December 11, 2023

My Name Is Barbra
By Barbra Steisand
(Viking, 992 pages, $47)

Nowadays, the name of Barbra Streisand is likely to bring to mind her shrill, standard-issue Malibu politics, which she doesn’t hesitate to share regularly online. In recent weeks, for example, she’s praised Merrick Garland (“a decent and honorable man who has done a great job restoring integrity to the Justice Department” — Oct. 2), recycled the lie that Donald Trump “said injecting bleach might cure Covid” — Sept. 25), suggested that “the Saudis and Russians are manipulating [oil] prices by cutting production … to help their favorite, Donald Trump” — Oct. 2), and railed repeatedly about climate change.

Since Streisand has always been a proud Jew and a strong supporter of Israel, I was curious to see what she’d posted about the Hamas massacres of Oct. 7 and their aftermath. What I found was disappointing. Streisand’s posts about politics on X (formerly Twitter) can be fiery, but her first comment on the massacres, posted Oct. 9, was oddly dry: “The population of Israel is under 10 million people. There are over 700 confirmed Israeli dead from this terrorist attack on civilians. The equivalent in the U.S. would be over 25,000 dead in New York City on 9/11.”

After that, she waited until Oct. 15 to follow up, and in the posts she shared, on that day and in the days that followed, she seemed, like many American leftists, unwilling to state explicitly that the current struggle pits civilization against barbarism. Instead, she came uncomfortably close to moral equivalency:

  • “All people deserve to live in peace… to raise their children where a future is hopeful, in a country with stability and self-determination. Peace is dependent on a two-state solution that respects the human rights and the humanity of people in Israel and Palestine.” (Oct. 15)
  • “When visiting The Hebrew University a decade ago where I have funded scholarships for both Arabs and Jews, I said, ‘Human dignity means giving all people a voice… It’s only through dialogue that people and countries can come together.’” (Oct. 17)
  • “My heart is broken for all the suffering of innocent civilians in Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine. Terrorism must not triumph.” (Oct. 20)

Could she be more tone-deaf? It’s as if she doesn’t want to offend certain political allies with an unequivocal declaration of support for Israel in the worst moment of its history. But then what else can you do when you’re at a point in your life when, for decades, you’ve immensely enjoyed being the No. 1 celebrity darling of the Democratic Party?

As it happens, for all her love of Israel, the crisis in that country hasn’t been the main subject of Streisand’s online postings during the last month. Instead, she’s been heavily promoting her new memoir, My Name Is Barbra. And what a memoir it is. It’s 966 pages long. It took 10 years for her to write. And to read its first couple of hundred pages is to encounter (or, if you grew up with her early albums and movies and TV appearances, to reencounter) a young woman who had outsized talent, wit, and charm — and who, thankfully, had nothing whatsoever to say about politics.

Raised in a modest home in Brooklyn, Streisand, while still in her teens, became a successful nightclub singer and opened in a Broadway show. And then she just got bigger and bigger. And she covers it all in exhaustive detail. Some (most?) readers will find this book too detailed. I didn’t. The details all help bring to life a chapter — or several chapters — in the history of American showbiz in which Streisand played a very big role indeed.

In fact, she played many roles. From the moment she first stepped on a stage, she had the reputation of being a troublemaker, a know-it-all, a control freak who stuck her nose into every aspect of whatever she was a part of. In her book, she acknowledges this rap but disputes it, asserting that she’s a perfectionist and a “perpetual student” who has always wanted to take every opportunity to learn as much as possible — as well as to contribute however she can to a project’s success. So it was that, making her first movie, Funny Girl (1968), she peppered both the director, three-time Oscar winner William Wyler, and the equally distinguished cinematographer, Harry Stradling (14 Oscar nominations, two wins), with questions.

They both welcomed her interest. Uncharacteristically, Wyler let her view the daily rushes with him, and when the film wrapped, he gave her a monogrammed director’s megaphone. Stradling, for his part, told her he’d be thrilled to work for her someday when she directed a picture. On Funny Girl she even had her first taste of film editing: When a favorite sequence of hers (the Swan Lake parody) was cut down to under four minutes, the film’s producer, Ray Stark, let her go into the editing room with the original footage and put together a longer version of the sequence — not so it could be put into the movie, but so she could take it home and keep it.

