The unique sound of Barbra Streisand’s voice is a mystery, even to herself. Two bits of cartilage in her throat vibrate and amplify in her head and chest, creating a powerful storm of sound. Streisand first discovered this talent while singing in the stairwell of her Brooklyn apartment building. At the age of 14, her mother took her to a recording studio where she improvised on a melody and was surprised by the result. A decade later, in the movie Funny Girl, Streisand’s finely-tuned and amplified voice amazed the world. In a memorable 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. Her voice echoes through the sky as she commands the overcast weather not to rain on her parade.
The autobiography of Streisand is reflective of her assertive personality. Spanning almost 1,000 pages, it does not include an index as Streisand, who always demanded “creative control”, wants to dictate the way readers engage with her story and prevents them from finding tidbits about her past as a shoplifter, flirtations with Ralph Fiennes, or a scandalous incident with Pierre Trudeau involving swimming naked in a frozen lake. The book is exhaustive and tiring, as it rehashes moments where Streisand’s desires were not fulfilled. She even goes as far as altering her own directed films and complaining about a close-up being cut from The Way We Were 50 years ago by Sydney Pollack. She also manipulates Stephen Sondheim into changing his lyrics to suit her preferences. In one instance, while watching Yentl on TV, Streisand calls the network to complain about the volume of the commercials and coerces the sound engineer to lower the volume by two decibels. Even when invited to dinner, she takes charge and rearranges the table lighting to her liking before sitting down, and even advises her hostess to get taller candles for better eye-level flames.
She uses her vocal skills to influence those she collaborates with, admitting that while directing Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides, she aimed to control him like a musical instrument and evoke a range of emotions from his imposing presence. Despite facing personal hardships such as losing her father at a young age and having a distant mother who resented her success and caused scenes at concerts, Streisand finds ways to bend these harsh realities. She connects with her deceased father through a seance and portrays him as a gentle scholar in Yentl. Later, she adopts the nurturing persona of Bill Clinton’s mother, who lovingly refers to her as “my sweet, wonderful daughter,” as her substitute parent.
In the end, everything takes on a dreamlike and mysterious quality, as if Streisand is controlling nature herself, as seen in Funny Girl when she stands on the harbor. During meditation, she describes the feeling of her soul separating from her body and drifting into a dark universe, much like a musical note. She uses the concept of quantum physics to explain her fascination with Marlon Brando and believes that her role in Yentl, where she plays an androgynous girl disguising herself as a boy to study the Talmud, resolves the divide between masculinity and femininity. When the sun perfectly illuminates a film set in the afternoon, she believes that the universe is conspiring to help her. At one point, she euthanizes her pet dog, a coton de tulear that, based on a photo in the book, appears unappealing and yappy. However, she envisions its resurrection as a comforting cloud with a tail, hind legs, and ears floating above her swimming pool. In an attempt to outsmart nature, Streisand has the dog cloned and welcomes two identical copies into her entourage.
Fortunately, there is a mix of risqué and chaotic humor as well as ecstatic feelings of California in this place. Singers have a tendency to talk excessively, and what Streisand says is mirrored by what she consumes. She is constantly snacking, and her diverse diet includes dumplings, whitefish, large quantities of ice cream, and when she visits England, turkey sandwiches with Branston pickle or scones with clotted cream – controlled by her preference for mashed strawberries over jam. Streisand describes filmmaking as “a consuming process”: her goal is to devour the entire world, and she evaluates desirable men by examining their teeth.
Reflecting ruefully on the pressures of fame, Streisand admits, “I was known as a personality before I was known as a person.” It’s unfortunate that her book ends without revealing much about her personal life, instead portraying her as a public figure who receives awards, donates to charity, and speaks about world peace with Nelson Mandela and Shimon Peres. After years of therapy, she believes she has the ability to heal the world and trusts Jesse Jackson when he tells her she has been “touched by God.” However, amidst her insecurities and desperate desire for fame to make up for her neglected childhood, Streisand confides in My Name Is Barbra. She even questions if her renowned voice is the result of a deviated septum and her unique nose structure. But ultimately, the mystery remains unsolved. What truly matters is that she sang, even though she no longer does. It is somewhat comforting to read her powerful and expressive writing, even in silence.