There's Justice for The Prince of Tides in Criterion's New Special Edition

There's Justice for The Prince of Tides in Criterion's New Special Edition
Image:Columbia Pictures

It’s always strange to think of legends as underrated, but we live in a weird world. It took the death of Aretha Franklin for mainstream discourse to fully acknowledge her musical genius beyond her voice (her astonishing knack for arranging songs, her emotive piano playing). Mariah Carey didn’t receive a swell of universal acclaim on a long-form project until her 15th album, 2018’s Caution. And Barbra Streisand’s directing, specifically that for her 1991 family-therapy drama The Prince of Tides, has gone largely, unfairly unsung.

Tides was a hit and nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture—its star Nick Nolte was considered a Best Actor shoo-in prior to the ceremony, though, in retrospect, he didn’t stand a chance. Tides was up for its Oscars the same year The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards with a diabolical vengeance, becoming only the third film to win in all of the Big Five categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay). Streisand’s directing and her performance were not among Tides’ nods, which caused a minor controversy (it was brewing even before the nominations were announced). The Tides snub yielded smaller hubbub than when she was snubbed for a directing nomination for her 1983 directorial debut, Yentl, but it was palpable nonetheless. The low-stakes injustice was referenced in a 1992 “Coffee Talk” sketch on SNL featuring Mike Myers, Roseanne Barr, a virtually unrecognizable Madonna, and a cameo from Babs herself.

Years later, to Variety, Streisand said, “To not have the director nominated for the best picture is kind of absurd,” citing Tides, as well as other Best Picture contenders directed by women who weren’t nominated for their directing, like Penny Marshall’s Awakenings and Randa Haines’s Children of a Lesser God. During a 2017 Tribeca Film Festival interview, Streisand told director Robert Rodriguez that as a result of the Yentl snub, “I didn’t want to direct for years.”

The newly released Criterion Collection special edition of The Prince of Tides finds Streisand lifting herself up by the bootstraps in the form of physical media. She’s all over the Blu-ray/DVD release, which boasts a director-approved new 4K transfer and an updated commentary track that Streisand performs with rhythm and dynamic flair (more so than virtually any other commentary I’ve heard), as well as interviews, several outtakes, and rehearsals. Much has been ported over from Criterion’s 1994 Laserdisc special edition, which reportedly retailed at the time for $100. Criterion’s approval is its own form of prestige—though the company has always had a populist streak, it’s best known for its championing of arthouse fare—but the package stuffed with hours and hours of bonus material takes things to a whole other level. The release is a self-salute, Streisand’s rhapsody to her art and effort. It’s the best of Tides, it’s the worst of Tides, it’s more Tides than anyone ever knew they needed.

The movie itself is strange—a small, intimate story about processing childhood trauma blown up to a blockbuster scale. This film, in which a Southern football coach Tom Wingo (Nolte) acts as his catatonic sister’s memory for her therapist, Dr. Lowenstein (Streisand), would likely be a tiny independent production that would scrape by to get seen and acknowledged in today’s market. It’s not likely it would be the event film that it was when it was released, or that anyone, much less Streisand, would be able to drum up the money she did for its budget ($30 million). They, simply, don’t make ’em like they used to.

In its review of the Criterion Laserdisc, Entertainment Weekly called Tides a “masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch sentimentality,” but I don’t think that’s fair. It is fervid without veering into camp or unearned sentimentality, for the most part—for all of its sweeping, crane-shot verve, its tear-milking strings, and big-screen resplendence, it is not a film that buckles under the weight of its own pretense. The pretense, in fact, is in order, given the hugeness of its subject matter. It quickly becomes clear that Lowenstein’s task goes beyond helping Tom’s sister recover from the suicide attempt that causes her to summon him to New York—it’s primarily to help him recover from childhood abuse. This, he experienced from his violent father and emotionally manipulative mother, but also via a random break-in* leading to a highly traumatic childhood incident. That scene, which comes at a climactic juncture, has lost none of its ability to make the viewer’s jaw drop over the past 20 years—it’s the only one shot hand-held and so horrific that for about five minutes, The Prince of Tides becomes a revenge movie. I never got the feeling that it was over the top or exploitative, but that it did justice to atrocity by being practically unwatchable.

Streisand’s storytelling is direct and effective, buoyed by frank, lived-in performances almost across the board.

