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Prince of Tides - The Criterion Collection, The
Barbra Streisand's 1991 film version of The Prince of Tides seems to have a negative reputation among cinephiles as a certain type of overwrought, sweeping melodrama (especially if one were to poll the members of the unofficial Criterion Collection facebook group). Although the latter film's reputation seems to have more to do with its "Oscar bait" elements, the dismissiveness towards Tides brings to mind a similar skepticism surrounding The English Patient. It's true that both films share much in common: '90s adult epics tracing elaborate, decade-spanning stories of struggle and heartbreak, and both films arguably make an effort to remain "novelistic," approaching the material in a with a combination of voice-over and deliberate pacing that seems to be designed to replicate the substance and structure of their respective source material. In this critic's opinion, they're also both perfectly respectable pictures -- imperfect, perhaps, but far better than their naysayers would have people believe.
After his sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon) attempts to commit suicide (which was not her first attempt), Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) travels to New York City, where Savannah is being held in a hospital while she recovers. There, he is to meet Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), who has recently been treating Savannah. Of the many things Tom is skeptical, sensitive, or outright afraid of, the big city, psychotherapy, and digging into his family's twisted history all seem to be near the top of the list. Yet, despite the obvious chip on his shoulder and high level of suspicion, Dr. Lowenstein makes a positive impression on him, positive enough to submit to her request to serve as Savannah's "memory," filling in some of the traumatic past that Savannah has not yet had a chance to discuss with the doctor, but will be necessary to know in order to help her recover and come out of her suicidal state. Of course, Tom can't dredge up the past without taking a trip back through it himself, one that he has put off his whole life, as evidenced by his acidic relationship with his mother Lila (Kate Nelligan), his crumbling marriage to his wife Sally (Blythe Danner), and his unresolved feelings over the death of his younger brother Luke.
Streisand has made it clear in interviews that her passion for The Prince of Tides was rooted in her love of author Pat Conroy's book. Nowhere is that more evident than in the richness of the character work both on the page and between Nolte and Streisand as Tom and Dr. Lowenstein. Streisand, who (per Conroy), essentially wrote the screenplay uncredited with the assistance of Conroy and Becky Johnson, shows a keen instinct for how and where to lay in shading and details about Tom's personality and emotional turmoil. As an actor, meanwhile, she provides support, never taking the spotlight away from Nolte, who gives one of his most compelling and richly complex dramatic performances (a performance which was rewarded with an Oscar nomination). When Tom and Dr. Lowenstein speak to one another, the dialogue has a nuance and maturity that is rarely found in movies (even smart and well-written ones), whether the characters are interrogating one another, having a painful conversation, or saying something deeply romantic. The same is also true of scenes between Tom and Susan; it would be a shame to overlook Danner, who takes a character who could easily fade into the wallpaper and makes her feel fully formed. The bittersweet, tentative conversations between Nolte and Danner when Tom returns home briefly for one of his daughter's birthdays is among the most moving material in the film.
If there is a criticism of the movie that's harder to deflect (and perhaps Streisand wouldn't even deny it), the film is unquestionably melodramatic. That's not to say melodrama is inherently bad, but it is probably fair to call it an acquired taste. It seems likely that the flashback scenes are among the more divisive elements of the film, bordering on the pitfalls of "camp" and "unintentionally funny." Some of this is the nature of the story itself: almost all of the flashbacks are to heightened, extreme moments, which naturally stand out against the rest of the film's more reserved and wistful tone. On the page, it would be easy to for a reader to mentally modulate these scenes to their liking, but in a movie, it's the director's call how intensely to pitch it. In fact, the scene that played most clunky and emotionally uneven in 2020 is the film's most important moment, which starts out by cutting away at a relatively sensitive moment, but then comes back around to show some sexual violence up close. Surely, Streisand understood the weight of the decision, but it feels like one of the few scenes she wasn't quite able to nail. However, the strength of the character dynamics carry the movie forward, the overall emotional grip of the film unsullied.
The film's pacing is largely effective, although it does indulge itself a few times near the very end. Streisand juggles an elaborate cast of characters, which also include Tom's now-elderly parents (Nelligan's old age makeup has to be some of the most impressive ever created), Savannah's gay landlord Eddie (George Carlin, always a delight), and Dr. Lowenstein's teenage son, Bernard (Jason Gould, also Streisand's own son), and her husband, Herbert Woodruff (Jeroen Krabbe), an accomplished violinist. Some may argue that the side story with Bernard is dead weight, but it provides another important emotional arc for Tom, and adds more interesting angles to the dynamic of the relationship between Tom and Dr. Lowenstein. Streisand's skill at weaving the film's drama, humor, and story throughout past and present and the entire cast of characters is evident. The film is a melodrama, but it is always patient, always thoughtful, and rarely escalates into overwrought theatrics. If certain members of the audience couldn't respect it in 1991, hopefully they look again with an open mind.
Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Prince of Tides sticks with tradition, using the same picture of Nolte and Streisand lying down and embracing, with a fade-in of the boat and dock at the bottom that was used on the film's theatrical poster and by Sony for their VHS and DVD editions ever since. To be quite honest, while it is usually nice to see posters preserved on Blu-ray releases, this image feels a little stale, although it would not surprise me to hear that contractual stipulations between Criterion and Sony prevented Criterion from commissioning new artwork. Inside Criterion's standard Scanavo case, one will find a leaflet with an essay by historian Bruce Eder (I might've liked the image on the front of the leaflet as a cover), and a collage of photographs from the making of the film appear on the reverse of the sleeve. There is also a sticker featuring an image of Streisand's autograph affixed to the plastic wrap.
