Funny how that girl became Barbra
By Jen Chaney,
Let’s be blunt. The serious fans of Barbra Streisand — the kind who have seen “The Way We Were” upwards of 287 times and studied all the Barbragraphies the publishing industry has ever issued — do not need to read this review. The “Funny Girl” faithful already know they will devour “Hello, Gorgeous,” a fresh exploration of the early years in their idol’s seemingly preordained ascent to stardom.
A more important test for this book, then, is whether those with a mere casual interest in the Brooklyn-girl-turned-entertainment-phenomenon, the ones who know of Streisand mostly via what they’ve gleaned from “Glee,” will be drawn in by this new pseudo-biography from William J. Mann, author of such works of celebrity deconstruction as “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn.” The answer: Maybe.
It’s helpful to the uninitiated that Mann — who concedes in his acknowledgments that he “didn’t really understand Streisand’s massive appeal” before taking on this project — once counted himself among the uninitiated. He approaches his work not as a starry-eyed super fan, but as a curious and meticulous journalist, one who is appropriately complimentary of Streisand but also candid about her shortcomings. This gives him the proper voice to relay what is essentially a recap of the era during which she proved that she was, as the “Funny Girl” song goes, a comer: the period between the winter of 1960 and the spring of 1964, when she changed from pimply, ambitious teen into Tony Award-winning Broadway star and enormously successful recording artist.
This portion of Streisand’s story is told without the assistance of Streisand herself. The star is notorious for refusing to participate in the many analyses of her life and career, and “Hello, Gorgeous” is no exception. Mann compensates for that by quoting extensively from media reports, the archival papers of former Streisand collaborators such as Broadway producer-director Jerome Robbins and conversations with numerous Streisand friends, colleagues, fans and associates.
The result is a narrative that touches on the major moments from the Early Babs era — her legendary “Get Happy”/“Happy Days Are Here Again” mash-up with Judy Garland, her bumpy Broadway-born relationship with first husband Elliott Gould and, of course, her legend-launching turn as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” — as well as the most minute details about her ’60s gigs. Did you know, for example, that she wore a pair of 35-cent shoes on Sept. 9, 1960, when she opened for Phyllis Diller at New York’s Bon Soir nightclub? “Hello, Gorgeous” will ensure that you do now, which may thrill the Streisand faithful but may be a bit too much for others.
What may be more compelling for contemporary celebrity observers is the wealth of evidence that, even with her undeniable vocal and acting gifts, Streisand and her cadre of publicists still had to work the PR machine hard to keep her name in the headlines. If her publicist, Don Softness, had to convince the National Association of Gag Writers to give her a fake award on national television, that was what they did. “But we don’t have a Fanny Brice Award,” comedy writer George Q. Lewis replied. “You do now,” Softness told him.
Yes, even Streisand occasionally resorted to Kardashianesque tactics in her climb to the top. The difference, of course, is that she possessed a deep well of talent to back up all that attention-getting chicanery, talent that will remain on display late this year when she co-stars in a Seth Rogen movie and headlines a series of concerts, including a couple of dates that take her back to her native Brooklyn.
“They tell me I’ll win everything eventually,” Mann quotes Streisand as saying in a well-known Saturday Evening Post interview. “The Emmy for TV, the Grammy for records, the Tony on Broadway, and the Oscar for movies. . . . And I guess a lot of those things will happen to me. I kind of feel they will.”
“Hello, Gorgeous” reminds us yet again that the young Streisand was difficult and ambitious, alternately charming and off-putting, simultaneously insecure and shockingly egotistical. But perhaps most important, when it came to forecasting her career, that funny girl was absolutely right.
Chaney writes the Celebritology blog for The Washington Post. William J. Mann will be at the Washington DCJCC Jewish Literary Festival on Oct. 24. For details, call 202-777-
Hello, Gorgeous Becoming Barbra Streisand By William J. Mann Houghton Mifflin Harcourt566 pp. $30