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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

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.