Friday, Sept. 28, 2012

Hello Babs

The Rise of Barbra Streisand

By David Luhrssen
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Perhaps the Christmas release of The Guilt Trip, Barbra Streisand’s first starring film role since 1996, means the time is right for a new biography. In Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), William J. Mann focuses on the formative years. The story begins in 1960, when the determined Brooklyn kid took the subway to Manhattan, rented a cheap walk-up and enrolled in acting classes, and climaxes in 1965 with her Broadway triumph, Funny Girl, the production that opened doors to Hollywood.

Mann is gushing in his praise, ranking Streisand as “like nothing the world of entertainment had ever seen.” Well, he makes a good case for her distinctive glow amid the firmament of stars. But “the biggest star on the planet”? I guess Mann grew up in a home where show tunes were always on the hi-fi and the Beatles were only a rumor. The author’s unflagging enthusiasm, however, doesn’t stand in the way of composing a plausible account. Mann was a tireless researcher, sifting through newspaper notices and the papers of Streisand’s mentors. He refutes a few old stories and conjures up a vivid sense for Manhattan in the years when it was the world’s cultural capital as well as a cheap place for struggling artists to live.


Streisand was singular in many ways as the young protégé of the older generation of entertainers just as pop culture was being seized by a youthful counterculture. And unlike many previous entertainers who veiled their heritage from an unsympathetic WASP public, Streisand was frankly Jewish at the moment when it became cool to assert ethnic identity. She was also unconventionally attractive at a time when old strictures on glamour were falling in favor of new faces. Mann makes an additional and telling observation. While reveling in her celebrity status, Streisand was prodigiously talented, unlike too many of today’s celebs, coasting along on minimal gifts (Lindsay Lohan?) or none at all (Paris Hilton!).

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