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 appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink