Monday, June 10, 2013

Q&A with Streisand Biographer William J. Mann

In advance of our free Barbra Streisand film festival, we caught up with biographer William J. Mann, author of Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand to chat about the Funny Girl herself. Mann will introduce the series on June 26.

MJH: This book is really flushed out and full of life in a way that a lot of biographies are not, which is interesting since as you mention, Streisand has a well known dislike of biographies. What are the challenges of writing a book without the subject’s input?

WM: There are advantages and disadvantages. When I wrote the authorized biography of director John Schlesinger, I had access to his archives, actors, and crew. I didn’t have to go chasing down leads. But there is a certain amount of objectivity that you have to push yourself to maintain.

Knowing how Streisand has a history of wanting to take charge of her projects, I feel the only way to write this book was to do it as an unauthorized biography.

MJH: Why did you choose Streisand’s early career as your focus?

WM: I will be honest and say that it was not my idea to write about Streisand. It was my editor’s idea. I have always liked her and admired her, but he was the one who thought it should be my next subject. That said, I looked for an angle that caught my interest.

I thought the early years were the most interesting. She came from nothing and made a huge star of herself through the force of her own personality and her own talent and determination. I wanted to know how she did that in just five years. That’s what interested me.

MJH: Your book mentions that some of the myths surrounding Streisand were just that, myths.

WM: I think there is always a degree of calculation. Few things in the entertainment world are spontaneous. So much of our popular culture is based on myth. Like Lana Turner being discovered at a drug store. The press talked about how Streisand walked off the street and was the most talented singer they had heard, and that she came out of nowhere. It didn’t really happen that way.

A lot of hard work goes into promoting, a lot of behind-the-scenes work from managers, agents, and other people in her corner.

MJH: Tell us how Funny Girl started as a bio of Fanny Brice and was transformed into a star vehicle for Streisand.

WM: The book of Funny Girl is just not good. I think the creative team realized that they had to do something to offset the weakness of it. They needed a larger than life leading lady. They needed Barbra Streisand. Then Fanny Brice became the excuse to make Streisand a star. The musical revolved around Streisand’s talents and her personality. I think that is why it hasn’t held up since. The music is beautiful, but it needs someone  with a big talent and personality to come in and change it and make it their own, like a Lady Gaga or Madonna type.

MJH: You write about how it was the right time for Streisand to come on the scene and change the cultural landscape. What do you mean by that?

WM: It was the right time for Streisand, but also the times were right for her. The landscape and consciousness was changing. The 1950s white bread ideals of Hollywood were evolving and expanding. Suddenly Streisand came along and there was a democratization of talent. The doors opened and Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, Diahann Carroll were on the scene. Streisand was part of that. The culture was ripe for it and she pushed the envelope.

She didn’t just want to be the best friend. She wanted to be the leading lady exactly as she was without changing her name or her nose. She claimed it for herself and it was revolutionary.

MJH: In the book, you say that there were other Jewish female stars that came before Streisand, like Lauren Bacall and Judy Holliday, but that Barbra Streisand was the first to really show her Jewishness. How do you think it affected her career?

WM: If she tried to enter the scene 10 years earlier it would have been a different story. She did struggle somewhat. If you look at early reviews, they are glowing about her singing, but talk about her looks in an almost anti-Semitic way. On the other hand, the struggles helped her become who she was, and she stood apart from the crowd.

MJH: What do you think we can learn about Streisand the performer by reading about her personal relationships?

WM: I think a lot of her earlier years were about her drive to prove herself to her mother, who wasn’t supportive, to her friends in Brooklyn, who thought she couldn’t do it, and to her father, who she never knew. He died when she was a baby.  He was a very cultured and educated man and she wanted to be like him and to think that he would have been proud of her. She wanted to matter.

MJH: Why do you think we are still so enamored with her? 

WM: Her talent is remarkable. It has been said that her voice is one of the natural wonders of the ages. She makes wonderful movies, and she is now part of our national consciousness.

I also think that Streisand represents something more. She symbolizes the ability to survive and to persevere. It is an empowering story. She didn’t listen when they said she wasn’t leading lady material.  She was an underdog, and others who don’t fit into the perfect leading lady or leading man role find it inspiring.

She has led a continuously exemplary life full of successes and triumphs despite the fact that she came from nothing. I think we are all still rooting for her.

Image: © Sony Pictures

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