shows, in which he said that Streisand might go far were she to have a ‘schnoz bob’, she surely had a point. As for the theatre pundit John Simon’s description of her as having a ‘horse face centering on a nose that looks like Brancusi’s Rooster cast in liverwurst’ that isn’t criticism: it’s crass Clarksonese. But can Streisand be serious when she says she is ‘convinced’ that her application to buy an apartment in a housing co-operative was refused because she’s Jewish? Was everyone who counselled caution when she announced she wanted to move on from singing to acting (and subsequently to producing and directing) really just ‘want[ing] me to stay put’? Isn’t it possible that at least some of these ‘detractors’ were people with her best interests at heart?

They needn’t have worried. Streisand had been an actress from the get-go. Towering singer though she is, her real talent isn’t for putting a song over but for letting a song take over her. Like Sinatra, her only master amid the great American songbook, she can make you believe that numbers that existed long before she was born were not only written for her but about her. Listen to, say, ‘He Touched Me’ (lyric by Ira Rosemary’s Baby Levin!). For all Streisand’s tics and tricks — the jokey rubati, the melodramatic melismas, the handbrake turns from strident ardour to contemplative hush  — it’s as if, method-acting style, the song is singing her rather than the other way round. (‘Marlon Brando,’ she once said, ‘was the only actor I ever really idolised.’)

And yet Streisand’s talent, Gabler tells us, is completely natural. She has never had any formal training, and, he says, doesn’t even ‘give a nod to the physiology of singing’. Which makes it hard to swallow his thesis (itself swallowed wholesale from Streisand interviews down the years) that she had to overcome adversity after adversity, enmity after enmity, in order to beat the odds. To be sure, this line plays well with many of her fans (‘the marginal,’ Gabler calls them, ‘the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged, the disaffected, the put-upon… the different’), who are reassured by her tale of triumph. But Streisand’s vocal power isn’t a metaphor for anything bigger than itself. There isn’t anything that big. She’s the top because her talent is bottomless.