Hidden Gem: “The Prince of Tides” (1991)

By Syd Slobodnik

Because March is designated as Women’s History Month, I will spend the next several weeks focusing on the artistic contributions of women directors and screenwriters whose work has made a definite impact on the film industry and entertainment. There have only been five women directors who have received Oscar nominations for best director: Lina Wertmuller for “Seven Beauties” (1976), Jane Campion for “The Piano” (1993), Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” (2003), Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” (2008) and Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird” (2017).  Bigelow is the sole winner for her film, and Wertmuller recently received an honorary career Oscar at the 2020 ceremony.

While Barbra Streisand is the only female director to win a Golden Globe award as best director for her 1983 film “Yentl” (this may change this year), her film “The Prince of Tides” (1991) was a surprising box office hit which received seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. But for some strange reason, the Academy excluded Streisand for her direction. “The Prince of Tides” was based on Pat Conroy’s bestselling novel and was adapted by Conroy and Becky Johnston, who received Oscar nominations for their screenplay.

 The film can be labeled somewhat simply as a romance, but it is more in actuality. It concerns Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), a middle-aged English teacher and football coach from South Carolina. He’s the father of young three daughters but has a troubled past. Streisand and her screenwriters quickly establish a very personal and emotional focus on the film with Tom’s periodic, reflective voice-over narration.  As the story begins, Tom travels to New York City to meet his twin sister’s psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Streisand) to help provide background and understanding about his troubled sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillion), who has recently attempted suicide.

Quickly the film becomes more of an exploration of Tom’s frustrations, mixed up past and present problems with his wife, who has fallen in love with a family friend. His life is truly unraveling, yet Tom slowly begins to trust and develop passionate feelings for Dr. Lowenstein. We learn that she is also emotionally detached from her husband, a famous concert violinist, Herbert Woodruff (Jeroen Krabbe). The chemistry between Tom and the doctor is so emotionally palpable and natural that it adds to both of the characters’ healing. Stephen Goldblatt’s exquisite cinematography and lighting and James Newton Howard’s subtle film score transform this melodrama of emotions into a fine cinematic artwork.

Streisand’s fine supporting cast includes Kate Nelligan as Tom’s strong-willed mother Lila; Blythe Danner as Sally Wingo, Tom’s wife; George Carlin as Savannah’s neighbor and gay friend and Jason Gould (Barbra’s son) as Bernard, Lowenstein’s troubled son, who desires to play football, while living up to his father’s wish for a music career.

And words cannot say enough about Nolte’s performance. He is simply outstanding as Wingo as he expresses a much wider range of emotions and vulnerabilities through his interpretation of his character. His impassioned narration of some terrible past family experiences creates such sympathy for his present situation. It’s no wonder he received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this role. 

Nolte’s lasting respect and appreciation for Streisand is expressed in his 2018 autobiography “Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines.”  “I was so immensely impressed with her artist vision, her passion and kind of genius she brought to virtually every aspect of the enormously complex business of making movies … She knew exactly how she wanted to tell the story and was tremendously connected to the material. ‘The Prince of Tides’ was one of the peak experiences as an actor. Barbra was a force of nature to work for, and she made a damn fine film that will be watched and appreciated for years to come.”

I strongly agree with the late Roger Ebert, who begins his original review by stating: “By directing one good film, you prove that you had a movie inside you. By directing two, you prove you are a real director, and that is what Barbra Streisand proves with “The Prince of Tides,” an assured and somber love story that allows neither humor nor romance to get in the way of its deeper and darker subject.” 

“The Prince of Tides” is an emotional film experience. You can discover the new richness with each viewing. Since its release 30 years ago, it has become one of my all-time favorite films.