Why Barbra Streisand Matters
BY William Mann
August 23 2011 4:00 AM ET
What pushed her forward wasn’t a hunger for fame as much as a desire to be accomplished, brilliant, and beautiful — words that hardly described her life growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn, where her family hadn’t even owned a couch. The first 25 years of Streisand’s life were indeed spent in an unswerving pursuit of fame — where the kooky kid of PM East was largely a publicist creation to get her noticed — but her vaunted ambition was never simply an engine to accumulate fans. Instead, it was the means by which she could prove that she had talent and appeal — that she mattered — to a father who had never known her, a mother who hadn’t cared, and a world that had felt she was too different to be successful. And she had no patience for paying her dues. “It was right to the top,” she said, “or nowhere at all.”
The paradigm of the gifted child whose parents were either missing or blind to their offspring’s gifts, who then grows up determined to be seen and affirmed by as many people as possible, has become one of the more familiar of the last century: Katharine Hepburn, Madonna, Bill Clinton, to name just a few. But it is Streisand who provides the clearest example. Even at 7 years old she was determined to prove the naysayers wrong. From that age onward, she was possessed with what she called “an uncontrollable itch,” an impulse that sent her shouldering and elbowing her way out of Brooklyn and into the world beyond, leaving her mother and all the limiting conventions of her childhood behind. “It just had to be,” she said. “There was no other way for me.”
Her narcissism, a trait that would characterize her life and create a vocal minority of detractors among her many admirers, proved a key ingredient of her success — perhaps even as essential as her ample talent. Greatness cannot be achieved, after all, without a corresponding belief in one’s own greatness. Streisand possessed a single-minded egoism that others resented or simply could not comprehend. Rosie O’Donnell, an ardent Streisand devotee, once pressed her on whether she too had had idols in her youth. There was a long pause, in which Streisand seemed to struggle with the very concept. “I don’t think so,” she said at last. Of course not: It had always been just her.