Prince of Tides
Surely one of the most absurd and horrific moments of television journalism happened early in 1992 when the American arm of Sixty Minutes went to work on that goddess who walks among us named Barbra Streisand. I think it was what is known as a hatchet job. The reporter forced Streisand to tears by passing on the cutting remark of her mother that she has time for no one in her life but herself; he pilloried her for not singing the theme song in her new film The Prince of Tides; he observed ruefully her apparently obsessive compulsion to control and direct everyone and everything around her.
Sixty Minutes was just taking to a dreadful extreme what is often said aloud about Streisand in the media: that she should stick to singing, that she's making an embarrassment of herself and wasting all our time by turning to the directing of her long-cherished screen projects. All these judgements on Streisand are, of course, sexist, small-minded, anxiety-ridden crap. Streisand's first directed movie Yentl (1983) was an innovative, passionate, often remarkable modern musical; The Prince of Tides is even better, a magnificent and soulful achievement.
When the series thirtysomething ended without so much as a farewell in the local TV press, I started pondering what might be called the yuppie therapy genre, and how extremely despised it is by some viewers. These stories on film or TV of more-or-less privileged and sheltered middle-class individuals working through their emotional problems of love, friendship and family life are often derided as arty soap – as if any drama focussing on the personal life with earnest intensity rather than campy schlock has to be in the worst possible taste. And with movies like the dud Regarding Henry (1991), I guess we have indeed seen the New Age nadir of this yuppie therapy genre, at its mushiest and least political.
Make no mistake, The Prince of Tides is probably the ultimate yuppie therapy movie. It's about the necessity for a big, burly, troubled man (Nick Nolte in an extraordinary performance) to find the child within himself, and further than that, the woman within himself. It's an explicitly psychotherapeutic movie, which dramatizes the process of Nolte digging up and coming to terms with a dark past, with the aid of Streisand as analyst. The film packs a double wallop, because this psychotherapeutic story is eventually overlaid with a love story – and both are extremely powerful. But The Prince of Tides is certainly not, across any of this, a sentimental, easy or evasive film. You can call these characters bourgeois, but you can't discount the depth of their pain and their yearning.
What is Streisand on about as a film artist? I suspect her most profound aim is to try to re-invent, for today's audiences, the dramatic conditions of the classic Hollywood melodramas of yesteryear – films like Now, Voyager (1942) or There's Always Tomorrow (1956) which depended on emotional states like denial, renunciation, taboo, desires impossible to fulfil within the restraints of the everyday status quo. Naturally, the status quo has changed a lot since the 1940s, and taboos are rather harder to come by. The genius of The Prince of Tides is that it unerringly finds new taboos, new areas of contradiction and frisson in contemporary interpersonal relations – particularly in the therapeutic relation itself of patient and analyst, and in the complicated aftermath of Nolte's personal breakthrough.
I love The Prince of Tides – a little bit irrationally, it's true. I may not approve of all its intended messages; but it is a tough, truthful film that had me crying and quaking for a long time after the final credits, both times I saw it.
MORE Streisand: The Mirror Has Two Faces
© Adrian Martin February 1992