“BEING COMPARED to other people, even to say she was in the same league as the greats, never felt like flattery to Barbra. She wasn’t out to be as good as anyone else, or to be the next whoever. She wanted to be the best there ever was, in her own way, under her own name — spelled and pronounced correctly.”
That’s author William J. Mann writing about the young, blazingly ambitious Barbra Streisand in his excellent new work, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand.
Last year, Mann put out a terrific book on Elizabeth Taylor, titled How To Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood. In it, he gave La Liz all her due as a great beauty, actress and star. But he also revealed the machinery behind her longevity. From the days at MGM when she was young and reasonably pliable and later, with such PR stalwarts as John Springer and Chen Sam, when she did as she damn well pleased. He also revealed that ET was much cannier about her image and her career than she ever let on. She knew how to keep herself fascinating to the media, almost to the end.
Similarly, in Hello, Gorgeous, which spans only 1960-1964 (the latter being the year of “Funny Girl” on Broadway.) Mann reveals that although Barbra was a genius talent, she did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. She had many helpers and supporters along the way. Some, she discarded, some stayed around; like the indomitable Marty Erlichman. Barbra — and her early worshippers — knew how to create an image, plant items, get the best deal, go where the exposure or experience would do the most good.
Barbra will hate this book. She hates most everything written about her. But it is not a hatchet job, in my opinion.
What does it reveal? A great talent, with no vision outside herself. At least at that point in her life. She claimed never to have heard of Judy Garland, as late as 1962! A year later she would guest star on Judy’s TV series. Her interest in the past — or even the current — was nil. When somebody asked her if she ever talked to veteran performers such as Lillian Roth, with whom she had worked, for words of wisdom, Barbra snapped, “Are you crazy? What would I do that for?”
Barbra was totally focused on herself. But in this she was no different from Diana Ross or Marilyn Monroe and others for whom success was as vital as oxygen.
Barbra fed off what she saw were the injustices of her early life — her father’s death when she was just a year old, her mother’s seeming indifference to her daughter’s great talent and ambition. (There is some pleasant revisionist history on the late Diana Kind, her mother. This, too, probably won’t sit well with Barbra.)
Former lovers and friends speak, a few with some bitterness, but most with a resigned acceptance that there was only one path for Barbra.
There is a lot of new info on the long, torturous road to “Funny Girl.” Great stuff — Broadway mavens will love it.
However, intimate details of Streisand’s early love life will be especially unappreciated. (Well, in that she is like all of us.) Mann also makes a fascinating observation about her famously long fingernails: “Never could she fully touch another human being with her hands. And if her nails symbolized her own reluctance to get too familiar, they were also ever-present reminders that if anyone trespassed too closely, she could, and would, fight back.”
One can only put down Hello, Gorgeous with renewed appreciation for Barbra’s single-mindedness, and with some glimpse of her inner struggle. As her rise began in earnest, she gave an interview and was asked what she would be doing if she wasn’t in show business. “I don’t think I’d be alive,” she said.
One doesn’t expect such vulnerability from Barbra, but it’s there, hidden under the ambition and the look-don’t-touch persona. She’s not a funny girl. She doesn’t “love” her fans. (She shares this quality with Madonna.) She must, must, must excel. She has something to prove. To herself, to her mother, dead now, but whose apparent lack of attention is still a tormenting thorn. And to her father, the one man who could never disappoint her, because he died before she ever really knew him.
Notice I didn’t say “had” something to prove. Barbra might have mellowed some, but her instincts remain the same. She has to be the best there is. And she’ll work herself (and everybody else) to exhaustion and near-madness to achieve perfection. And let’s face it, that perfection is worth the agonies.
The author also points out something I’ve written about. Barbra was (is) the last truly original star to form in the pantheon. She transformed what it was to be a leading lady in an industry dedicated to physical perfection. She didn’t look like anybody else, she didn’t sound like anybody else, and she sure as hell never behaved like anybody else.
Barbra achieved her dream. Not just of stardom. But of uniqueness. She could never be compared to another. She is the one and only.
I hope unparalleled success and career longevity have given the inimitable Barbra, at last, some measure of peace and pleasure. She deserves it. She’s done nothing but work for it, her entire life.
I recommend Hello, Gorgeous, from Houghton Mifflin. As for tickets to her coming concerts, I’ve been asking politely for months and not a peep. So … what the hell.
OH, WE inadvertently “killed” one of our favorite persons here recently, in an item referring to press reps who served Marilyn Monroe.
The wonderful Lois Smith, is not “late” at all. She is very much alive and living in Massachusetts. Hoping to see her back in New York one of these days. Thanks to our reader Mary Horner who inquired and worried about this error.
This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 9/25/12