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Barbra Streisand's memoir shows she wasn't born a leading lady — she made herself one

Barbra Streisand in her dressing room in October 1965.
Harry Benson
Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Barbra Streisand in her dressing room in October 1965.

The season of the celebrity memoir is upon us. In just the past few months Britney Spears, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kerry Washington, and more have showered us with bombshells and revelations about their origin stories and private lives. Despite those heavy hitters and the crowded field they occupy, the celebrity memoir I've coveted most is that of the singular Ms. Barbra Streisand. Thanks to the opportunity to speak with her for this week's edition of It's Been A Minute, I was able to get my hands on a copy.

For me, the iconography of Streisand begins with her nails. More than the deeply parted bouffant of Streisand's early stardom, or the sleek bob she adopted in the '90s, or even the smoky chevrons of her signature cat eye, her elegant talons — all natural, by the way — are visual proof of Streisand's trademark steadfastness.

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As the old story goes, when Streisand was a fledgling actor, her mother suggested she take typing classes to become a secretary in the New York school system. Streisand grew out her nails in refusal, went all in on show business, and the rest is history — though Streisand now concedes that the ability to type might have made book writing a bit easier.

Streisand's memoir, My Name Is Barbra, is nearly 1,000 pages of such gumption, her rhythmic Brooklyn cadence communicated via countless ellipses and more than a few pleasant divergences on her favorite kind of egg roll or a particularly good antique shopping trip. There was the time Streisand jumped in to offer a blocking cue to Robert Redford on the set of The Way We Were. And of course she informed the director of the best way to block herself for her Broadway debut at the tender age of 20.

Years later, when everyone from her agent to dozens of producers suggested Yentl was "too Jewish" to connect with mainstream audiences, she pressed on, eventually garnering five Academy Award nominations and one win for the film. The film took over 15 years to make, but ultimately Streisand's resolve won out. "I became what I wanted to be ... I don't want somebody telling me what I can't be," she told me.

Across the book's 59 chapters and many decades, Streisand is careful to uplift the names of those who encouraged, impressed, or even challenged her. Her detractors tend to be aired out or paid dust. She recounts her life as a series of odysseys, and she the ever triumphant victor.

Frankly, she's earned it. Her resumé is living legend: more than 50 albums, a box office titan, and a whole EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony for those unfamiliar). She was told to alter her features and change her name, and by not doing so, she redefined Hollywood notions of beauty and relatability. But even I've known the diva reputation that has followed her for decades and wanted to go there. "Divas, I don't think, come from Brooklyn," Streisand quipped to me, and yet the rumors persist. Sexism and misogyny are to blame, but there's also a fundamental misread of Streisand's artistry at play.

Our culture loves to see and persistently pause Streisand as Babs, the consummate prima donna, our forever leading lady. But in doing so, audiences, critics and biographers have failed to acknowledge the shrewd image-maker she has always been — the architect of her persona and performance.

Our culture loves to see and persistently pause Streisand as Babs, the consummate prima donna, our forever leading lady. But in doing so, audiences, critics and biographers have failed to acknowledge the shrewd image-maker she has always been — the architect of her persona and performance.

In 1984, Streisand became the first woman to win the Golden Globe for Best Director for her work on Yentl, and still remains one of only three female winners in history. In 1996, her direction on The Mirror Has Two Faces led Lauren Bacall to the first Academy Award nomination in Bacall's then five-decade career. By the time all American women had won the right to open a credit card without a husband, Streisand had already founded two production companies. When I asked Streisand about her legacy as a trailblazing businesswoman, she insisted that her goal wasn't to become a mogul, but simply to serve her ultimate artistic vision. "I just never thought about, really, the business aspect. I just thought about it from the control aspect," she said.

And still, even as a devoted fan, I don't think I grasped the depth of Streisand's mastery until I saw a video of her that recently made the rounds on social media. It's a behind-the-scenes clip of an explosive scene from Yentl. Streisand is in a pixie-length wig topped with a yarmulke, seamlessly shifting gears between directing a screaming Mandy Patinkin, instructing the camera operator, and playing a key emotional moment in character. We don't see a diva, we see a genius.

Streisand's legacy still scatters like a constellation across our cultural landscape; Jane Campion's Oscar win, Lady Gaga's screen goddess turn, Beyoncé's Parkwood Entertainment. But artistic powerhouses like them, like Barbra, don't spring forth, fully formed. They're sharpened over years, one overnight shoot, one "let's take that again from the top," and one lengthy fingernail at a time. And in a society that tends to value women's passivity while lauding their accomplishments in hindsight, it's a distinct pleasure to look back with My Name Is Barbra and marvel at how the real she came to be.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbra Streisand performs in Philadelphia in October 2012.
Jeff Fusco / Getty Images
Getty Images
Barbra Streisand performs in Philadelphia in October 2012.

Brittany Luse
Brittany Luse is an award-winning journalist, on-air host, and cultural critic. She is the host of It's Been a Minute and For Colored Nerds. Previously Luse hosted The Nod and Sampler podcasts, and co-hosted and executive produced The Nod with Brittany and Eric, a daily streaming show. She's written for Vulture and Harper's Bazaar, among others, and edited for the podcasts Planet Money and Not Past It. Luse and her work have been profiled by publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, and Teen Vogue.

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