A couple of years ago, thanks to the suggestion of Life As A Human’s Dan L. Hays, I gorged on Pat Conroy novels – The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, Beach Music, The Prince of Tides. Reading Conroy’s fiction is like partaking in a great literary feast: sumptuous language, meaty characters, savoury settings, and always, it seems, plenty of delicious food. The concoctions are so compelling that you read them like a kid, devouring the pages long past bedtime.
The Prince of Tides is the story of the South Carolina childhood of sensitive Tom Wingo and his siblings, twin sister Savannah and older brother Luke, a childhood twisted into an endless nightmare by a violent dreamer of a father and a scheming, ambitious mother. Tom and Savannah have been severely traumatized by their upbringing and their trauma is carried into their adult lives; both are ultimately helped, in different ways, by a New York psychiatrist named Susan Lowenstein.
While the novel paints the childhood years of the Wingo siblings in considerable detail, the film, directed by and starring Barbra Streisand, focuses more on the recovery, especially Tom’s.
Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) remained in the South and is married to a successful doctor, with whom he is raising three daughters. The marriage is an unhappy one, though, as Tom is unemployed and drifting away from his wife (Blythe Danner) as a result of his feelings of inadequacy. Savannah, a poet who moved to New York, is suicidal and has recently made another, nearly successful, attempt on her life. Her psychiatrist, Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand), needs to unlock the secrets of her patient’s past in order to save her; as Savannah is more or less in a catatonic state, so Tom is summoned to New York to do the job.
What follows is an exquisitely choreographed portrayal of the process of transformation for Tom and of liberation for Lowenstein. Susan Lowenstein is a successful psychiatrist and a passionate advocate for Savannah, who is a poet of skill and sensitivity. Lowenstein (as Tom, who resists her efforts to unlock family secrets and is at the same time attracted to her, likes to call her) is in a dysfunctional relationship herself: she is married to a famous violinist, who is an arrogant, controlling philanderer. Their son (played by the real-life son of Streisand and actor Elliott Gould) longs to play football but his dream has been stifled by his father, who only sees him as a clone of himself. Despite her personal issues, the psychiatrist’s skill and passion succeed ultimately in convincing Tom to reveal the traumatic events of his and Savannah’s childhood, including a vicious sexual assault perpetrated by three escaped inmates, which Tom’s mother forced her children to cover up.
In one of the most beautifully rendered scenes I have experienced in watching films, Tom is transformed from an angry, cynical, wisecracking shell of a man to a deeply wounded child sobbing in the arms of Susan Lowenstein. Nolte is nothing less than magnificent here. Once the bottled-up – and tightly sealed, under pressure – emotion of Tom’s horror show of a childhood has been released, the sexual attraction toward Lowenstein that he has been experiencing is transformed into love. And after he becomes aware that he can love – SPOILER ALERT! – Lowenstein is forced to release him so that he may return to his wife and family.
Watching this movie (on at least two occasions), I did not at any time feel compelled to compare it to the novel. In my view, Streisand’s film stands successfully on its own as a moving tale of two wounded souls destined to meet in a brief but intense encounter in order to fulfill a profound need for healing and redemption.
Wonderfully acted by Streisand, Nolte, and Danner.
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- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
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