How Streisand became a symbol

“Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power” by Neal Gabler; Yale University Press ($25)
“Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power” by Neal Gabler; Yale University Press ($25)

What a revelation it must have been to see Barbra Streisand for the first time in a nightclub or onstage. Her vowels were nasal, her patois unmistakably Brooklyn; she had a gorgeous, frankly Semitic face. Then she became a movie star. To families stocked with Barbras, including my own, the very sight of her on a huge screen was exhilarating. She represented the way we were.

And she was not going to do one thing about that nose. She’d thought about it, writes Neal Gabler, author of “Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power,” the latest entry in Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. How could she not, when an early review in Variety said she needed “a schnoz bob?”

Or when an ex-lover and bitter fellow actor angrily whispered “nose” into her ear onstage every night?

Or when critic John Simon complained that her nose “towers like a ziggurat made of meat”?

But unlike Fanny Brice, who went under the knife to broaden her appeal (prompting Dorothy Parker to declare, “She cut off her nose to spite her race”), Barbra made an early determination: The nose was inseparable from her identity.

“Of course there had been other Jewish stars before Streisand,” Gabler writes. “But Jewish entertainers were typically comedians who played their Jewishness for laughs, or they were actors who camouflaged their Jewishness.”

Not Barbra. She was the “Jew’s Jew,” as Gabler puts it, the pioneer who succeeded because of her Jewishness, not despite it. It made her the psychological lodestar “for everyone who had ever been dismissed and then had to fight for empowerment.” Gays, loners, plain Janes.

This is not, it should be said, a particularly original thesis. But it doesn’t seem to have been Gabler’s intention to write a groundbreaking book so much as to write a spirited and entertaining cultural appreciation. (He never interviewed Streisand.) Generally, he succeeds, although at times his appreciation is so full of treacle that it’s a wonder the pages don’t stick together. Anyone with a serious distaste for Streisand would be advised to dine at some other establishment.

This book also devotes only a few paragraphs to the larger sea changes of the ‘60s, which let in a tide of overtly ethnic actors, and it’s peculiarly silent about Woody Allen, whose conquest of the mainstream seems most similar to Streisand’s own.

But hey, let’s table that reservation: We’re talking Barbra here. Of course, it’s all about her.

And to be fair, she did come first. You could argue that her career made Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and the gals of “Broad City” possible.

Gabler, no stranger to the subject of either Hollywood or Jewishness (he’s the author of “Winchell,” “Walt Disney” and “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood”), starts with the potted Streisand biography: The father who died when she was 15 months old, the withholding mother. Her triumph in talent contests at the Lion nightclub as an 18-year-old, her spellbinding performance of “A Sleepin’ Bee” on “The Tonight Show,” her wowie of a debut on Broadway as Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.”

The odds were so toweringly stacked against Streisand that her story, in a way, becomes a perfect case study in what it takes to become famous: a king-size determination; an insatiable craving for the spotlight; a cyclonic combination of overconfidence and insecurity, whirling in its own feedback loop. In 1964, she told Time magazine: “I’m too whatever-I-am to end up in the middle.”

Her Jewishness, at least at the beginning, was a scrim for everyone, including other Jews, to project many anxieties. Fanny Brice’s daughter thought she was too Jewish to play her own mother in “Funny Girl.”

Yet it was precisely through her movies that Streisand brought the public over to her side — namely by “performing her life.” In film after film, Gabler writes, she’d go “from mieskeit to beauty” — mieskeit is Yiddish for an ugly person, a frump — “from an outsider to a guiding light.”

Streisand eventually became such a powerful gravitational force that the world curved to her. No less than Vogue magazine declared that she’d ushered in “a whole new taste in beauty.” She posed on the cover of Playboy. By the time she was in her 60s, Gabler writes, “she had become so much a part of our consciousness that we accepted her for who she was. The assimilation wasn’t hers. It was ours.”

As a male writer, Gabler treads extra cautiously when writing about Streisand. (Which is always welcome! We thank him for that, we do!) But this sensitivity, I think, obscures some basic facts about her character. Being a feminist doesn’t require you to be an apologist.

Gabler delicately muses, for instance, about the stereotype of the domineering Jewish woman, noting that this “too muchness,” which often doomed the relationships of Streisand’s characters on-screen, could well explain what delayed Streisand in finding stable, lasting love in real life too.

It’s possible. But Streisand is also a diva almost without peer, and her narcissism could dwarf a gassy nebula. Neither of these qualities suggests that she’d have great relationship skills. (To a showgirl who accidentally brushed up against her on the set of “Funny Girl,” Streisand said, “I’ve been told that the star is never touched in a scene like this.”)

Gabler similarly wonders whether people’s objections to Streisand’s forays into politics were really a reaction to her so-called brassiness.

And again, it’s possible. But it’s also possible that Streisand’s political ideas were simply predictable and boring, always tiresomely delivered to a crowd of the already converted — of what Fran Lebowitz once called “the religious left.”

In general, Gabler accepts much of what Streisand says about herself at face value — and frankly, much of what she says about herself is ridiculous.

Speaking of her outlook on life, Gabler quotes — with a straight face — this: “I’m a pretty pragmatic person, grounded in reality. I’m an earth sign, Taurus.” He approvingly cites an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2006, in which Streisand declared, “It’s about believing that I am enough.” He treats her political pablum like Holy Scripture; he defends her schlockiest movies (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”? C’mon.)

Yet you can see how he became smitten. As he notes throughout his book, Streisand seems to awaken a protective instinct in people — possibly because she’s as delicate as she is tough, possibly because she’s cursed with seriousness so extreme that it makes it hard for her to feel joy.

Barbra will always be an ugly caricature to some. But she’s also inspired poetry, art, plays and a museum in the Castro in San Francisco. She may be, in the manner of so many stars, a person who too badly needed people. But we also, clearly, needed her.