Rick Kot, an executive editor at Viking who oversaw production on the book, told me, “Publishing books in two volumes is difficult just as a commercial venture. And nobody seems to have any issue with how long” Streisand’s is.
The bigness of it makes literal the career it contains. Streisand is poring over, pouring out, her life. She’s feeling her way through it, remembering, sometimes Googling as she types. It’s not a book you inhale, per se. (Unless, of course, you’ve got a pressing lunch date with the author.) Nor does it inspire the “five takeaways” treatment that juicy new memoirs by Britney Spears and Jada Pinkett Smith have. Not that there weren’t requests for spicier material. Streisand said that Christine Pittel, her editor, told her “that I had to leave some blood on the page.” So feelings are more deeply plumbed; names are named.
And she did do some hemming and hawing. “I was very late in delivering the book,” she said. “I think I was supposed to deliver it in two years.” It took her 10. And as she went, she thought about her legacy. “If you want to read about me in 20 years or 50 years, whatever it is — if there’s still a world — these are my words. These are my thoughts.” She also considered those other Streisand titles, the ones by other people. “Hopefully, you don’t have to look at too many books written about me. You know, whenever I was told about what they said, certain things, I thought, like, who are they talking about?”
There are takeaways. But they’re too chronic to qualify as “current.” Mostly, they involve Streisand’s hunger for work and her endless quest to maintain control over it. Singing and acting made her famous. This insistence on perfection made her notorious. Sexism and chauvinism are on display throughout the book. But what becomes apparent is that the woman who has a “directed by” credit on just three films (“Yentl,” “The Prince of Tides” and “The Mirror Has Two Faces”) had been a director from the very start of her career. Here is the book’s grand revelation — for a reader but for the author, too. “I didn’t know about it,” she said, of this proclivity for management, planning, vision, authority and obeying her instincts. “But writing the book, I discovered it. Basically, I was doing that, you know, when I was 19 years old — or even showing my mother how to smoke.”
Streisand is unsparing about the treachery she faced at work, collaborating with men. Sydney Chaplin (one of Charlie’s kids) played the original Nick Arnstein during her “Funny Girl” Broadway run; they shared a flirtation that Chaplin wanted to consummate and that Streisand wanted to keep professional. (For one thing, she was married to Elliott Gould.) So, she writes, Chaplin did a number on her. In front of live audiences, he’d lean in to whisper put-downs and profanity. When it came time to shoot “Hello, Dolly!,” Streisand couldn’t understand why her co-star Walter Matthau and their director, Gene Kelly (yes, the Gene Kelly) were so hostile toward her. She confronts Matthau, and he confesses: “You hurt my friend,” meaning Chaplin, his poker buddy. Throughout her career, she’s up against what one surly camera operator, on the set of “The Prince of Tides,” boasts is a boys’ club.
That’s the sort of blood that gives this book its power — not the prospect of a bluntly louche Brando and a doting Pierre Trudeau being honest-to-God soul mates, not whatever her byzantine thing with Jon Peters was about. It’s that Barbra Streisand endured a parade of harsh workplaces yet never stopped trying to make the best work. That experience with Chaplin left her with lifelong stage fright. But what if it also helped sharpen her volition to get things — in the studio, on a film set, before a show — exactly, possibly obsessively, right?