Hello, gorgeous. That’s what some Barbra Streisand fans have been murmuring to their physical editions of “My Name Is Barbra,” her memoir, since it came out one month ago, and over that time has become a nightly bedtime companion (its 970-page length not quite built for bingeing), as well as a sort of objet d’art, and objet d’heft. Streisand may be the only entertainer alive whose multifaceted career merits all that and possibly more, to the point that, as the book nears its index-less close, a tireless reader might reasonably wish it’d actually cracked the four-figure page mark.
With some of the book’s more relaxed buyers just now crossing the finish line, Streisand is ready to talk a bit more about it. Variety got on the phone with her and, while ours was hardly as epic a conversation as the marathon she did with Howard Stern, a sense of who she is comes through in even a briefer chat, one that feels like a natural continuation of the utterly conversational tone of the memoir. If her book feels like an elegant, artfully dishy coffee klatsch, a Q&A feels the same, albeit with her occasionally interrupting to ask a personal question or three, the way you can only imagine might happen when you’re caught up in an hours-long texting session with the tome.
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Or listening to it. Because the 48-hour audiobook is turning out to be a must-hear, even among those who think they’re only moderately interested in a Streisand autobiography. “I’ve read this manuscript probably easily a half dozen times,” says Rick Kot, the just-retired executive editor at Viking who oversaw production on the book, “but listening to her read it, it’s a real performance. I mean, obviously I want people to buy the (print) book too, but I have friends who are doing the audiobook and the hardcover simultaneously, and I get constant reports from people.
Adds Kot (who worked on the edit with Streisand and Christine Pittel): “Her perfectionism was really ensuring that it captured her voice. She would say, ‘I wouldn’t use that word.’ There’d be certain words where I said, ‘Well, this is the right word.’ She’d be adamant about it, and I’d say, ‘OK, that’s not the way you talk.’ That’s why the audio is so funny, because she’s really such a gifted comedienne in the way she spins some of the lines. … If you get her one-on-one or in a small group, she’s hilarious — so generous and funny. And the public image and the private in this case are very different. It’s incredibly gratifying to me that people are loving it as much as they have and are reassessing her, and I think it is really is going to make a difference to her legacy. So much of that public image was a creation of shitty media.”
Streisand herself says, by way of introduction, that she’s been wary of the press nearly her whole life. “In my early interviews I was always criticized, I don’t know for what — being a kook … I never understood the criticism, so I stopped giving interviews.” “My Name Is Barbra” makes up for lost Q&A time by serving as an effective act of self-interrogation, 10 years in the making… but it’s good that she’s indulging in the traditional kind, too. The following conversation has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
This book gave me everything I wanted, and lots I didn’t know I wanted.
Really? Ah, that’s a nice compliment. It gave you everything you wanted — I like that. Because you know, when I finished the book, I thought, God, I hope people like this book. It was a long time, and I forgot what I wrote 10 years ago, when I started the book. It’s been a long journey.
Ten years is a good amount of time to birth something into the world. But then you worked on “Yentl” for about 15, so maybe 10 doesn’t seem that long.
That’s true, but at my age it seems longer. Yeah, I was only 40 then — can you imagine, 40 years ago?
The book is so beautifully written, and elegant, but funny, and not overwritten at all. I’m curious if you felt your voice translates naturally to the page, or whether there was a long period of adjustment…
It really totally does. I write like I talk, put it that way. And I didn’t know how that would be treated. When I read a beautiful passage in a book, and it’s so literate, the language… I kept saying to my editor, “Am I being too basic in my language?” Because I so admire beautiful wording. I think, well, is my language OK? The words I use, it’s very plain, I find. So I didn’t know how good it was. It’s lovely to hear your compliments, and some of the reviews… I was ecstatic with, I guess, most of the reviews. I don’t think I ever saw a bad one. They were so appreciative of me and my style that I was kind of overwhelmed by the reception.
Has anything at all surprised you about the reaction to the book? Not necessarily even about the quality of it, but which sections most fascinate people? At least as you’re getting feedback from friends. I don’t know if you eavesdrop at all on what general readers are saying online.
You know, some of my closest friends haven’t responded yet. [Laughs.] I’m thinking, what? But, you know, it is a long book.
The audiobook is a source of rapt fascination in itself, as you surely know.
I haven’t even had the time to play back the audiobook, which was easier for me to do than write a book. And because I could change the language, it’s not exactly like the book. It’s pretty much like the book, but then I would go off here and there and tell stories. But then I ended up taking them out anyway. And then, I wanted to add music into that version. To do the music takes a while, and just to regulate the sound, the volume of it and so forth, with the words… I’ve never had the time to play it back.
