NEW YORK – Before she's ready to talk about her memoir, Barbra Streisand needs to pull herself away from current events.
“I'm watching (expelled Rep.) George Santos, and worrying about the world and democracy," she says at the start of a telephone interview, when asked how's she doing.
“I have to say,” she adds a moment later, “I guess I'm OK.”
There are reasons “My Name is Barbra” took as long to wrap up as even her most challenging film projects. For decades, she rarely had the kind of solitary time needed to settle down and write. And even with her film and concert career essentially over — “I don't enjoy performing anymore,” she says — the longtime liberal and political activist remains absorbed in the news no matter how distressing, from next year's U.S. presidential election to the war in the Middle East.
For Streisand, long one of the most private of superstars, opening up about herself is an ongoing challenge. But, as she explains in her memoir, she felt an “obligation to the people truly interested" in her work, in the process behind her work “and perhaps the person behind the process.”
“I thought writing a book would be easier than making a movie, but boy, was I wrong,” she writes.
Published in early November, “My Name is Barbra” is a nearly 1,000 page memoir that covers one of the epic narratives in modern show business — her uncompromising rise from working class Brooklyn in the 1940s and '50s to global fame. Streisand’s records have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and her honors range from multiple Emmys and Grammys to a lifetime achievement award from The American Film Institute to a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Publishers had sought her life story since at least the 1980s, when then-Doubleday editor Jacqueline Kennedy lobbied in vain to sign up Streisand, who felt she wasn't ready. But starting in the late 1990s, Streisand began writing down memories — in longhand, because she couldn't type. She agreed to a book deal with Viking in 2015, and notes that a manuscript she expected to finish in two years ended up taking a decade, a delay she was relieved to learn is not uncommon in publishing.
“I always wonder about that,” Streisand, 81, says during the interview. “Like, great authors, if it takes them a long time, how do they make a living?
It helps to have outside income.
In her memoir, Streisand shares vivid, detailed memories of her breakthrough Broadway and film roles in “Funny Girl,” of recording such chart-topping albums as “People” and “Guilty” and making such signature Streisand films as “The Way We Were,” “A Star Is Born” and “Yentl,” which marked the beginning of her unique achievements as a woman who produced, directed and starred in her own movies. She also looks back on her 8-year marriage to Elliott Gould, her affairs with Ryan O'Neal and Don Johnson among others and her enduring relationship with James Brolin, whom she married in 1998.
“Nothing's impossible,” is how she begins the book's epilogue.
“My Name is Barbra” reached the top five on the New York Times bestseller list and has received the kinds of reviews her films and albums inspired: “At heart this is a story so bursting with life, fury, unbelievable ambition and food (Streisand loves to eat) that you come away from it exhausted but smiling,” wrote the Guardian's Emma Brockes.
During her recent interview, Streisand reflected on her tastes in music, the films she made and those she enjoys and her sense of destiny, dating back to childhood.
A LIFE PATH SET AT A YOUNG AGE
She recalled seeing “The Diary of Anne Frank” on stage in the 1950s. Even then, she just knew she could do it.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m 14. I’m Jewish, and I can play that part.’ Well, how did I know that? I don’t know. So there’s a part of me that’s very self-sufficient or believes in myself."
But there's another part, too, a negativity, a doubt — “don't know if it's just people who are artistic,” she says, but it's a dichotomy.
"And then there’s the part that knows from your soul, from my DNA, from my father, maybe even my mother, that tells you ‘You can do it.’ I don’t know how to describe it. It doesn’t come in a bottle.”
SINGING CAME NATURALLY
Her father passed away when she was in infancy. She was known for that, as “the girl with no father,” she recalls, and for having “a good voice.” More inspired as a teenager by the soundtrack to “Guys and Dolls” than by the latest hit from Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry, she preferred Broadway musicals to rock 'n' roll.
“I looked for the lyrics first. If I relate to the lyric, I can sing the song. I took for granted my voice.”
“They (show songs) came from Broadway musicals. There is a character playing those parts and singing those songs. So there’s something to act. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. (With rock songs), you just repeat the phrase. There’s a phrase and then there’s a bridge and then there’s the phrase. And I don’t know. They just never appealed to me.”
A TWINGE OF REGRET?
She shared a note she sent to director Martin Scorsese after seeing “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“‘These movies you made are so amazing. And the actors’ performances and the script and just, I’m so impressed. And I feel very bad that I turned you down, if it was you, that asked me to be in ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.’ (Ellen Burstyn starred as an aspiring singer in the 1974 release). And because I was told it was the part of a bad singer in a nightclub. So I thought, ‘I’m not that good an actress at that time to play a bad singer.’”
She says she ended playing the role in “that flop I made," referring to the 1981 comedy “All Night Long.”
EARLY AND LATE AMBITIONS
Looking back at her career, Streisand recalls a framed photo she had in her old home, before she moved to Malibu, California. It was of an interview she did at age 19.
"They asked me, ‘What do you want to be?’ It was like, ‘Well, I want to do lots of things. I want to act, sing.’ Oh, I even said I would like to direct an opera someday. Which I always thought I’d like to do. I never got around to that. Although it’s possible that’s something I could do.”