Barbra Streisand doesn’t sing in “The Prince of Tides,” but that’s about the only thing she didn’t do on the movie.
Famous for her perfectionism, the entertainment icon nominally was the female lead, the director and a producer of the 1991 version of Pat Conroy’s widely loved bestseller (streaming on Hulu). Realistically, though, you just know she had her hands in every aspect of the production no matter whose name was on the respective job. And more power to her, since the result is a moving and particularly well-cast drama of family wounds that don’t quite heal.
Since Streisand doesn’t show up until well into the story, the audience’s entry point into it is Tom Wingo (an accessible, superb Nick Nolte), a maritally troubled Southern athletic coach whose problems increase when he learns his poet sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon) has attempted suicide in New York. Their mother (Kate Nelligan) — with whom he has strained-at-best relations — implores him to go north and see what he can dots help with her recovery.
That quest acquaints him with Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), Savannah’s sophisticated but compassionate psychiatrist. She and Tom, who believes he has no use for psychiatry, are at odds initially …. but eventually and inevitably, they warm to each other, leaving him to ponder his future with his wife Sally (Blythe Danner).
The names of the actors already mentioned should indicate the strong cast “The Prince of Tides” boasts. Add to them Jeroen Krabbé as Lowenstein’s philandering concert-violinist husband, comedian George Carlin as a neighbor and friend during Tom’s Big Apple stay, and Streisand’s real-life son Jason Gould as her on-screen offspring.
One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises “The Prince of Tides” offers is the chemistry between Streisand and Nolte. Despite their obvious differences as performers, they work together remarkably well, with Nolte having to become more and more vulnerable as Tom struggles to hide dark Wingo family secrets that ultimately can’t be denied.
Streisand and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt earn special kudos for the look of the film. Whether the setting is South Carolina or Manhattan, the picture has a rich and romantic sheen that helps cushion some of the rougher aspects of the tale. (A favorite shot of ours: Tom jogging through a New York fish market at dusk.)
Only two other features have been directed by Streisand — “Yentl” before it, and “The Mirror Has Two Faces” after it — but her skills in that role are evident. “The Prince of Tides” certainly is a major example, and if she doesn’t direct again, it will stand as a testament to just how good she was at literally calling the shots.