In the bonus material, Streisand makes it clear that what fascinated her about this story, adapted from Pat Conroy’s beloved 1986 novel of the same name, was its meditation on masculinity—what men are “allowed” to feel versus what they do, and what it means to break a steely facade. “He has a kind of primitive maleness that I thought was essential to break down,” says Streisand of Nolte in an interview. “I serve his story,” she says in the commentary. This kind of protracted interrogation of masculinity remains in vogue today—there’s practically a cottage industry of books about what it means to be a man in this day and age, many of them written by women—and while you could criticize Streisand for squandering an opportunity to tell a story about women, she seduces you into believing the vitality of this story with her technique. The Prince of Tides is talky by never boring (the pacing is virtuosic given the subject matter, in fact) and told with a shocking clarity given that its focus is on something as nebulous as human feelings. Streisand’s storytelling is direct and effective, buoyed by frank, lived-in performances almost across the board. (The only one that really doesn’t work for me is Blythe Danner’s as Tom’s wife Sallie. Whenever she’s on-screen saying things like, “Part of me just wants to pack up and walk away from a life that doesn’t seem to work anymore. And part of me says that no life will work if I can’t make this one right,” I’m transported to a shitty early-’90s TV movie.)

Streisand’s performance itself is underrated, I think—she has a kind of clipped, synthetic naturalism that is pure technique. I don’t know how much soul is there, per se, but she’s fantastically watchable as she transitions from uptight to effusive. Everyone else looks like their clothes were made of bedding fished out of a Kohl’s bargain bin and she’s running around in sharp suits that would look good today. Also, this movie is, in no small part, a showcase for her nails, and nails they were. Hello gorgeous, they’re like buttah, etc.

The Prince of Tides is far from perfect. The Tom-Lowenstein romance is shoehorned in during the last half-hour, though Streisand notes in her commentary that she wanted to portray as ethical of a therapeutic dynamic as possible so once Lowenstein and Tom’s romance begins, you never see him in her office again. (Technically, he isn’t her patient, but the practical truth is that the process of speaking to her on behalf of his sister is clearly therapeutic for him.) The scenes with Lowenstein’s son Bernard (played by Streisand’s real son Jason Gould, though she swears it was Conroy’s idea to cast him) feel more tangential in a movie that would have been plenty long without them. George Carlin has a bit part as Tom’s sister’s gay neighbor—I love to see Carlin wherever, but it’s such a bizarre casting choice that I think it’s mostly just distracting.

But Streisand’s vision is never not apparent, and it seems never not executed exactly as intended. “This is a film about transformation and how love and compassion can change people. He changes her, she changes him, he changes her son, her son changes him, her son changes her… they both change his sister,” she says during the commentary. That’s a lot of emotional layering. Drama so dramatic it’s unafraid to be schmaltz is her medium, and her artistic precision is on full display in Prince of Tides. She refers to herself as a “version queen” and several scenes are presented in alternate, similarly flawless takes in the disc’s bonus material (all of which I watched, by the way, a product of quarantine time on my hands and my commitment to really understanding Streisand’s commitment to her movie).

Around the time that Streisand was making the movie, she was known as “difficult,” which seems absurd today. Difficult for wanting to do a good job? Difficult for making it harder to eviscerate the product of her effort? Her perfectionistic tendencies were sometimes pathologized—Entertainment Weekly wrote of her “narcissistic, perfectionist reputation,” as if she should be ashamed for wanting to do a good job. As if someone with her talent should show less of it.

She’s been asked about this again and again. During a somewhat notorious Mike Wallace 60 Minutes interview pegged to Tides, she explained, “If I’m dealing with people who care about their work, like I care about mine, they don’t think I’m difficult. Because they have the same need for excellence. They’re striving for the same thing. It’s not difficult, as a matter of fact, it’s fun.” Back then, people probably rolled their eyes at what they perceived to be excuses. Time, however, has been nothing but kind of Streisand’s commitment to excellence and the work it has produced, including The Prince of Tides, a consummate ’90s drama that plays just as well today as it did in 1991.

Update, April 13, 2020: This piece has been updated to avoid a spoiler, per Barbra Streisand’s request.

Over the weekend, I received an email with the subject line, “Fwd: a request from Barbra Streisand.” The address was one that is associated with her publicist, and so I have good reason to believe it is legitimate. The note explained that after reading what I had written about her movie, Streisand was requesting that I refrain from revealing a major plot point:

Dear Mr. Juzwiak, Thank you for your excellent story on the updated presentation of The Prince of Tides.” We greatly appreciate the interest we feel it will draw among audiences which had not previously seen it.

It went on to say that Ms. Streisand “respectfully requests” that I replace the description of a climactic scene with “childhood incident.” Because she has a point about spoilers (“The specificity of your reference to that element is apt to give away an important revelation when it comes as a prime factor in the denouement”), I have obliged and made my wording more vague.

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