Some of Streisand’s subsequent movies were less pleasant experiences. On Hello, Dolly (1969), her co-star, Walter Matthau, got so irritated with her constant questions, objections, and suggestions that he told her, “I have more talent in my farts than you have in your whole body!” She found What’s Up, Doc? (1972) so unfunny that, expecting it to flop, she exchanged her 10 percent of the gross for a flat fee — and saw it become the year’s third-highest grossing film. On these films, as on Funny Girl, she couldn’t help butting in. She was still just a kid, but veteran Hello, Dolly director Gene Kelly took her advice about a camera move; the legendary Cecil Beaton, who did the clothes for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), accepted her costume ideas; and éminence grise Vincente Minnelli, who directed Clear Day, was repeatedly open to her input.

And Streisand — who, at the time, was already deeply acquainted with the classics of American and foreign cinema — wasn’t just canny about filmmaking. Even in her 20s, if her self-portrait is to be believed, she knew a lot about literature, art, and classical music and had impeccable taste: Mahler, Mann, Modigliani. Of course, her judgment in the realm of pop music has always been terrific: Starting her career at a time when the chart-toppers were the Beach Boys and Peter, Paul and Mary, she was (with a few exceptions in the 1970s and afterward) devoted to the great songwriters of the past — Arlen, Porter, Berlin — and to tunesmiths like Sondheim and Michel Legrand who carried on that tradition.

So how is it that this serious, sophisticated artist can sometimes come across as a total flake? On page 300, we learn that her belief in “the transmigration of souls” was intensified by an experience she and “my friend Donna Karan” had at “Deepak Chopra’s institute in Massachusetts.” Deepak Chopra! She recounts a visit to a medium. She tells us that she has a mantra. She repeatedly mentions her lucky number (24). And she says that she should have known that her longtime boyfriend, Jon Peters, was wrong for her because he was a Gemini.

Then, on page 257, it happens: her first real reference to politics. The year is 1968, and she’s fond of New York Mayor John Lindsay: Yes, he was that dreaded thing, a Republican, “but I liked his policies.” Policies that, as it happens, started New York on its long descent into hell. Soon she’s dating Pierre Trudeau, whom she praises for saying that communism was less urgent a threat than world hunger. Decades later she gets to know Justin Trudeau, whom she describes as “a forward-thinking politician who wants to bring out the best in people. He has that quality that is so essential in a true leader … humility. He’s kind, he’s compassionate, and he cares more about the people than the corporations.” How, one keeps wondering, can someone who can seem so independent-minded, so intellectually curious, so hungry for knowledge, and so genuinely discerning about so many things be, at the same time, such an utterly misguided lockstep ideologue?

I’ve never seen Up the Sandbox (1972) but was appalled to read Streisand’s admiring account of the character she played, Margaret, who has a “Black revolutionary boyfriend” and fantasizes about “discussing politics with Fidel Castro.” And, of course, Katie Morosky, her character in The Way We Were (1973), was also a commie. Streisand sums her up this way: “She was … concerned about the world.” Yes, “concerned about the world”! How on earth could anyone over 25, let alone a worldly, accomplished octogenarian, think this is an intelligent way to talk about politics?

“Katie,” Streisand adds, “is an idealist who is president of the Young Communist League (the YCL) at a time when many progressive thinkers were attracted by Communism’s support of workers’ rights and the utopian concept of a more equal society.” As for the “Hollywood Ten” — all of them Stalinists, mind you — she praises their “integrity.” She’s still upset that Sydney Pollack, the director, took out five scenes containing political arguments. He wanted to focus on the love story; she wanted more agitprop. In any event, she kept the deleted footage and, not long ago, used it to assemble an alternate “extended cut” for the film’s 50th anniversary DVD.

