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A Mainstream 'Prince of Tides'

December 25, 1991|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

No one shrugs at Barbra Streisand, and no one yawns when her films are called to mind. Almost alone of the major stars of the past 20 years, she inspires unending loyalty, unyielding enmity and very little in between.

Now comes "The Prince of Tides" (citywide), produced, directed and starring Streisand, her first role as actress in four years and her first stab at directing since 1983's "Yentl," and a project that is sure to arouse those passions all over again. Because, depending on your point of view, this film is either reconfirmation of Streisand's considerable talent or further evidence that she has an ego as big as all outdoors. More often than not, it appears to be doing both at the same time.

Streisand did not settle for just any project for her return to directing. She got hold of Pat Conroy's exceptional popular novel, a vast family saga that ran 567 pages and sold upward of 2 million copies. Rich in incident and character, with an enviable narrative drive, "Tides" tells the story of the Wingos of South Carolina, the sacred monster parents and the trio of children: Luke, the oldest and the closest to nature; Savannah, a poetess beset by demons, and her twin Tom, a failed coach and teacher who feels "a burning need to be a decent man and nothing more." This, Tom explains early on, is "a family of well-kept secrets and they all end up nearly killing us."

Like a passionate hurricane, Conroy's novel revels in wave after wave of unabashed, unapologetic emotion, and it was these great swaths of sentiment that clearly attracted Streisand, an artist who has always felt that if you were going to be satisfied with wearing your heart on your sleeve, you might as well hide it under a basket.

Both the book and the film unfold through the wounded eyes of the adult Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte), uneasily married to a doctor he's not sure he still loves (Blythe Danner) and possessed of a mother (Kate Nelligan) whose presence he can't abide. An aging scamp with a too-quick grin and a too-glib tongue, Tom is jolted out of the morass of his life by the news that Savannah (Melinda Dillon), his beloved twin, has attempted suicide in New York.

Though he hates the city with a passion, Tom agrees to go to New York to see if he can help. He meets Savannah's psychiatrist, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), who tells him that great chunks of his sister's past are a blank. The best way he can help his twin, the doctor says, is by serving as her memory, by dredging his own mind for those events that have lighted Savannah's life, and, quite possibly, his own as well.

But as Tom and Lowenstein (as he amusingly insists on calling her) get deeper and deeper into Wingo memories, they also find themselves dealing with the doctor's life as well, with her marriage to a world famous concert violinist (Jeroen Krabbe) and their troubled (is there any other kind) teen-age son, very capably played by Streisand's own son, Jason Gould.

If this sounds like the makings of an old fashioned Hollywood romance, go to the head of the class. And, to her credit, Streisand has turned in a handsome, seamless piece of very traditional Hollywood direction. This is mainstream filmmaking at its main-streamest, smooth and glossy and reminiscent, in fact, of the kind of work Sydney Pollack did with Streisand in "The Way We Were" and without her in "Out of Africa."

A major fact in making Streisand look as good as she does as a director is the truly splendid portrayal she has elicited from Nick Nolte as Tom. Lean and weathered in appearance, and seeming to call on all his previous work as a resource, Nolte does the most moving acting of his career as the once-promising boy turned into a man who invariably disappoints those who love him. It is a full and deeply felt performance that allows us to see not only Tom's pain but also how hard he tries not to let it show. Nolte even manages to make Conroy and co-screenwriter Becky Johnston's awkward dialogue, largely taken from the book, sound refreshingly lifelike.

If Nolte is Streisand's best friend as a director, she is her own most persistent enemy. By casting herself in the role of Dr. Susan Lowenstein she self-centeredly blundered into an awkward and easily avoidable misstep that, while not exactly fatal, hampers the film's effectiveness in a variety of ways.

It starts with the fact that Streisand's full-bore emotional persona is the total opposite of the novel's Susan Lowenstein, a controlled, cautious woman with a "masked, expressionless face" who is probably the WASPiest Jew on the whole Eastern seaboard. The problem with Streisand transforming the role to suit her own more explosive temperament is not that the book ought to be sacred but that this particular change fatally alters the emotional balance between the volatile Tom and the controlled doctor, lessening the believability of their initial conflict and the effectiveness of their eventual reconciliation.

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