Throughout the 80s and 90s, Barbra Streisand has grown in stature (albeit sporadically) as a formidable producer and director of social drama for both films and TV. The apex of her behind-the-camera career came with "The Prince of Tides," a poignant study of a man coping with the long-term effects of childhood trauma. Streisand nurtures this pet project from start to finish (co-adapted by Pat Conroy from his epic novel), finding a precise heartbeat for the profoundly sentient piece. Despite a rather protracted love story and one too many climaxes, Streisand, who also co-stars, never loses sight of the novel's primary intent.
Streisand graciously hands the spotlight over to actor Nick Nolte, who gives the most sensitive, emotionally complex performance of his varied career. Tom Wingo is a walking shell of a man who quells his pain with a drink, an easy smile, a cleverly foul remark, and a bitter, uncontrollable outpouring of anger. A one-time Southern-bred football coach-turned-teacher, he has grown increasingly irresponsible and disconnected over the years. With a troubled marriage hovering over him, he conveniently heads off to New York City at the urging of sister Savannah's psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein, following his twin's most recent wrist-slashing attempt. His purpose is to fill in the missing details of her tormented past (she has blotted out all childhood memories) in order to help steer the psychiatrist in her recovery process. Eventually, Tom, who lacks faith in psychiatry, finds himself facing his own demons as these initial discussions about Savannah take a suddenly dramatic and romantic turn.
In addition to Nolte's Oscar-nominated showcase, much of the film's strength lies in the highly concentrated flashback sequences as Tom recalls his turbulent family life. Kate Nelligan (also Oscar-nominated) is simply extraordinary as Lila, Tom's brittle, often callous mother, who quite understandably vows to remarry into money after surviving a horrific first marriage to Tom's violent, alcoholic, dirt-poor father (played by an absolutely terrifying Brad Sullivan). Nelligan grabs this role literally by the throat and allows her character no apologies for her flawed, self-serving logic, despite the effects it would have on her children, as her wealthy second husband starts exhibiting the same abusive traits as the first. Kudos must also go to the three strong young actors who play the Wingo siblings as children for reenacting the more horrific elements of this story.
Some of the other present-day roles, however, are hit-and-miss in their effectiveness. Blythe Danner has some strained though affecting moments as Tom's neglected wife. Sadly, the vital role of Savannah is nearly excised from the film. What with the talented Melinda Dillon egregiously reduced to such an insignificant extra, one can only rue the dramatic potential untapped here. As Savannah's neighbor and trusted friend, George Carlin seems to be around merely to show off New York gay chic -- providing mild amusement, a bit of pathos, and little else. On a brighter note, Jason Gould (Barbra's real-life son) acquits himself surprisingly well in the difficult role of Lowenstein's antagonistic son who slowly bonds with Tom's absentee father figure -- showing for once that nepotism isn't necessarily blind or reckless. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé gets brief but noticeable exposure as Herbert Woodruff, Lowenstein's charming, smug-elegant husband, a renown concert violinist who demonstrates more affection for his Stradivarius than either his wife or child. There is one telling dinner scene at his opulent Manhattan high-rise in which the out-classed Wingo gets to put Woodruff in his place.
As for Streisand herself, many will invariably take her to task for casting herself in the fundamental role of Susan Lowenstein. A star of such magnitude always faces the daunting task of presenting a fully- realized character, and Streisand is only marginally successful here. Although there is undeniable sexual chemistry between her and Nolte, it's hard to overlook her somewhat glossy approach to the role and the unethical intentions of her character. One can only imagine the ramifications of such a harmful act had her suicidal patient ever uncovered the illicit affair between her brother and psychiatrist.
Director Streisand, however, must be applauded for her explicit attention to exterior details. A visually resplendent picture, great care was taken to get the right look and feel. Notice particularly the lovely allegorical scenes with the children at the beginning and end. And with Streisand's exceptional musicianship, it is hardly surprising that James Newton Howard's lush score is one of the most beautifully designed ever (in fact, I borrowed it for my own commitment ceremony in 1996). It floods the film with an unexpressible tenderness. Nick Nolte's bookend narration is perfect as well -- warm, wise, poetic and reflective.
And so, despite the flaws "The Prince of Tides" may have, Streisand certainly shows that her heart was in the right place.