The other one is the e-book. I was doing the pictures for the book, and said, “I want to change this, this, this”… “No, you can’t. It’s overdue. The book will never be published in time, if you futz around with the pictures.” So that’s why I did the e-book, which I was able to go back and do my pictures all over again, add many more, and redo the captions. That’s a whole other job.
How long did you take to record the 48 hours? Did you do all of that in kind of a marathon?
It took me six weeks, I think, to do the audiobook. I was so sick of myself — can you imagine? I mean, you write a book for 10 years, then you’ve gotta say it out loud…
And then (for the print edition) you have to put the pictures in, and then you have to design the cover… Well, I did that first. I had the cover before the book. That’s like the way I do albums, actually. I see the cover, and then I fill it in with the songs that go with the cover. That’s how I did the one called “Wet” (from 1979, all songs involving a water theme), or there are several of them like that, you know. I just do it backwards.
It’s interesting to me that you went back and watched a lot of your films, and sometimes you changed your perceptions of them. You write that with “Funny Lady,” you hadn’t been able to watch it since it came out, and then you were pleasantly surprised by it, and it was better than you thought. Your memory of it was unfairly tainted by thinking more about the business dealings behind it. And so there were experiences like that…
Yeah, yeah. I never watch my films. Why would I watch them? But I had to watch my films to talk about them, to write about them. It’s interesting. I was proud of that one that was the first one for my company, Barwood Films, “Up the Sandbox” (from 1972)…
I was just going to bring that up. I loved the chapter on “Up the Sandbox,” because that’s a movie that made a big impact on me and was formative when I was young. It was one of the first R-rated movies I saw…
Come on. Come on! Really? Do you remember how old you were?
I would have been 11 or 12…
And it just had a big impact on me as a kid in terms of changing my expectations of what I wanted out of movies — wanting to be surprised by them. So I was looking forward to that chapter, if there was even going to be one. And you wrote so much about it, like you did most of your films, I was very pleased.
Oh my God, do you know how much that makes me happy? Because I don’t remember the reviews, but I know it was such a flop. You know, I went one night to sneak into the theater, and there were four people in the audience. I mean, nobody wanted to see me as a housewife, a normal person. I guess I was bigger than life, or singing in musicals, it’s like a different world than reality. And nobody understood the way I wanted to do the flashbacks. They weren’t flashbacks — they were going from an 8mm camera to the 35mm camera, in some of them, but people didn’t get it. It was like, I loved foreign films as a kid, after high school, and I would go into that theater… was it called the Astor? — I forgot, I’d have to look it up again — the theater, and see foreign films, I thought they were so great, with the black and white, and so interesting. But they weren’t big box office films.
So I’m very taken with you being 12 years old. I was 14 (going to those foreign films, growing up). I mean, you were a baby! Who took you to see “Up the Sandbox”?
I made my mother take me. The ad campaign intrigued me. It looked subversive, which was intriguing at that age, wanting to see more mature fare. It did introduce me to a feminist viewpoint on screen, and sort of more of a foreign film sensibility in American film, I think…
Wow. But had you seen me in “Funny Girl” or the other musicals, “Hello Dolly” and “Clear Day”?
Probably just “Funny Girl”… and “What’s Up, Doc?,” which came out just before that.
Ah. “What’s Up Doc?,” yeah — I didn’t understand that movie, but it sure became a big hit. [Streisand writes in the book about how she first saw the movie in a private screening where no one laughed, and she was so convinced it was a bomb that she sold off her share of the film.] So I guess I wasn’t too interested in the financial aspect of a movie. But, it was rewarding to make “Up the Sandbox.”
Something you say about yourself in here is, “I would make a great critic, especially of myself.” And it really does feel like there’s a lot of kind of film criticism, or self-criticism, embedded in the film-by-film, making-of chapters here, where you have a lot of objective-seeming insights into what went right or wrong. This is a great book for people who like cinematographers, for instance, because you discuss learning from how “Gordy” (Gordon Willis) lit you a certain way…
Some people are going to want to read this for the love affairs, and some people are going to want to read it for the cinematography discussions.
Yeah. My cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, who I did three projects with, presented me with a cinematographers’ award (the American Society of Cinematographers’ Board of Governors Award, in 2015). That was thrilling, because then I could thank all those great cinematographers — and never mention the ones that weren’t, which was only about one. You know, the difference of making a movie with (cinematographer) David Watkin and (camera operator) Peter McDonald on “Yentl,” as I say in the book, is that they accepted me, a first-time woman director. And it’s probably because they had a queen, obviously, and a prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. So, it wasn’t such a big deal that I was a woman in England.
