A voice like Barbra Streisand’s is a mystery, even to its owner: two bits of gristle in the throat resonantly swell in her head and chest to produce a storm of sound that Streisand first heard when vocalising in the stairwell of a Brooklyn tenement. Taken to a recording studio by her mother at the age of 14, she gratuitously riffed on a melody and, as she recalls, “something came out of my mouth that completely surprised me”. A decade later in Funny Girl, that finely tuned and amped-up “something” stunned the world. At the prow of a tug boat in New York harbour, triumphantly brandishing a bouquet to upstage the Statue of Liberty’s torch, Streisand turns the sky into an echo chamber as she orders the overcast weather not to rain on her parade.
Her autobiography matches the commanding noise she makes. Almost 1,000 pages long, it lacks an index because Streisand – who always demanded what she calls through clenched teeth “creative control” – insists on directing the way we read and debars us from looking up titbits about her adolescent exploits as a shoplifter, a night spent playing footsie with Ralph Fiennes, or a romp with Pierre Trudeau that involves the Canadian prime minister swimming naked in an icy lake. Exhaustive and exhausting, the book relitigates Streisand’s life by revisiting the rare occasions on which her will was not done. She re-edits the films she directed, kvetches because 50 years ago Sydney Pollack cut a close-up of her from The Way We Were, and manoeuvres Stephen Sondheim into altering his song lyrics to accommodate her. Watching Yentl on television, she objects to the volume of the commercial breaks, phones the network and bullies the sound engineer into turning the knob down two decibels. Invited out to dinner, she redesigns the table lighting before she sits down and advises her hostess to find taller candles that will place the flames at eye level.
She extends her control over her vocal apparatus to the people she works with, and confesses that when directing Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides she wanted “to play him like an instrument”, extracting “the high and the low notes of human emotion” from his overbearing body. More poignantly, she concedes that there are things in life that she cannot alter: the death of her father when she was a baby; the disaffection of a mother who envied her success and often staged mad tantrums at concerts, like a senescent diva demanding her share of the applause. Yet even here Streisand contrives to elasticise the fatal facts. She first communes with her father at a seance, then recreates him as the benign Talmudic scholar in Yentl; later, she adopts Bill Clinton’s kindly mother – who calls her “my sweet, wonderful daughter” – as her other parent.
Ultimately, it all turns deliriously mystical, as if Streisand really were orchestrating nature, as she appears to be doing on the harbour in Funny Girl. Meditating, she feels “a soul float free” from her body, exhaled into “a dark universe” like a note she has sung. She explains her attraction to Marlon Brando by invoking the entanglement of particles in quantum physics, and believes that her performance as the androgynous Yentl, a girl who passes for a boy in order to study the Talmud, resolves the “masculine-feminine dichotomy” that bedevils us. When the afternoon sun irradiates a film set with exactly the right lambent glow, she purrs that “the universe conspired to assist me”. At one point she euthanises a pet dog, a coton de tulear that looks, to judge from a photo in the book, like an unadorable bundle of yapping fluff; she then envisions its surrection in a puffball of cloud hovering consolingly above her swimming pool, “with a tail, two hind legs, and two ears sticking out”. Meanwhile, outwitting nature, Streisand has the dog cloned, and welcomes two genetically identical facsimiles into her entourage.
Luckily, there is bawdy, messy comedy here as well as blissed-out Californian rapture. Singers are oral compulsives, and what comes out of Streisand’s mouth is matched by what has gone into it. She is always snacking, and the omnivorous menu includes quenelles, whitefish, gallons of ice-cream, and on visits to England turkey sandwiches with Branston pickle or scones with clotted cream and – here is the controller at work again – mashed strawberries rather than jam. Streisand calls film-making “an all-consuming process”: it’s her aim to gobble up the entire world, and she assesses beddable men by scrutinising their teeth.
In a rueful reflection on the demands of stardom, Streisand says: “I was a personality before I became a person.” It’s a shame that her book concludes impersonally, institutionalising her as a public figure who accepts honours, dispenses charitable largesse and exchanges truisms about global peace with Nelson Mandela and Shimon Peres. After decades of therapy, she has plans to heal the universe, and seems inclined to believe Jesse Jackson when he tells her she has been “touched by God”. But at its best, My Name Is Barbra confides her insecurities and a ravening hunger for fame that can never atone for the neglect she suffered as a child. She even wonders if the voice that thrilled the world is the accidental product of a deviated septum and of the air passages in her kinked nose. Let the mystery remain unsolved. What matters is that she sang, and now she no longer does. It’s some compensation to read her silent but eloquent and vociferous writing.