The Prince of Tides (1991) is the high-water mark in a long and distinguished career in cinema. From the phenomenally successful 1968 musical Funny Girl through her meticulous 1983 rendering of Yentl, Barbra Streisand had earned her place among the most respected artists in Hollywood even before she set out on a three-and-a-half-year quest to bring The Prince of Tides to the screen. In the end, the complexity of this portrayal of the human heart riven and tormented by impossible passions owes as much to Streisand’s personal struggle to achieve her vision as it owes to the story itself.
Streisand’s efforts to film The Prince of Tides began in 1988, when she first looked into acquiring the rights to Pat Conroy’s best-selling novel. In the years before the cameras began rolling in June 1990, Streisand saw the proposed film survive the collapse of one production company and the near-fatal implosion of another. CBS and MGM/UA each owned the rights for a time, but both companies saw the film in modest terms, as an intimate, middle-budget drama, perhaps in the cast of Driving Miss Daisy or The Great Santini—the sort of intelligent “sleeper” that would find its audience over time, with careful, gradual coaxing.
Streisand, however, saw The Prince of Tides as a much bolder screen work, one that could draw audiences quickly, and in large numbers. Her passion and confidence in the project confounded the Hollywood conventional wisdom. In the midst of a spate of brat-pack frolics and violent-comic buddy movies, Streisand was championing a philosophical motion picture whose plot hinged on a man confronting childhood trauma and abuse at the hands of adults. The box-office figures indicated that America was limiting its diet to denial and fantasy, but Streisand aimed to make a film that would cut through all that, a film that confronted reality and sought (as her character, Dr. Susan Lowenstein, does) to heal the psychic wounds we so often prefer to repress.
Compounding the challenge, Streisand chose not only to direct the film but to act in it and produce it as well. Historically, a few filmmakers—Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Charles Chaplin—had managed to play all three roles, but even with the support of the old studio system their efforts were sometimes greeted with only mixed success. More recently, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, and Clint Eastwood had pulled off their own hat tricks, but all with more obviously marketable properties, ones that could be sold, at least in part, as stories of war and adventure. (In fact, this was not the first time Streisand had taken on such a task; with Yentl, she had become the first woman to write, produce, direct, and star in a contemporary Hollywood film.)
Streisand the star may have pulled a core of the faithful to the box office, but Streisand the director made the picture work. The deftness of her touch is evident throughout, and compares very favorably with the work of directors at least a generation removed from contemporary Hollywood. The scenes of the children at play recall the unrestrained gentleness and innocence of George Cukor (one can’t help but think of the opening of The Women, with mother and daughter roughhousing together), while the scenes of romantic love have an emotional keenness, a languorous sheen that is virtually absent from today’s graphic, sex-driven cinema.
Most rewarding of all is Streisand’s handling of the complex characters she has drawn from Conroy’s book. Her direction has been compared to that of William Wyler, with whom Streisand herself worked near the end of his career (and the outset of her own) on Funny Girl. In certain respects, The Prince of Tides recalls the most rewarding and underrated of Wyler’s films, Dodsworth (1936): Both pictures are driven by vividly textured, utterly seamless characterizations, filled with pain, joy, recovery, and renewal, and both pictures feature somewhat improbable romantic leads. Like Walter Huston at the time of Dodsworth, Nick Nolte was a long-established star when Streisand cast him in The Prince of Tides, but only with that film did he finally achieve the level of charisma that characterizes a romantic leading man—and no director has been able to evoke such a finely tuned performance from him since.
The Prince of Tides confirmed Barbra Streisand as a triple-threat filmmaker, but, perhaps more significantly, it broke important ground for American mainstream cinema, charting new territory, a more challenging emotional and moral landscape than Hollywood had explored before. Moviegoers who would never set foot in a revival house suddenly flocked to the theater to take in the kind of elegantly charged filmmaking usually associated with Welles or Marcel Carné. For Streisand, it must have been a vindication of the faith she had in the art of film itself, its ability to uplift an audience and draw from it the highest human feelings. Whenever a picture comes along that debunks the commonly held box-office wisdom, it represents a victory for film art as a whole. The Prince of Tides is that rarity in modern Hollywood, a work of passion and inspiration, a mirror of the artist’s own grand aspiration, her long struggle and now indisputable success.
This essay was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 1994.