The ads for The Prince of Tides, Barbra Streisand's latest directorial effort, sell the film as a love story. But the romance feels secondary, because the story's really about a rangy South Carolina football coach named Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) struggling to understand how his dysfunctional childhood disfigured the rest of his life. Streisand and her collaborators have whittled down Pat Conroy's gorgeous but overwrought 1986 novel into a series of therapeutic conversations between Nolte and Streisand, whose character, New York psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein, hopes mining the Wingo family history will help her efforts to pull Tom's suicidal poet sister, Savannah, out of a coma.
In its heart of hearts The Prince of Tides is a simple tale of one man's emotional journey; Nolte carries the Hollywood baggage surrounding it on his back. He commands the screen with the effortless skill of Burt Lancaster or Montgomery Clift: Like those screen giants, Nolte's so handsome you want to slap him, but he's intelligent and dignified, too. Unlike most modern stars, he never seems shallow or obvious; he's a private, intuitive actor who always seems to be holding something back. Streisand took a big risk giving Nolte this much screen time; if he turned in a less-than-extraordinary performance, the whole picture would have collapsed.
But instead it soars, and the richness of Nolte's performance contributes mightily. His Tom Wingo is a shrimper's son who grew up to be a high school coach and English teacher; he's intellectual and anti-intellectual, boorish and sensitive. He's tolerant enough to move into his hospitalized sister's Lower East-side apartment, and accept her gay live-in roommate (George Carlin) without batting an eye, yet stoic enough to dismiss psychotherapy, or even the simple sharing of emotions, as nonsense. Tom's self-deflating wisecracks are suffused with Old South concepts of dignity and honor; when he insists on escorting Lowenstein home from a party, telling her, "In the South we always walk our ladies home," he's tweaking patriarchal traditions and revelling in them at the same time. Nolte brings these inner conflicts to the surface of Tom Wingo's character -- which is crucial, because the deeper Lowenstein delves into the Wingo clan's horrifying past, the more Tom's gruff masculinity starts to seem like a desperate, defensive bluff.
The people behind The Prince of Tides had their work cut out for them. It's hard to transfer any beloved best seller to the big screen and not disfigure it with miscastings and omissions -- especially when the source is Pat Conroy, whose hellishly entertaining masterwork often seemed too ambitious for its own good; he packed his 880-page epic with enough explosive revelations to fuel several novels, as if daring readers to put it down. Conroy's lean adaption, co-authored with screenwriter Becky Johnston, preserves the novel's flavor while reducing its self-consciously "big" moments to visual shorthand. Poppa Wingo's nonstop drunken rages, for instance, are encompassed in a couple of well-written flashbacks, and the one-man war waged by Tom's Vietnam-vet brother against a nuclear-weapons facility that swallowed up the last third of Conroy's book is dismissed with a single line of dialogue. Conroy and Johnston retain Tom Wingo's most important revelation, however -- and thanks to Streisand's sympathetic direction and Nolte's haunted face, it achieves harrowing force.
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Like James L. Brooks, who directed another great Southern soaper, 1983's Terms of Endearment, Streisand lets her actors carry the show. As Tom Wingo's wife Sallie, Blythe Danner is warm and appealing enough to make her character's forgiveness of her husband's shortcomings seem believable. Kate Nelligan is wonderfully stubborn as Tom Wingo's conveniently forgetful mother Lila, and Brad Sullivan, as Tom's intimidating father, hits just the right notes of buffoonery and rage. Streisand's Susan Lowenstein is convincingly complex; she makes the modern cliche about psychiatrists being more disturbed than their patients credible, even humorous. And Streisand's son, Jason Gould, steals scenes from Nolte, his mother, and everybody else. This is the most relaxed, professional cast of the moviegoing year; they milk their script for melodrama, not tragedy, and create enough laughs to make the film's more upsetting moments palatable.
Conroy-lovers and Streisand-haters can relax: The film version of The Prince of Tides is an Oscar-designed, four-hanky weeper that never pretends to be anything else. Like its haggard hero, Tom Wingo, it reveals itself carefully, earns its tears honestly, and quietly honors its roots.
THE PRINCE OF TIDES
Directed by Barbra Streisand; script by Pat Conroy and Becky Johnston, from Conroy's novel; with Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Kate Nelligan, George Carlin, Jason Gould, and Melinda Dillon.
Opens December 25.