Why Barbra Streisand Matters

BY William Mann

August 23 2011 4:00 AM ET

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The flip side of narcissism, of course, is self-doubt, and for Streisand, the two have always gone hand in hand. Good reviews were always quickly forgotten, but the bad ones she could recite nearly verbatim, because part of her thought they were the only ones telling the truth. “That goes so deep,” she said — right back to those days in Brooklyn when her mother withheld praise and the girls at Erasmus Hall High School turned up their considerably smaller noses at her.

Yet the very fact that Streisand was always questioning herself, that she was never satisfied with her work (or, frequently, with the work of others), ensured that she never settled for anything less than the best — though sometimes she seemed to overshoot the best and expect perfection, especially from herself. Part of the reason she didn’t have pierced ears, Streisand explained to Oprah Winfrey, was because “each ear is a different length, so how could you possibly put a hole in exactly the same place on different ears?” But this insistence on precision has always been worn as a badge of pride: “I really don’t like being called a ‘perfectionist’ as if it’s a crime.” And why was it, she has asked, that only women are ever criticized for demanding the very best from themselves and others? Even her detractors concede she has a point on that score.

Every album she frets over, and this latest one will surely be no exception. When Love is the Answer came out, she worried that the world had moved on, that maybe she’d been around too long. “It’s the next person’s turn,” she said. “I could believe it if nobody came to see me.” She was right to wonder. Showbiz has become a very different world than it was when she started out. Now it’s less about a desire for excellence than it is a lust for notoriety — the complete inverse of Streisand’s approach. In a world of Kardashians and Snookis and drunken Real Housewives, Streisand represents a time when talent mattered, when the pursuit of greatness, not infamy, was rewarded.

The kids might know her as the mother from the Fockers movies, from the Duck Sauce riff, as Lea Michele’s inspiration on Glee. But people of a certain age — especially gay men, who once felt as outside the gate as she did — remember a time when the newness and difference of Barbra Streisand changed everything and rewrote all the rules. With her unyielding pursuit of virtuosity over vapidity, it seems she is still bucking the trend.





[See several of the quintessential Streisand performances on the following pages.]

William J. Mann is a journalist and author of numerous books, including Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn. His next, Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand, is due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012.
 

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