Moving Pictures
Apr 30, 2024, 06:26AM

The Woman Director and the Male Muse in The Prince of Tides

Barbra Streisand becomes and falls in love with her male lead.

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“In my next life I want to be you Lowenstein,” football coach Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) tells his lover, psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) towards the end of Prince of Tides. “I want to make lots of money off of crazy people, a fabulous penthouse in the city, a great country house, and a guy like me.”

The imagined gender-swap here is core to the film, not least because Streisand, as director, is in fact Tom, at least in the sense that all characters in film are, in part, a fantasy of, and an identity of, the person creating them. Prince of Tides is arguably the first female-directed film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that adamantly declares itself to be a woman’s vision.

In some ways, Prince of Tides (1991) is like its female-directed Best Picture nominee predecessors, Children of A Lesser God and Awakenings. It’s a melodrama weepy centered on disability, in which the director takes on a maternal, healing role—literally in this case, since director Streisand also plays a therapist. Tom’s sister, the poet Savannah (Melinda Dillon), has survived a suicide attempt, and Lowenstein asks Tom to come to the big city to try to give her insight into Savannah’s past so she can help her recover. Their sessions turn into therapy for Tom, too—and eventually into friendship, and more than friendship.

The surface similarities, though, can distract from big differences. Prince of Tides is a film that’s much bigger than Children or Awakenings; an early shot of Tom running across the beach in South Carolina dissolves into a swooping descent over the New York skyline, giving you the feeling of motion, transport, and unexplored horizons. That virtuosity also comes across as a distinctive signature; this is a movie that is Directed with a capital “D” (which makes the fact that Streisand was snubbed for Best Director all the more glaring.)

The film’s most personal part isn’t the occasional big vista, though. It’s the focus on Tom. The movie’s mostly a giant set piece for Nolte; Tom starts out as a deliberate self-parody, contorting his leathery face, clownishly mugging as he fires off jokes in an exaggerated Southern drawl, distancing himself from his childhood family’s dysfunctional past and his own disintegrating relationship with his wife.

Over the course of the movie, as he opens up on his sister’s behalf, he reveals more of his pain—his father’s physical and emotional abuse, the way his mother’s determined social climbing led her to treat the children as props, his elder brother Luke’s violent battle to keep people off the land his mother sold, and Luke’s death at the hands of the police. Rather than falling apart, the acknowledgement of his wounds pulls him together, the loose body language and slack expression slowly resolving and cohering, like a puppet whose strings, one by one, are reattached.

The shattering center of the movie is a session with Lowenstein in which Tom reveals that Savannah and his mother Lila (Kate Nelligan) were raped during a home invasion when Savannah was 13. Lowenstein, barely containing her own horror, gently probes Tom further, and he admits that he too was raped. Their brother Luke saved them, and then their mother made them all promise never to speak of it. Even their father didn’t know.

Streisand, as Lowenstein, looks shattered at what she, as director and therapist, has helped Tom confront and release. And it’s notable that what she’s helped him admit is a victimization which identifies him with women (“I didn’t know it could happen to a boy,” he says). Tom is standing in for his sister, serving as her memory, to describe an experience of sexual violence which he shared with her. He identifies with Savannah as Streisand (and a female genre audience) identifies with him. The catharsis is a recognition of gendered trauma which is shared, felt, and healed through an empathy which crosses gendered boundaries.

Lowenstein doesn’t just feel empathy for Tom. She finds his kindness, humor, and gallantry attractive and thrilling. He coaches her teenage son in football and stands up to her asshole concert violinist husband. When, after slowly, escalating tension, Lowenstein and Tom have an affair, it’s sensual, easy, and strikingly adult—not in the sense of being X-rated, but in the way they fit into and enjoy each other without some of the cartoonish miscommunications or try-hard demonstrativeness that still sluices around in a lot of contemporary romances.

When Tom goes back to his wife, Lowenstein’s devastated, but also, with a kind of desperate exasperation, says that she loves him in part because he’s the kind of man who wouldn’t leave his family and his daughters. Tom, in return, acknowledges in the voice over narration that he’s only able to return to South Carolina because Lowenstein helped him come to terms with what happened to him. Tom and Lowenstein don’t end up together, but they are part of each other because they have made each other.

While the story’s from the novel by Pat Conroy, this is Streisand’s movie, and Nolte’s Tom functions as both her subject and her muse. “For the first time I felt like I had something to give back to the women in my life,” Tom says. And what he has to give is what Lowenstein, and Streisand gave to him—a recognition that trauma (including trauma associated with women) isn’t shameful, and that men and women can feel with and care for each other. Prince of Tides isn’t the first Best Picture nominee directed by a woman. But it’s the first that insists that women directors have important stories to tell, and important insights to offer.


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