That’s an interesting realization.
I mean, they were a devoted crew. … I designed it because I’m an actress from the theater, originally, so there is no take 2 every night. You get through the show. In the movies, every scene is different, and it’s usually on a different day. So I was thinking they’ll never be able to do some of the things I’m imagining with the camera. But Peter McDonald was my savior. He said, “No, no, no, Barbra, whatever you see, I will give you. Whatever you can imagine, I can do.”
So when I came to New York to do “Prince of Tides” [on which Streisand had a less smooth relationship with her DP], I said, “Well, the first shot starts on a plate and then he shoves it and then it goes up to the mother’s face…” And the first thing he said to me was, “You can’t do that.” “What? ‘You can’t do that?’” He said, “We would have to take away the wall for that shot.” I said, “That’s right!” That’s why, when we did “Yentl,” Peter said, “We’ll make the set so that it comes apart.” So the first song I sing in “Yentl”… I was used to doing things in the theater in one take, obviously, and that’s what I wanted to do in the movie as well. When I sing a song, I want it, if I can figure it out, in one take. A camera can accommodate that. That was what was so much fun in directing.
You say at one point in the book that an editor told you you needed to leave some blood on the page — which was an interesting image — and implicit in that exchange is that you didn’t always want to leave blood on the page.
No, I did not.
What was the most difficult bloodletting, as it were, in this book?
Well, it was mainly about the men in my life. I could never talk about it in an interview, so don’t expect me to talk about it now. It’s like, me alone with my book is one thing, but the thought of saying some of these words out loud, I don’t know — it’s too personal. So I can’t do it. I mean, I’m sorry I even said certain things, but she was kind of adamant about it. “You can’t not say this or that.” So, I trusted that. But I can’t say certain things out loud.
I think I know what the answer is to this last question, but want to ask it anyway, about the prospect of future performances. Every time you’ve done a tour, I think we felt lucky that maybe it was one more tour than we were already expecting. And when we saw you the last time you played L.A.…
Well, you have to know that every time I finished one of those tours, I always said, “That’s it. It’s too stressful for me. I cannot do it.” But when I needed to buy a painting, I needed a certain amount of money. And you know, you don’t make a lot… well, I didn’t make a lot of money in films. And I sold out (her share of) “What’s Up, Doc?,” and I sold out “The Way We Were” because I didn’t want to give him (producer Ray Stark) another film. And I was sorry about that. Then I wouldn’t have had to do those extra concerts.
But I like working for something. It’s not just for money. I like working for a painting I want to buy. That brings me back to my early days, when I had nothing, practically, and I had my envelopes with the five dollars here and the ten dollars I made there — 45 dollars a week after taxes. But I could afford an apartment with my friend who also wanted to be an actress, and I had my envelopes to pay this and that, and laundry. And life was kind of simple, and I could still save some money in the Siemens Bank. I come from that background, you know? When you’re born into a background where people don’t have the money, you adjust and it’s fine.
I feel very lucky that I was able to make a name for myself and become a movie star. That was like such a dream — me, a movie star? My mother said it would never happen. And that’s a big impetus, to prove her wrong, you know?
And somehow looking through these magazines that came out, and pictures, I thought, “Wow, I grew into my face.” How did that happen? Was that fate? I mean, I was a funny-looking kid and teenager. And somehow I sort of grew into my face without having to cap my teeth or change my nose or whatever. I’m proud of that. I’m proud that truth and reality got me to where I wanted to go without having to compromise.
Well, it sounds like if we ever want to hear you sing live again, somebody has to find some really expensive paintings that you can’t do without.
Well, until I need another painting and I can’t afford it. Who knows, you know? I haven’t sung in like three years.
I want to try to sing certain songs, the songs that I did at my first job at the Lion [the gay club in Greenwich Village where Streisand performed circa 1960]. I thought it’d be interesting; I have all those lists of songs I used to sing, but I never got around to (on record). I have to call my album “Songs I Never Got Around to Singing,” or something like that.
I mean, I love the recording process. I like the privacy of it. So I do plan on singing again, but I don’t know if I could (in a concert setting). I have a bad back now. And I never had it operated on, so, you know, it’s hard to move around. Maybe if I could sit up on a stage, just in one chair. I don’t know; I have no idea. But, at the moment, I can’t see it in my future.
It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
It was nice talking to you, too. Thank you. I’m going to have an ice cream cone, I don’t know about you.
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