It was her experience with Pollack’s cuts that made her feel: “I have to direct” — a dream that finally came true with Yentl (1984). She’d spent 15 years trying to secure financing. Part of the problem, she contends, is that Hollywood execs — many of them Jews — considered the subject too Jewish. When one studio did finally greenlight it, she was told she couldn’t co-star with Mandy Patinkin and Carol Kane. Why? “You can’t have three Jewish people as the leads.” Which is how she ended up with Patinkin and Amy Irving.

It wasn’t just on Yentl that Streisand ran into such attitudes. Noting that her Star Is Born character, Esther Hoffman, was originally called Esther McQueen, she comments, “Everybody in Hollywood was so afraid to be Jewish.” Not Streisand. When she went to Israel for a Yentl premiere, she announced, “I have come home.” Later she donated the money for a Jewish Studies building at Hebrew University named after her father, a schoolteacher who’d died when she was a year old. On a 1978 TV special, she talked with Golda Meir (“this brilliant, beloved woman”) and sang the Israeli national anthem.

But her biggest friend in Israeli politics was Shimon Peres. Streisand seems never to have understood just how much damage he caused with his naïve policy on the Palestinians. She recalls once asking him, “How can you help the Palestinian situation?” He replied, “By making their lives better.” Her comment on this: “He had a deep, compassionate soul.” She never seems to have grasped that compassion isn’t always the best weapon against people who are out to murder you. After Peres’ death, she eulogized him as “a father figure not only to his beloved country of Israel, but also to me, because he was what I imagined my father would have been like.”

Obviously Streisand’s politics aren’t entirely about politics.

More about that in a moment. But first let me say this: I came away from this book believing that, however many times she’s been charged with pushiness, she is, really and truly, a perfectionist — an artist of remarkable gifts who is preoccupied with every last detail of the projects in which she’s involved. She quotes Pat Conroy, whose novel The Prince of Tides she adapted into the 1991 film of the same title, as calling her “the hardest working person I’ve ever encountered.” This work ethic comes across especially in her account of the making of Yentl — which is jam-packed with details about individual camera angles, lenses, lighting gimmicks, line readings, color correction, costume design, set decoration, sound, and editing, all of which Streisand was intimately involved in.

Later, she explains that while doing postproduction on her Broadway Album (1985) she noticed very slight differences in the sound of the vinyl, the cassette, and the CD versions and looked into the technical reasons for those differences — whereupon she decided to “individually mix each song for each format,” in addition to splicing together bits of multiple takes, adjusting the volume levels almost note by note, and fiddling with the balance among the various instruments. She goes into considerable detail about such things, and the more detailed she gets, the more interesting it is.

Which is why it’s so damned frustrating whenever she turns — and here we go again — to politics. Conflating nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, she says that the 1986 Chernobyl accident caused her to step up her activism on behalf of “peace” and “protecting the planet.” Oh, the self-contradictions! She rants about climate change and about corporations — but loves flying on the private Warners jet. (Nor does she seem to worry about rising sea levels threatening her beloved Malibu mansion.) Despite her love for Israel, she applauds Jimmy Carter, the most anti-Israeli president ever. She describes the presidencies of Reagan and Bush Sr. as disasters — no mention of the fall of communism and return to prosperity.

It was the advent of Bill Clinton, she writes, that made her “a political junkie” — and a subscriber to (ugh) the Nation and the Economist. She didn’t just become a pal of the Clintons; she befriended Clinton’s mother, Virginia, who, it seems, was all the things to her that her own mother hadn’t been. She even dedicated an album to her — one more example of her politics not always really being about politics.

Just in case you didn’t know, her devotion to the Clintons is staunch, rock-solid, unwavering. For all her feminist rhetoric, she insists, apropos of Monica Lewinsky and all the women who’ve accused him of sexual assault, that “what Bill Clinton did behind closed doors was none of our business.” She produced a TV movie, Serving in Silence (1995), supporting the right of gays to serve openly in the military — but lets Bill off the hook for reneging prontissimo on his 1992 campaign promise on that score.

