TITLE OF FILM: “The Prince of Tides”
FILM YEAR: 1991
DIRECTOR: Barbra Streisand
WRITERS: Pat Conroy & Becky Johnston
STARRING: Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Kate Nelligan, Jeroen Krabbé, Jason Gould, Melinda Dillon, Blythe Danner, George Carlin
Yellow and orange reflect brightly off the water and land of South Carolina in the opening shots of “The Prince of Tides.” It is the strings of James Newton Howard’s score that seduce the audience in these beginning moments. Nick Nolte’s voice, draped in a Southern tone, describes a life of simple pleasures and deep loves. But as the music turns cold with an oboe and Nolte’s words turn dark, this idyllic vision is shattered. All is not as it appears.
Nick Nolte plays Tom Wingo, a recently fired high school English teacher, and football coach. Tom is a married man with three daughters. Although his love for them is real, he seems distracted and sorrowful. His relationship with his long-suffering wife (Blythe Danner) is on the rocks, and Tom cannot seem to meet her halfway. This is not the only relationship he struggles to attend with. His hatred for his mother is palpable at her mention and even more apparent upon their sitting face-to-face.
When Tom’s mother (Kate Nelligan) arrives with news that his younger sister, Savannah, has tried to kill herself again, the responsibility is placed on Tom to travel to New York City and talk with her psychiatrist. Convinced there is more to Savannah’s story, the psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand, who also directs), attempts to uncover the dark secrets of the Wingo family.
“The Prince of Tides” is based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Pat Conroy (who passed away in 2016). He had a vivid imagination, and his prose was pure poetry. His novels, which include “The Great Santini,” should be read and enjoyed by all those who have a passion for the written word.
Conroy adapted his 1986 novel for the big screen with Becky Johnston. Adaptations can be difficult to successfully navigate. The writer(s) must find a balance in remaining faithful to the original source while making changes that help drive the story along in a different medium. Having read the novel, this film adaptation does weigh certain storylines more heavily than others, but overall it beautifully fleshes out these beloved characters and their testimonies.
The two settings of South Carolina and New York are essentially characters in and of themselves. The two locations are gorgeously shot, with both places being crucial components in our lead’s journey. James Newton Howard’s score is an expertly constructed. The music provides comfort and contentment in the story’s often uneasy world.
Nick Nolte delivers a career-best performance as Tom Wingo. He gives a layered portrayal as a cynical man with so much self-hatred that he must either flirt, tell a joke or sleepwalk through his life in order to survive the day-to-day. Barbra Streisand also gives a fine performance as the swanky, Jewish psychiatrist with family problems of her own. Kate Nelligan plays Nolte’s mother in the film’s present day and in flashbacks. She gives a mysterious performance that leaves the audience guessing if she is a hero or a villain in the Wingo family’s tale.
CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:
Post-traumatic stress disorder is central to “The Prince of Tides.” The novel and the film each try to capture a realistic portrayal of the effects that a lifetime of trauma may have on an individual. This story also places equal weight on the fact that people may deal with the same trauma in very different ways.
In “The Prince of Tides,” there are three children that grow up in the Wingo household. Despite this commonality, each child takes their own path in their separate struggles for survival. Tom Wingo is our narrator and therefore our witness. As he slowly pulls back the curtain on their past, we begin to understand why each sibling has ended up where they are. What becomes most apparent is that a person’s true motivation is usually just below the surface of their presenting exterior. It simply takes the courage of character and often the right person listening to confront and cope with a troubled past.
RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:
Barbra Streisand is one of the biggest stars of the last fifty years. Her career as a singer and musician has meant a great to deal with people around the world, as she is able to use her voice as an instrument of the soul. Her voice is one in a million. A capable actor, Streisand’s works include 1968’s “Funny Girl” (for which she won the Best Actress Oscar) and 1973’s “The Way We Were.” Although she has only made a handful of movies, I feel emboldened to state that her films have made an impression.
A box office hit, “The Prince of Tides” took in just under $75 million in the theaters (according to Box Office Mojo). Upon its release, the film received generally positive reviews. The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Barbra Streisand’s lovely adaptation of Pat Conroy’s bestseller echoes the novel’s seductive cadences, the cries of summer gulls, the slapping of the Atlantic on the South Carolina shores.” Kathleen Maher of The Austin Chronicle observed that “Streisand’s been in front of cameras so long she thinks of them as mirrors. Luckily she has a good eye and it, more often than not, has the ability to look straight to the soul.”
The academy awarded the film seven nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Original Music Score, Best Art Direction, Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Kate Nelligan), Best Actor (Nick Nolte) and Best Picture. Barbra Streisand’s directing was notably absent from the list of nominees.
It should be noted that only five women have been nominated for achievement in directing since the academy’s founding in 1929: Lina Wetmüller (1976) for “Seven Beauties,” Jane Campion (1993) for “The Piano,” Sofia Coppola (2003) for “Lost in Translation,” Kathryn Bigelow (2009) for “The Hurt Locker” and Greta Gerwig (2017) for “Lady Bird.”
Kathryn Bigelow is the only female winner for achievement in directing, which is a shame.
COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:
Life’s challenges often require help in order to overcome them. “The Prince of Tides” demonstrates the power that can come from seeking that help. The 2012 film “Hope Springs” looks at a husband and wife who need the help of a marriage counselor to find their way back to each other. The film “The Sessions” (also from 2012) tells the story of a man who longs to experience sex for the first after having been forced to live his life with an iron lung. He hires a sex therapist and surrogate to help him attain this desire. From 2011, “50/50” demonstrates the power of therapy through the eyes of a man diagnosed with cancer. Over the years, film has succeeded in showing the capacity for change and acceptance with help from professional counselors of the heart and mind.
WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:
“The Prince of Tides” is a story of family and the bond that shared blood and experience have on people. The innocence of childhood and anguish when that innocence is taken away is part of growing up. That moment may happen all at once or in bits and pieces. It is hard to attend to the fact that parents are people too, that the ones you love may not be perfect. People make mistakes, big and small, some forgivable, others not. What resonates so strongly in this tale is the love and triumph that can come from mustering the inner strength to face one’s past. And in that, to break free of the shackles that have kept one grounded in bitterness and heartbreak, to finally live the life your childhood self dreamed was possible.