Prince of Tides (1991): Streisand Directs Dysfunctional Family Melodrma Starring Nick Nolte in a Towering Performance

Barbra Streisand represents a “multiple threat” in Hollywood, in her capacities as co-producer, co-writer, director, and star!  The legendary star-director makes few features, but each film, even the less successful ones, generates media attention due to her stature.  Her new film, “The Prince of Tides,” based on Pat Conroy’s potboiler book, co-stars Nick Nolte and Blythe Danner. The story centers on a Southern high school teacher and a New York psychiatrist, who are brought together by the attempted suicide of his sister, who’s the psychiatrist’s patient.

Leaving a crumbling marriage behind him in South Carolina, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), an out-of-work football coach-English teacher, travels to New York to aid his sister’s psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) as she tries to reconstruct the Wingo family’s troubled history.  Wounded by the same forces that have driven his sister to lose her will to live, Tom begins a halting, painful journey for long-denied memories that help Lowenstein ease his sister’s torment.  Two people from dramatically different worlds come face to face with their own pain, making startling discoveries about each other and fall in love in the process.

In its good moments, “Prince of Tides” is a detailed and emphatic exploration of male menopause: Tom is going through a bad mid-life crisis.  Out of a job, after serving as a football coach and English teacher, he drinks too much and has to struggle with disintegrating marriage to his wife Lila (Blythe Danner), who’s having an affair, though she she’s not told him yet.  There is some mystery as to why Tom has chosen “not to have a memory.”

Savannah, Tom’s disturbed sister (played by Melinda Dillon), is a New York poet of some repute who has created an alternate literary persona as the child of Holocaust victims.  After attempting suicide and lying catatonic in hospital restraints, Tom is summoned north to help her psychiatrist (Streisand) piece together the splintered mirror of her past–“to be her memory.”

As producer and director, Streisand softens the dark, Gothic element of the novel, which is unevenly adapted to the screen by the author and Becky Johnston (“Under the Cherry Moon”).   The book was a best-seller in large part due to its perverse family secrets and middlebrow therapeutic sensibility, which made it more accessible.  Streisand pushes all the right emotional buttons, but she also trivializes some of the material, and some of the flashbacks to Tom’s tormented and abused childhood are too obvious.  Furthermore, the love affair between Lowenstein and Tom leaves much to be desired in the way that it’s portrayed.

The acting is good all around, and for at least half of the picture, the mood is right. Streisand imbues the text with passion and compassion that perhaps only a woman director could do to such material.  Nonetheless, both as a book and as a movie, the tale of the tangled emotions of a dysfunctional Southern family is not that interesting.

There were expectations that the movie will do well and that it should earn Streisand, who many believe was slighted on “Yentl,” her previous film, a Best Director Oscar nomination.  But it didn’t, again proving Hollywood’s discrimination against women directors.  (See Comment)

Credits:

A Columbia Pictures release of a Barwood/Longfellow production.

Produced by Barbra Streisand, Andrew Karsch. Co-producer, Sheldon Schrager. Executive producers, Cis Corman, James Roe.

Directed by Streisand.

Screenplay: Pat Conroy, Becky Johnston, based on Conroy’s novel of the same title.

Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt.

Editor: Don Zimmerman.

Music: James Newton Howard.

Production design: Paul Sylbert.

Art direction: Graham; set design, Chris Shriver, set decoration, Caryl Heller, Arthur Howe Jr., Leslie Ann Pope.

Costume design: Ruth Morley

 

MPAA Rating: R.

Running time: 132 Minutes

 

Cast

Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte)

Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand)

Sallie Wingo  (Blythc Danner

Lila Wingo Newbury (Kate Nelligan)

Herbert Woodruff  (Jeroen Krabbe)

Savannah Wingo  (Melinda Dillon)

Eddie Detreville (George Carlin)

Bernard Woodruff (Jason Gould)

Henry Wingo (Brad Sullivan)

Lucy Wingo (Maggie Collier)

Jennifer Wingo (Lindsay Wray)

Chandler Wingo  (Brandlyn Whitaker)

Tom Wingo as child  (Justin Woods)