in Oscars Fortnight

The Prince of Tides (1991)

The 64th Academy Awards (1992)
Wins: 0

Out of the movies I reviewed this year for Oscar fortnight, The Prince of Tides is probably the one I knew the least about going into (despite the fact that there have been multiple Simpsons references to it). Really all I had to go off of was its poster, which was apparently good enough to also be used for the film’s Criterion Collection release, even if it’s a little misleading considering how long it takes for Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand to hook up in this movie. Also, the poster doesn’t even really tell you if this is a period piece or not, considering how ornate the movie’s title is. Thankfully, this was a great way to go into The Prince of Tides, since its tonal shifts and disarming darkness make it obvious why this movie hasn’t quite become a feelgood classic, even though it also has a lot of elements that remind you what’s great about big, bold, crowd-pleasing studio filmmaking.

First off, The Prince of Tides is not a period piece. Well, for the most part, since it does feature plenty of flashbacks to the childhood of its protagonist, Tom Wingo (played by Nick Nolte). At the start of the film, Tom is living in South Carolina and having a rough go of it. He’s an out-of-work teacher with a flailing marriage and his sister Savannah, who’s living in New York, just attempted suicide. Since no one else in Tom’s family feels compelled to leave the cozy confines of the South to go see her in the hospital in NYC, Tom takes the journey up North. Though of course, as soon as he gets out of a taxi cab in Manhattan to the sound of honking horns and screaming New Yorkers, he immediately hates the place.

He then meets Dr. Sally Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand), the psychiatrist that Savannah has been going to, who feels somewhat responsible for the suicide attempt. Tom is immediately skeptical of Lowenstein, feeling that her analysis did Savannah little good and that talking about your feelings isn’t any more helpful than repressing them in what he describes as “The Southern Way”. However, as Tom and Sally continue to interact while tending to Savannah, Sally begins to analyze Tom and find that there’s clearly a lot of trauma involved in both Savannah and Tom’s childhoods. Meanwhile, Tom, a former football coach, starts personally coaching Sally’s son, while the absence of Sally’s violinist husband leaves an opening for Tom fill, even if their relationship for the most part remains that of patient and client.

One of the big draws for me of The Prince of Tides was that besides being one of the most Oscar-nominated films to win zero Oscars, it was also one of the very few films directed by Barbra Streisand. It’s a little perplexing why Streisand wasn’t nominated for a directing Oscar here, since she directs the shit out of this thing, but I guess the Academy would only let one non-white guy into this club by nominating John Singleton that year. Despite this snub, all three of Streisand’s directorial efforts earned multiple Oscar noms, which you would think would mean she would have gotten to direct more movies, but you can probably chalk it up to both sexism and that she has always had plenty of other career options.

With its frequent voice-over, dissection of a frustrated male academic, and New York setting, it’s unsurprising that The Prince of Tides was based on a novel, and there is something fascinating about the combination of the film’s novelistic sensibilities and Streisand’s showier instincts. This movie is very much what happens when someone who has spent a lot of time on Broadway directs a prestige drama. It’s filled with plenty of nuance and disarmingly dark moments, and yet it also has a sweeping polish to it while trying to get you to root enthusiastically for the romance at the center of it. It’s a movie that has scenes of Nick Nolte playing football lightheartedly in Central Park, George Carlin being a crankily flamboyant neighbor, and a pivotal psychiatrist’s office scene containing some truly disturbing subject matter (I won’t get into spoilers).

This is all to say that The Prince of Tides is a bit of a rollercoaster ride both emotionally and tonally, and I would say it pulls off everything it’s juggling about 90 percent of the time. It’s something I’m not sure we’re as used to these days, since most people expect to know exactly what they’re getting when they spend $13 to go see a movie in theaters. But this is very much a mid-budget movie made for adults, back when such things existed, and it trusts its audience to go with the various unexpected directions it goes in. Its basically impossible to imagine this movie getting made now just because it is so unconcerned in appealing to a younger audience, both in its decidedly uncool style, but also because it tells such a penetrating story about the fact that middle-aged people don’t have their shit figured out any more than young people do.

Though its sweeping James Newton Howard score and evocative sincerity make The Prince of Tides feel a bit like a relic of a different era (which I don’t mind), it also feels fairly contemporary considering our current era of mainstreaming therapy terms. It deals pretty head-on with the idea of childhood trauma and how that reverberates into adulthood in a way that feels nuanced for the time while also not being too heady to get in the way of the movie’s softer side. It all adds up to a piece of mainstream filmmaking that sneaks in a lot of elements that you wouldn’t expect out of a romantic drama starring two veteran movie stars, and yet still manages to also be very good at being a romantic drama starring two veteran movie stars.