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Editor’s Choice: Neal Gabler on Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power by Neal Gabler, Yale University Press, 284 pages, $25. Young Barbra Streisand addresses her image in the mirror. “Hello gorgeous,” she says in “Funny Girl.” Writes Neal Gabler in his brilliant, if somewhat smitten, book: “One of the things it said is that Streisand wasn’t making fun of herself or being ironic – she was gorgeous – even though no one who looked like Streisand or had Streisand’s obvious ethnicity, that double whammy of Judaism and Brooklyn or had that strange self-regard that Streisand had, had ever become an American movie star, certainly not a dramatic star and Steisand would become the biggest.”

The Yale University Press book series that this appears in is its “Jewish Lives” series (others: Adam Phillips on Freud, Lee Siegel on Groucho Marx, Benjamin Taylor on Proust). What we have within these 239 pages of text is an ideal pairing of author and subject, both of whom have stepped out of the center ring after long occupying it better than others of their kind. In other words, Streisand, the epochal star who is every bit what this book’s title says she was, and Neal Gabler, the pop cultural historian who wrote no less than two definitive books about American movies – a biography of Walt Disney and “An Empire of Their Own” about the great Jewish-American moguls in Hollywood – as well as a book which has never seemed more prescient than it does now: “Life, the Movie Or How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” Before Gabler stepped out of the center ring, he became the witty house liberal at Fox News and, therefore, a species not long for this earth in Roger Ailes-ville, even though he was only Eric Burns’ foil on “Fox News Watch.” Streisand only appears now to give out major Academy Awards and make occasional records. A long way from the woman who said when she lost an Oscar to Glenda Jackson. “I felt I deserved the award. I was the best of those five for the year.” She needed full assessment from exactly the sort of writer Neal Gabler is – who knew the career that was an early metaphor for half of the actresses who followed her. Given her obvious pivotal importance, Gabler’s excursions into hyperbole are understandable. – Jeff Simon