How big a party loyalist is she? This big: In 1993 she campaigned for the reelection of David Dinkins, New York’s worst mayor ever. And in 2023? She’s totally unaware of what her party stands for these days. A few quotes from her closing pages:

  • “I’ve noticed that Republicans, whether they agree or not, stick together. They follow the leader. They understand the power of unity. Democrats believe in individualism.”
  • “Democrats are the party of, by, and for the people, while Republicans are the party of, by, and for the corporation.”
  • “As a lifelong Democrat, I support a free press.”

Then there’s her take on the 2016 presidential election. Let’s just say that it doesn’t surprise. Of course, she supported Hillary, who “had a long record of public service,” over “the reality-TV-show real estate developer who insulted women, immigrants, and the disabled, stiffed his contractors, and had gone bankrupt six times.” Alas, Donald Trump won, owing “to voter suppression, gerrymandering, James Comey, the antiquated Electoral College, and Russian interference (amplified by Facebook).” And as president, he “trash[ed] fundamental democratic principles like freedom of speech and freedom of the press” and “demolished our standing in the world and put the security of our country, and our planet, at risk by abandoning the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal.” How can one person be so wrong about so much?

Her hatred for Trump was so intense that she released a whole album, called Walls, that was inspired by her fury over his intention to build “a wall that cost billions and wouldn’t solve anything.” Build bridges, she sang, not walls. Has the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border changed her mind about the need for a wall? Of course not. She doesn’t live in McAllen, Texas. She lives in Malibu, where everything’s just fine (and where the wall around her compound is rumored to be over 10 feet high), and, for heaven’s sake, she gets her news from places like the Nation. Which explains why, at the end of the book, in a passage presumably written within the last year or so — when young Americans, thanks to leftist indoctrination, are obsessed with identity politics and gender ideology and think being colorblind is racist — she’s able to say with a straight face: “Thank God for the younger generation, who are gender-blind and color-blind.”

What else to say? Streisand repeatedly claims to be deeply insecure. I believe her. But she’s not shy about quoting her good notices, recalling all the ideas she gave her movie directors and record producers, or telling us how many standing ovations she got at this or that concert. Every now and then, throughout the book, she interrupts her own text to give us three or four brief testimonials to her by people like Robert Redford and Elizabeth Taylor and Omar Sharif. But you know what? I don’t mind any of it. She’s 81 and has a right to be proud of what she’s accomplished in this life, which is a lot. She’s won a staggeringly long list of major awards for acting, singing, songwriting, directing, and producing, and she deserves them as much as anybody does.

This book, too, is in many ways an impressive accomplishment. I’ve read my share of tomes about movies and music, but rarely if ever have I encountered such thorough — and thoroughly engaging — accounts of the nitty-gritty of filmmaking and music production as Streisand gives us here. But boy, what a torment it is to have to wade through her breathtakingly clueless political commentary to get back to more of the rewarding material.

And to have read it in the wake of the Hamas atrocities leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Part of Streisand’s early appeal was the readiness with which she celebrated her Jewishness even as she made self-deprecating jokes about her aquiline nose and Brooklyn accent. She gave Jewish girls — who grew up into Jewish women — a beloved role model, a heroine, a source of inspiration, a reason to feel proud of, and confident about, being Jewish. And she celebrated the state of Israel unabashedly. Now, unfortunately, she appears to have allowed herself to be hamstrung by the progressive rule that one shall not be overly critical of Islam — not even the likes of Hamas. The anti-Semitic chants at UCLA, where an institute called the Barbra Streisand Center opened in September, have grown so extreme that over 300 faculty members signed a letter last weekend calling on the school to act. Has Streisand commented? No. I suppose that at this point she simply has too many friends to lose — that she’s painted herself into a corner, politically and personally, from which there’s just no escape.

Years ago it became a New Year’s Eve tradition in my household to put on Streisand’s concert special Timeless, in which she ushered in the new millennium. It’s been a joy to watch every year. But this New Year’s Eve? Maybe not.

READ MORE from Bruce Bawer:

The Delightful Dictionary People Uncovered

Remembering Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Magnolia

On Being Past One’s Prime

Radical Wolfe: An Underwhelming Account of the Revolutionary Journalist