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What Barbra Streisand tells us about the modern day diva

Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power is an acute and sympathetic rendering of a career forged from yearning and steel.

Like the novels of Henry James, the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the Times crossword puzzle, the modern diva thrives on difficulty. Creatures of grit and will­power, sinews and sequins, they are symbols of triumphant selfhood and obstacles overcome. These days, the paradox is played out in the termitic caverns of the internet. Protected by her social media fan posse, the “Beyhive”, Beyoncé recently kicked off her Lemonade tour by selling “Boycott Beyoncé” T-shirts and iPhone cases – a sly appropriation of the calls for a boycott of her shows after her Black Panther-inspired Super Bowl appearance raised the hackles of right-wing attack dogs. Let ’em loose. What doesn’t kill Bey only makes her stronger.

Modern-day divahood is self-aware, self-deconstructing and backlash-embracing, but this dynamic is as old as the Hegelian dialectic. “She became popular by demonstrating how someone like her, someone with her seeming disadvantages, could become popular,” writes Neal Gabler in his smart new book, Barbra Streisand, a biography-cum-critical essay on the Brooklyn-born diva. It may be the best book about Streisand you will ever read, an acute and sympathetic rendering of a career forged from yearning and steel – “in one person, Punch and Judy”, in the words of the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann. Long before Beyoncé, Streisand’s fame contained its own backlash. “Barbra is the girl guys never look at twice,” said her manager Marty Erlichman. “And when she sings about that – about being an invisible woman – people break their neck trying to protect her.”

Gabler nimbly sketches in the psychic wounds that propelled this oversensitive striver to seek the spotlight: the death of her father when she was a toddler of 15 months, an acidly critical mother, a stepfather who openly taunted her about her looks. As a young woman, Streisand was “always rushing forward, as if afraid she’d be late for her life”, as one friend put it – a baby bird craning forward for the worm, in Dustin Hoffman’s marvellous image. In the early 1960s, she would get up on stage, her coltish legs dangling from the stool, a thrift-store ragamuffin, twisting her fingers through her hair and giving a tired smile to the audience, before removing the gum from her mouth and sticking it on the microphone. “What a smart girl,” Hoffman thought when he first saw the gum move. “It was a seemingly natural act but it has a method to its madness.” And then she opened her mouth to sing.

“In her plaintive voice, one could hear and feel every slight, every insult, every wound,” Gabler writes in an 11-page disquisition on Streisand’s voice – with its soaring melismas, its mixture of high and low registers, its distinctive use of tempo rubato, or singing off the beat, and its uniquely Yiddish rhythms – that is worth the price of admission on its own.

Gabler comes to Streisand from excellent biographies of Walt Disney and Walter Winchell and a wonderful book about the imprint of the Jewish moguls on the films of the 1930s and 1940s. Without sacrificing critical distance – Hello, Dolly! was a “lumbering atrocity” and many of the films between The Owl and the Pussycat and The Way We Were were “piffle” – he senses a connection between the thin-skinned perfectionism that made Streisand a nightmare to work with and the vulnerability that lit up the heart-lights of millions. Streisand seemed to take the entire world personally. Luckily, the world seemed to feel the same way about her.

Armed with this paradox, Gabler makes great headway into the films, uncovering an unexpected seam of realism not just in The Way We Were but in Funny Girl, What’s Up, Doc? and A Star Is Born. In all of these, Streisand usurps the male role, sweeping the man off his feet, before proving too much for him to handle. “You can’t fight a tidal wave,” said Ryan O’Neal of her logorrhoeic ditz in What’s Up, Doc?; Omar Sharif confessed that he fell in love with her and then felt emasculated by her, a pattern that repeats itself in film after film exploring the enduring heartache of romantic mismatch, in which Streisand breaks free but pays a price for her independence. That price is often love. There are few happy endings in her movies. “Streisand has more talent than she knows what to do with and the heart of a lion,” wrote the critic Pauline Kael. “There is a possible unpleasantness, of threat, in that red-hot talent – as there is in Liza Minnelli at full star strength – which produces unresolved feelings in us.”

Gabler deftly plots this dynamic between Streisand and her critics, with her career acting as a “lightning rod for male resentment”. Frank Rich described A Star Is Born as “the work of a madwoman”. Mad magazine caricatured her as Bubbly Strident; an episode of South Park cast her as a Japanese horror movie monster, Mecha-Streisand, which is prevented from destroying South Park when it’s boffed on the hooter. “Oh, for the gift of Rostand’s Cyrano to evoke the vastness of that nose alone as it cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south,” wrote the critic John Simon in 1977; he described her as “a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun”.

Nowadays, we have Twitter to call out this bullying misogyny for what it is – likewise, the thinly veiled anti-Semitism of the various euphemisms for “Jewish woman” that Streisand has attracted throughout her career: bossy, bitchy, controlling, egomaniacal, loud, monstrous. What is most striking about Gabler’s handling of such ugliness is the way that he uses it to pivot back to the narrative of her career. Critics watched A Star Is Born and saw a bad film but her fans saw a woman mocked and misunderstood. This fed into what they liked about her in the first place and it became her biggest hit. The critics weren’t reviewing her movies. They were acting out their plots.

The hatred is with us still, as a quick Google search will confirm. One website lists the “top 15 reasons why people hate Beyoncé”. “Madonna Blows Chunks” is the title of another, “serving your anti-Madonna needs since 2003”. After reading Gabler’s book, you’ll never be able to see the haters in the same way again. As that master Hegelian, Taylor Swift, put it: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,” as she advised listeners to “shake it off”. She might equally have said: “Go ahead. Make my day.”

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” is published by Thames & Hudson

Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power by is published by Yale University Press (296pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink

Marvel Studios
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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