Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand
With his new unauthorized biography of Barbra Streisand, novelist and Hollywood historian William J. Mann completes his "diva trilogy."
The bio, titled "Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand," covers the first half-decade of Streisand’s career, from her decisive move to Manhattan as a perspicacious and talented teenager to the accolades she won in the lead role of "Funny Girl." The book’s publication is auspiciously timed: 2012 marks fifty years of Streisand as an entertainer, and the occasion has prompted a new album ("Release Me," a selection of 11 previously unreleased tracks from across Streisand’s recording career) and a forthcoming movie ("The Guilt Trip," a road movie in which Streisand plays Seth Rogen’s mother).
At 500 pages (plus even more pagination devoted to an index and extensive notes in which Mann cites sources for virtually every fact he puts forth), that works out to 100 pages for each of those first five years. Threaded through the book, glancingly but to good effect, are references to the era in which the story unfolds. Kennedy is elected President; the Cuban Missile Crisis and the "scandalous" affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton rock the world; Kennedy is assassinated.
This anchors the book and gives it a context for the startling reminder Mann puts across: Streisand was not merely a beneficiary of the crazy 1960s, when just about anything seemed possible in the name of modernity and progress, but part of what drove America forward. With her unconventional brand of beauty, Mann argues, Streisand changed the very notion of who could dream of, and succeed at, stardom.
Mann’s pedigree as a journalist is evident here, as he painstakingly constructs a full-fledged and fascinating portrait of the young Barbra (the dropped "a" from her first name was an early indication of her wiles and willingness to do striking, and sometimes odd, things to achieve fame and artistic influence). Streisand has talent to burn, but she also had something rare and lucky: A devoted coterie of man, many of the them gay, who helped her mastermind every aspect of her career.
At a certain point, Barbra didn’t need any such help any longer. She was able to flex her creative muscle and summon reserves of confidence and strength that allowed her to take creative control of projects that needed leadership and vision. Mann seems to admire this about Streisand, noting that Barbra, even in her early career, "rarely aimed to please anyone other than herself," and goes on to add that for her, "questioning directives was standard operating procedure." But Mann also notes a tendency by the young Streisand to annex the ideas of others as her own, if they suited her artistic vision.
Indeed, Mann cheerfully lobs critical plaudits and jibes alike into his narrative; at times it can be tough to tell the difference, as when Mann quotes a review by Rich DuBrow, writing about a televised rendition Streisand delivered of the standard "Cry Me A River." DuBrow conceived a "fear that she would hiss forth a forked and poisonous tongue at two-timing men everywhere." His own tongue ensconced securely in his cheek, Mann adds parenthetically, "He meant this as a compliment."
But if Mann’s journalistic talent is on display here, so is his skill as a novelist; the bio has the texture and air of a well-developed work of fiction. Barbra the historical figure and Barbra the nuanced character are one and the same, and Mann makes a good case for his interpretation of the star as a driven, sometimes unexpectedly shy, young woman who burns to be the very best.
There turns out to be a real genius to Mann’s decision to focus on Streisand’s early years. Looking at "Funny Girl" today on DVD it’s easy to assume that the role of Fanny Brice was tailor written for Streisand, who, like Brice, did not fit the standard mold for beauty but made up for it with chutzpah and sheer force of personality. It’s a surprise, then, to discover how much of the book (that is to say, those formative first five years) was taken up by "Funny Girl" -- first, trying to secure the role and then, even when she had won the part, enduring the creative and practical difficulties the show encountered. Mann also reminds us that not everyone (Brice’s daughter especially) was an early proponent of Barbra for the role.
Streisand’s multi-media artistic achievements have flowered fully, and she’s become a global name. There’s drama right at the root of her career, though, and Mann meticulously, compellingly sets it all out for us. Think you know Barbra? You’ll know her much better, and probably love her better too, upon having read this book.
by William J. Mann
"Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand" is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Publication Date: October 9, 2012. Pages: 575. Format: Hardcover First Edition. ISBN-10: 0-547-368-925. ISBN-13: 978-0-547-368-924.