Neal Gabler admits that he wasn’t a devoted Streisand fan when he started to write Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power. As he explains it, he became more of a gaga Streisand fan over the course of writing the book. “But I wrote it because I realized she was one of those rare performers who not only changed their art, but who changed their culture.”
Gabler has written award-winning books about people in the entertainment industry and politics, including such legends as Walter Winchell and Walt Disney. He’s currently working on a book about Senator Edward Kennedy.
Jeanne Wolf: It’s hard to analyze or quantify magic or greatness. Do you think you now understand Barbra Streisand’s power?
Neal Gabler: I don’t think you ever really understand magic, but you can understand things in her life that connected her to audiences. Barbra is every marginalized human being, everyone who’s ever been humiliated — and that’s most of us. When she said that she wanted to become a movie star, her own mother told her, “You’re not pretty enough.” Her stepfather, who abused her, would say to her, “You’re just too ugly for me to give you ice cream.” She went before talent agents and producers and every one of them said, “You’re just not pretty enough.” I think her art was to take that life experience and turn it into song.
JW: But she is also known for being tough.
NG: Barbra has said that it was her mother’s abuse that energized her. Somehow she decided, “I’m going to show you.” Where that fortitude came from, I don’t think we will ever know. I don’t think any Freudian explanation is satisfactory. But for all of the talk about her being impregnable and being a diva, one of the things that makes her great is that beneath that toughness, there’s enormous sensitivity. I am impressed that she said, “I remember every negative word that has ever been written about me. I remember none of the good reviews. I can recite every negative review verbatim.” We understand the obstacles that she faced, and her triumphs become our triumphs.
JW: I just saw her husband, James Brolin, and he spoke to me with such pride about his wife’s new album and tour. Are you surprised that she says her marriage is another thing she longed for and now she’s got it?
NG: You know, she once said her entire career was sublimation for the kind of romance and love that she never achieved. Even in most of her films, she winds up alone. I think, if you’re a woman like Barbra Streisand and you can find a man who understands that strength and who appreciates that strength, it’s the basis for a very strong relationship.