The unique sound of Barbra Streisand’s voice is a mystery, even to herself. The combination of two small pieces of tissue in her throat creates a powerful and resonant sound that she first discovered while singing in the stairwell of her Brooklyn home. At the age of 14, her mother took her to a recording studio where she spontaneously sang a melody and was surprised by the incredible sound that came out of her mouth. Ten years later, in the film Funny Girl, Streisand’s finely tuned and amplified voice stunned the world. In a iconic scene on the prow of a tug boat in New York harbor, she confidently holds a bouquet and commands the overcast weather not to rain on her parade, turning the sky into an echo chamber.
The autobiography of Streisand is a reflection of her strong and dominating personality. Spanning almost 1,000 pages, it does not contain an index as Streisand, who insists on having complete creative control, dictates how her readers experience the book. This means that we are unable to look up any interesting details about her past, such as her teenage shoplifting days, flirtatious night with Ralph Fiennes, or a scandalous encounter with Pierre Trudeau where the Canadian Prime Minister was said to have swum naked in a frozen lake. The book is exhaustive and at times, tiring, as it constantly revisits moments in Streisand’s life where she was not able to have her way. She even goes as far as to re-edit films she directed and complains about a close-up of her being cut by Sydney Pollack in The Way We Were, which happened 50 years ago. She also manipulates Stephen Sondheim into changing his song lyrics to suit her preferences. In one instance while watching Yentl on TV, she calls the network to complain about the volume of the commercial breaks and manages to convince the sound engineer to lower it by two decibels. Even when invited to dinner, she takes charge by rearranging the table lighting and offering unsolicited advice to her hostess on using taller candles to achieve the perfect eye level flame.
She uses her vocal abilities to manipulate and guide those she collaborates with, admitting that while directing Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides, she aimed to control him like a musical instrument, extracting the full range of human emotions from his strong demeanor. She also acknowledges that there are certain events in life that are beyond her control, such as the loss of her father at a young age and her mother’s jealousy and erratic behavior. However, Streisand finds ways to cope with these tragedies. She first communicates with her deceased father through a seance and then portrays him as a kind and wise scholar in the film Yentl. She also adopts Bill Clinton’s mother, who affectionately calls her “my sweet, wonderful daughter,” as a surrogate parent figure.
In the end, everything becomes incredibly mystical, as if Streisand is controlling nature, as seen in her portrayal of Funny Girl on the harbor. While meditating, she feels her soul separating from her body and drifting into the dark universe, similar to a note she has sung. She justifies her attraction to Marlon Brando by referring to the entanglement of particles in quantum physics and believes that her performance as the androgynous Yentl resolves the conflict between masculine and feminine identities. She describes the perfect lighting on a film set as a result of the universe conspiring to help her. At one point, she puts down a pet dog, a coton de tulear that appears unappealing and noisy in a photo in the book. However, she imagines its resurrection as a fluffy cloud with a tail, hind legs, and ears floating above her swimming pool. In addition, Streisand has the dog cloned, defying nature, and adds two identical clones to her group.
Fortunately, this place offers both raunchy and messy comedy, along with the euphoric feelings of California. Singers have a tendency to speak excessively, and Streisand’s words match what she has consumed. She is constantly snacking, with an omnivorous appetite that includes quenelles, whitefish, large amounts of ice cream, and during her visits to England, turkey sandwiches with Branston pickle or scones with clotted cream. The controlling nature of Streisand is evident again as she chooses mashed strawberries instead of jam. Streisand refers to the process of making films as “all-consuming” and her goal is to conquer the entire world. She even assesses potential partners by examining their teeth.
Barbra Streisand reflects ruefully on the demands of fame, stating that she was known for her persona before being seen as a person. Unfortunately, her book ends impersonally, portraying her as a famous figure who attends events, gives back to charity, and talks about world peace with Nelson Mandela and Shimon Peres. Despite years of therapy, she still believes she has the power to heal the world and trusts Jesse Jackson’s words about being “touched by God”. However, in her book My Name Is Barbra, she also shares her insecurities and intense desire for fame, which stemmed from her troubled childhood. She even questions if her iconic voice is a result of her deviated septum and nasal passages. The mystery remains unsolved, but what matters is that she sang, even though she no longer does. Reading her writing, although wordless, is a small consolation.