"My Name Is Barbra" is an autobiography but it's also an enormous physical artifact that forces you to alter the way you consume books: Balance its 3 pounds on your chest and you could crush a sternum. Its unwieldiness is an apt metaphor for memoirist Barbra Streisand, who has tried to control everything since she became a star at 19.
That was in Broadway's 1962 "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," which was her first big acting gig as well as the first time she clashed with a director with whom she was contradicting/vetoing/collaborating. It's a theme throughout Streisand's six-decade career and she's probably the one who sums it up best in a note to pal Bill Clinton while he was president: "I know you're probably not interested in my opinions but I'm giving them to you anyway."
Streisand has long been regarded as one of Hollywood's premier control freaks but "Barbra," which is charming, infuriating, funny and nearly 1,000 pages long, provides context: "I have strong opinions. I can be stubborn. I get angry."
Chatty and sincere, the book reads like a conversation, complete with asides and self-corrections (especially if you listen to the audiobook, which I recommend, although it's a 48-hour commitment unless you listen to it speeded-up, which I also recommend). She tells us about her mother (withholding), work philosophy (honesty first) and relationships, ranging from affectionate (first husband Elliott Gould, lover Pierre Trudeau) to very much not (ex Jon Peters, "Wholesale" director Arthur Laurents).
Streisand drops the stiff, great-lady-of-theater approach she often has in interviews (which, she says, make her uncomfortable). The effect is like she's sharing coffee cake with us and telling us all (well, some) of the hot goss. After a couple of chapters about her childhood, it's organized by project, with insight into what inspired her albums, movies and concert tours. Interspersed are chapters about deep friendships with Marlon Brando (who knew?) and other people, with details about her activism at the end.
She can still be tone deaf — Streisand quotes Camille Paglia noting that her sexy gown upstaged President Clinton at his own inauguration and seems to think that's a good thing — and, on the audiobook, it's icky to listen to her reading, at length, gushing letters and reviews from people like critic Pauline Kael or director Jerome Robbins. But even those glitches fit in "My Name Is Barbra."
It's generous about others who helped her create beautiful things, occasionally repetitive (OK, you never sing in the shower — we get it), passionate, wonky, numbers-obsessed (24 is her favorite), detail-oriented and more. In other words, it feels like it's Streisand telling us all the things she's wanted to say for all of her 81 years on Earth.
Streisand is particularly sharp on the career stuff. Descriptions of how she analyzes a song are fascinating. And, as projects come and go over the years, it's finally clear why, for instance, she has made only 19 movies in more than 50 years.
I can't envision a casual reader wanting to hoist a copy of "My Name Is Barbra." But if you've ever been a fan, even if it has been a while, I can't imagine you'd want to miss it.
My Name Is Barbra
By: Barbra Streisand.
Publisher: Random House, 992 pages, $47.