Seeing Stars

The work of the celebrity biographer is a clean dive into a pool of predestination. You can pour brilliance, passion and insight into your text, but in the end, it's still a book about Debbie Gibson. Writer Anne Edwards is a wise woman, and the list of subjects receiving the benefit of her talent is smart and assured: Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Judy Garland and her next subject, Maria Callas. She recently released Streisand: A Biography, a thorough examination of one of the most talented and controversial stars of the last half-century, and, as expected, Edwards has plenty of current to swim around in (see accompanying review). During our conversation, Edwards seems equally enamored and frustrated with her subject -- enamored with the talent and drive, frustrated with the self-indulgence and insecurity. Q: Streisand has done so much -- singing, acting, directing. What do you think is her greatest contribution, the element she will be most remembered for? Anne Edwards: Well, you have to first realize that there is 36 years of work there, and that she had endured while many have fallen away. It's not easy to separate all of her contributions. Yet I think looking back, we'll see how she changed the face of beauty and how she ushered in the age of ethnicity. Before Streisand, every woman had to look like Doris Day, like she was a beauty-pageant winner. Barbra made us look at someone who you wouldn't have thought of as beautiful and let us see such beautiful qualities: strength, personality, spirit. She ushered in the age we are now in -- individual beauty. Q: You've also written a biography of Judy Garland, to whom many compare Streisand in terms of vocal power and talent. How do you feel about the comparison?AE: Well, I knew Garland very well, and I did not speak with Barbra for this book, and that's an important distinction. In terms of talent they are, I suppose, similar, but the appeals are entirely different. Garland's audiences would identify with her vulnerability. She would involve them in her pain. Streisand's audiences identify with her strength, her ability to break through obstacles and succeed. Q: Unlike many other authors, you give far less credit to Alan Miller for the creation of Streisand's breakthrough Broadway performance in Funny Girl. Is that deliberate?AE: Yes it is, and I know I'm not in agreement with others on this, but I was around during that time, and I lived near Kay Medford (who played Mrs. Brice) and Garson Kanin, Streisand's director. I saw the performance evolve, and Garson had a lot more to do with it than he was ultimately credited. Clearly, Barry Dennan had the most affect on her career, helping her create the onstage persona that attracted so many. He taught her how to move in front of audience, how to get across classic material -- how to express, really. He brought out what she had and showed her how to use it.Q: Many people characterize Streisand as a "user" -- she gets what she wants from friends, fellow artists, business people, and then she drops them when she's got what she's wanted. How do you feel about this? AE: Well, it's true. Certainly with Dennan and Jon Peters, she gained a great deal from these men. But there was an exchange involved. With Barry, he seemed to know what he was creating. He knew her enough that he understood where she was headed. With Peters, they grew together personally and professionally, and she remains very loyal to him today. But other artists will tell you that when you are working with her, she gives to you with the intensity that she gets. She is extremely sensitive and an incredible listener. She respects people with talent, and she draws it from them, and then uses it. That's what good directors do. Q: There are several biographies of Streisand. Why did you choose to write another? AE: As a biographer, social icons are important to me, and when I write about them, I feel that I must have something to say, otherwise there's no reason to write the book. I feel that Streisand connects with me, and I felt that her story should be written by a woman. She's fought the old boys club. She's eclectic in her tastes. She's accomplished, and she's strong. Every period of her life is a new adventure where she reinvents herself. That's inspiring -- her thirst for knowledge, her need to better herself. She's not in competition with anyone but herself. Q: You use quite a few anonymous sources in your book. AE: Well, people who worked for her and spoke with me know that she can create a problem for them career-wise if she finds out. People have been dropped and cut from her productions and her life for speaking against or about her. She insists on loyalty. If this had been an authorized biography and had she cooperated, her need to control would be all-consuming. Q: Sometimes in your book, you seem frustrated with your subject. AE: Well, 30 years of analysis has not enabled her to grow up. She still sees herself as being rejected, an image that just isn't the case anymore. This self-image was a large part of what fueled her early on, but it simply doesn't reflect reality anymore. Arthur Laurents (playwright and author of The Way We Were ) told me that whenever Barbra looks in the mirror, she sees herself as a 5-year-old. Q: Have you heard any reaction from Streisand about the book? AE:Well, we have a mutual friend, Richard Zanuck, to whom I gave a copy of the bound galleys. After reading it, he called me and asked me if I wanted him to pass them along to Barbra. He thought she would respect it. I gave him permission, and the word came back from Barbra that she didn't wish to read it. I believe her exact quote was: "If God wrote it, I would loathe it."

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