Pip with Pizzazz: Ethan Mordden Assesses Barbra Streisand

Diversity, inclusion and curious sins of omission in a new book on the "greatest star."

Barbra Streisand and company in Broadway's "Funny Girl" (1964).

“She really is something, that Streisand,” Truman Capote once said. “She’s always got something up her skirts.”

So true, Tru. Learning exactly what this long-influential star of stage, screen and recording booth will do next has been part of the game for those who have followed her career over the decades. (I’m certainly a member of the club myself. I first became intrigued by the multi-hyphenate Barbra when I was 16; recently I attained honored-citizen status, and I am still under her spell.)

Streisand admirers will certainly welcome Ethan Mordden’s new book, On Streisand: An Opinionated Guide. But they may wince when, near the end of it, he writes about the star in the past tense, as though she’s already reached the stoney end of her career. Barbra-philes probably do need to acknowledge that, at age 77, she may not have that many artistic surprises left to spring on us.

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Mordden has written about Streisand before. As a busy chronicler of Broadway and film, how could he have not? In his 2001 book, Open a New Window (about Broadway musicals in the 1960s), he devoted an entire chapter to Funny Girl. But writing a whole book — albeit a thin, 160-page one — about a single artist is something new for him.

On Streisand begins with a long introductory overview and then traces her career with sections covering her contributions to theater (a short chapter, sadly), TV, recorded music and film. Mordden spends a lot of words on certain projects: the singer’s first studio album in 1963, the Stoney End album, such motion pictures as The Way We Were and Yentl. But he scarcely weighs in on others, such as Higher Ground (a 1997 album of inspirational songs) and the 2012 movie The Guilt Trip, possibly her final cinematic excursion.

Those who know Mordden’s showbiz books will feel that the word “opinionated” in the On Streisand subtitle is essentially redundant. The author has never been shy about making big pronouncements about anything. Even if you disagree with him, you can appreciate the scope of his knowledge and the freshness and incisiveness of his assessments.

True, his opinion on various Streisand career forays often matches conventional wisdom among those who know her work well. He’s no big outlier, for example, when he opines that Funny Girl has second-act problems or that What About Today?, Streisand’s 1969 experiment with pop-rock songs, is inferior to her follow-up effort, 1971’s Stoney End. But sometimes Mordden’s takes are unexpected. He finds the 1970 film The Owl and the Pussycat to be “piffle.” Other writers, including legendary critic Pauline Kael, have praised it, and I personally feel it’s her best non-musical comedic film. When it comes to her motion-picture pairings with actor Ryan O’Neal, does anyone really rank 1979’s The Main Event over 1972’s What’s Up, Doc?? Mordden does, partly on the ground that O’Neal grew more adept at comedy during the years between the two projects.

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UPI called Streisand’s first TV special, in 1965, “a pinnacle moment in American show business, in any form, in any period.”

In his final pages — an annotated bibliography of Streisand-related books — Mordden criticizes writer Anne Edwards for the many factual errors in her Barbra bio. It’s surprising, then, that On Streisand itself has several flubs. Mordden states that part of the TV special My Name Is Barbra was taped at the now-lost luxury department store Bonwit Teller. (It was Bergdorf Goodman.) He cites Streisand’s appearance on TV’s Inside the Actors Studio taped in 1994. (It came a decade later). He mentions Alec Baldwin contributing spoken dialogue on 1985’s The Broadway Album. (He did perform a duet — including some spoken lines — on a much later Streisand album, but the 1985 collaborator was The Way We Were director Sydney Pollack.) In one footnote, the Bon Soir nightclub — an integral part of Streisand lore — is called “Beau Soir.” No writer can get everything correct, as I will personally (and sometimes shamefacedly) attest. But the number of inaccuracies here surprised me.

Mordden might have more fully emphasized the innovativeness and sheer popularity of Streisand in the 1960s and 1970s. Most people who didn’t live through those years fail to realize, for instance, just how revolutionary My Name Is Barbra was in the history of network TV specials and what a stepping-stone it was to Streisand’s level of renown. Younger people may have no idea that, throughout the 1970s, she was the only the only woman regularly on the list of the top-10 “bankable” film stars. (Indeed, nowadays many people know her only through her appearance in the Fockers franchise, if they know her for anything.)

On the whole, however, the author offers much good stuff to chew on about the essence of the Streisand career. He feels that all the hullabaloo about Streisand’s unconventional looks is actually a reaction to her attitudes and behavior. One of his most striking hypotheses concerns the nature of her celebrity image. He writes:

She makes considered — even excruciatingly interrogated — judgment calls, because her work is her identity. Here is no Warholian figure, known for what she represents rather than for what she actually does. On the contrary, we know Streisand for her singing and acting — that is, her credits — along with her political activism, on the left.

I think Streisand herself would appreciate that assessment, because, in interview after interview over nearly six decades, she has stressed that her work is what she wants to be judged on and remembered for. Her personal life, she’s said, is beside the point, her own damn business. Mordden deals a bit with her reputation for being “difficult” with colleagues and with her perfectionism. But he is more concerned with the quality of the work itself. He acknowledges that much of her effort in the film realm has been wasted on “schlock, and at times terrible schlock” — which is something many of her admirers would agree with. But when he likes her work, he can be generous with his praise. He describes her direction of 1983’s Yentl as “shockingly good,” adding:

This being Streisand’s very first time directing, one would have expected a partly qualified result, with something of the learner’s permit about it. Surely a beginner  who may have plenty of imagination but no practical experience — will stumble here and there. But Streisand doesn’t, neither in her coaching the players in the intricacies of gender interaction nor in framing the shots.

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Streisand’s commitment to political causes and candidates is of long standing.

Curiously, Streisand’s political activism is not Mordden’s concern. But it is a huge part of her public image now and it has impacted her artistry for a long time. Some bystanders may believe that Streisand’s commitment to the Democratic Party and left-of-center politics began with her affiliation with the Clintons, but she performed for President Kennedy back in 1963, and overcame her stage fright to sing live and raise money for presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972; she was even on Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list. Mordden — who has written extensively about gay American life — does acknowledge Streisand’s reputation as a gay icon, but doesn’t dwell on it. Nor does he mention any of the issues-oriented TV projects that she helped to produce in the 1990s, which dealt with LGBTQ and gun-control issues. Apparently because of a publisher’s deadline, he doesn’t evaluate her most recent recording, 2018’s anti-Trump album, Walls.

Other new recordings are likely to come. And this July, Streisand will perform at a huge outdoor concert in London’s Hyde Park, followed in August by a one-nighter at Madison Square Garden. So, although it’s late in the game, there may, after all, be future chapters of the Streisand career to be dealt with. Perhaps Mordden can add a coda to any future edition of this book to bring us up to date, especially as Streisand reaches into the folds of her skirt to retrieve surprises not yet imagined.