The Video and Audio
Utilizing a brand new 4K remaster by Sony, this 1.78:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is up to the studio's usual high watermark for new, from-the-negative scans. The picture, although it has a palette that skews toward subdued autumnal browns, has a newly-invigorated vibrancy, with a gorgeous filmic image that preserves grain and renders detail in what sometimes seems like 3D. The style of the cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt may have a certain look and feel that places the film in the early '90s, but the overall clarity of the footage is convincing enough to believe it was shot yesterday.
Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo track (which the booklet recommends playing with Dolby Pro Logic activated), which sounds very nice. The film is, of course, mostly on the subdued side, but there is a richness and crispness to the lossless track that is very satisfying. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Criterion released Prince of Tides back in the Laserdisc era, and their centerpiece extra was an "interactive feature" (whatever that means) called "Visions and Versions." This new Blu-ray edition brings all of those features over and more, right down to a little text introduction as a menu option that gives a short overview of the bonuses as a package.
The extras are split into five headings, with two further menu options after the sections under the Supplements tab. As far as I can tell, the following sections are all taken directly from Criterion's laserdisc. "Preproduction" includes "Children's Casting" (5:09), "Rehearsal: Tom's Daughters" (2:20), "Rehearsal: Shrimp and Dog Food" (1:33), "Rehearsal/Blocking: Leaving Eddie's Party" (1:18) with interview clips (1:08), "Rehearsal: Manhattan Dinner Party" (1:22), "Streisand Costume and Makeup Tests" (0:23) and "Nelligan Costume and Makeup Tests" (0:54). "Production" includes "Siblings Underwater," which contains "Location Footage, Beaufort, South Carolina" (0:38) and "Video Tap Footage" (0:49), "Making Music" (3:16), some alternate scenes (10:00), and a photo album. Finally, "Postproduction" contains deleted scenes (6:44), alternate end credits with vocal (4:30) with optional commentary by Streisand, negative cut revisions (1:10), and gag reel (2:02). The final two entries on the supplement menu are also Laserdisc ports, those being a featurette (6:39) and the film's original theatrical trailers (1:28, 3:02). My only complaint is that in some of the subsections, such as "Preproduction" as a whole or something like "Siblings Underwater," it would have been nice for Criterion to reduce the number of submenus by combining similar pieces or entire subsections into a single video clip where convenient (they even did this for the alternate and deleted scenes; why they didn't do it for sections with multiple clips running less than a minute is baffling).
So what's been added for the film's long-awaited HD upgrade? It's actually sort of a mix in which everything old is new again. First, the feature audio commentary, by director/actor/producer Barbra Streisand, was originally recorded for the same Laserdisc but "updated in 2019," according to the packaging. Streisand does not talk constantly, leaving frequent pauses, but when she has a thought, it feels fully-formed, a complete piece of information, without hesitation or meandering. The resulting track falls in a comfortable middle ground between the rigid structure of a commentary that is pre-written and an improvised track, with Streisand doing a fine job of outlining individual choices and shining light onto the genesis of certain moments and details. Listening to the track, what feels like the biggest distinction between what I suspect is the Laserdisc-era commentary and the 2019 commentary is that Streisand sounds more relaxed, and casual (as well as occasionally making brief reference or allusion to something that transpired in the last 20 years). The audio feels as if it shifts once or twice as well. Streisand's perfectionism was once widely mocked, but I think it's kind of amusing that she perfected her director's commentary, too.
The video extras are similar: new to the edition, but archival. The first section on the supplements menu below the introduction is called "Pat Conroy," and naturally focuses on the author of the book (who passed in 2016) and his relationship with Streisand. "Conroy and Streisand" (0:54), with optional commentary by Streisand is a direct laserdisc port (featuring the author and the director performing a dance), but a 1992 interview with Conroy (6:55) for an episode of the TV show "Cinema Showcase" appears to be a new supplement, as does the brief gallery, Conroy Writes to Streisand, which offers scans of two books and a moving and funny letter with the text typed out on the next frame. "Cinema Showcase" host Jim Whaley asks his questions at a deliberate pace, but Conroy's visible enthusiasm as he talks about the adaptation process and experiences working with Streisand is wonderful to watch.
The final two additions are under a section called "Barbra Streisand Interviews." First, there is a 1992 interview with Streisand from a UK TV show, "Aspel & Company" (35:14). Finally, The most recent piece is an excerpt from a 2018 interview with Streisand (11:05), conducted by Robert Rodriguez for his El Rey TV network. The clip starts with Streisand's experience as a woman in the industry and some of her struggles on The Prince of Tides, and how her own experiences with therapy influenced the film.
The kind of film that The Prince of Tides is not necessarily going to appeal to every audience, but there's no reason to act like this is not very good example of that kind of movie. Audiences certainly agreed when the film was released, making it into a massive commercial success. After at least a decade or two away from The Criterion Collection, the film has returned to their library in an elegant edition that retains all of their Laserdisc extras and adds a few new ones. Highly recommended.
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