Thursday, February 22, 2024

Audient Bridesmaids: The Prince of Tides

This is the latest in a periodic series in which I watch best picture nominees I haven't seen, in reverse chronological order.

What does a cinephile do when he's finished all his February viewing commitments by the 20th of the month?

Why, continue a recurring series that hasn't had its latest entry in nearly 14 months, of course.

I haven't progressed very far, in total, in Audient Bridesmaids, since announcing it at the end of March 2022 and watching the first entry (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) a week later. I did get in my second viewing (Ray) that December, but it's been a quiet spell since -- which is an appropriate measure of the distance in time between the 2004 release of Ray and the 1991 release of Barbra Streisand's The Prince of Tides.

(Quick interjection: My viewing of Women Talking last March technically qualified, since the recent Oscar nominations had added a new title to the list -- and in theory, I should watch both of this year's best picture nominees I haven't seen, American Fiction and The Zone of Interest, before I continue in my reverse chronological order. Zone finally releases today so I will get my chance soon. However, we don't actually know that these movies will not win best picture, so they are not technically bridesmaids just yet.)

Why such a long interval? Well of course it was because the 1990s were when I became a cinephile, and particularly obsessed with the Oscars. I might not have seen all the nominees in the year they came out, but you better bet I have gone through and cleaned up the ones I didn't see in the time since, with the two previously mentioned titles being the lone exceptions I had not yet gotten to by the time I started this series.

The Prince of Tides never felt like it required my attention so urgently. It seemed like the classic case of the melodrama that warranted Academy consideration only because of its "important" subject matter, and not because it excelled in any of the areas that a budding cinephile would respect.

What I found when actually watching the movie was that it really made me miss the sturdy, family-oriented drama that contained a blend of trauma, romance and humor -- so much so that I toyed with giving it 4.5 stars on Letterboxd.

Cooler heads prevailed and I ended up with four stars, which doesn't do much to distinguish The Prince of Tides from many of the better-than-average films I watch on a weekly basis. But I know in my head that when the year finishes and I'm posting next year's wrap-up post, this has a good chance to be one of my ten best I saw in 2024 that weren't released in 2024.

Nick Nolte at the very top of his game gives this film a good head start. Known for being irascible, Nolte is often also unlikable. Here, though, he shows us a softer side that's still capable of occasional apoplexy (it wouldn't be Nolte without that), that overall keeps us interested in his every moment on screen.

The same can be said of Streisand herself, not in terms of the irascibility or apoplexy, but in terms of always being extremely watchable. Streisand has always had an uncomfortable relationship with her own beauty or lack thereof; I think of that line of dialogue in The Mirror Has Two Faces (where Nick Nolte is played by Jeff Bridges) where she says "Why put on makeup? It's still me, only in color." Streisand is certainly not a traditional beauty, but maybe a little bit like Lady Gaga, she is just so interesting to watch. Her elegance in this movie approaches beauty, if we are continuing in this superficial realm that doesn't have anything to do with her performance or her direction.

I remember one of the discussion points around The Prince of Tides was Streisand's failure to get a nomination for best director, just the latest indication that the Academy, especially in 1991, was unwilling to recognize the contributions of women behind the camera. This failure could have been one of the key factors in Jane Campion getting nominated for The Piano two years later. The direction here is not exceptional in terms of camera tricks or outside-the-box choices, but the movie is a good reminder that a director also, perhaps primarily, is tasked with getting good performances from her cast. And the performances here are quite good. 

The story is about Nolte's character, Tom Wingo, who is a South Carolina teacher and football coach who is having a bit of a midlife crisis that probably has its origins in the trauma of an unhappy childhood, whose details we will learn as the narrative plays out. Due to his inattentiveness, his wife (Blythe Danner) is having questions about their future together despite having three girls under the age of 13. The timing of her doubts is inconvenient, though, as he's called to New York after his sister Savannah (Melinda Dillon), a poet, makes her most recent suicide attempt. She's suffering under much the same childhood trauma as he is.

In New York he meets her psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (Streisand), who is trying to learn more about this childhood trauma in order to prevent her patient from trying to take her own life again. They originally butt heads, as is the case in most love stories, and only very slowly does their relationship take on the components of a romance -- a detail the film makes plenty easy to stomach considering that both of their spouses are cheating on them. Because he is not technically her patient, there's nothing gross about this -- though he does benefit from the traditional services of a shrink in getting at his own issues that he shares with his sister. He also helps train her son, an accomplished violinist who wants to be a football player.

I guess movies like The Prince of Tides do still exist, though if you are looking for prominent examples that take the culture by storm, you are going to have a lot tougher time providing them. I wouldn't necessarily say The Prince of Tides was a cultural phenomenon in 1991 either, but being one of only five best picture nominees (at that time), it certainly was a bigger part of the monoculture than it would be today. Today's version of this movie does not get the accolades and does not get generally seen because indeed, we are looking for slightly different things in our movies today. We're looking for movies that are more obviously cinematic and perhaps don't lean quite so much on their score, though I will say that none of these defining elements felt like a limitation to me, and if it's dated, it's only in a good way that reminds me of more idealistic times for cinema.

In a way I myself have been gravitating toward movies like The Prince of Tides recently, finding my own versions, whether they generally receive praise or generally do not. Two of my last three #1 movies, Our Friend and The Whale, are sort of today's version of The Prince of Tides. In keeping with my theory about how times have changed, one of those movies was praised, but primarily for the performance of its lead actor rather than the movie itself, while the other was almost totally unseen, even with three known actors in the three central roles, one of them an Oscar winner.

I wasn't moved to tears in The Prince of Tides as I was in those movies, but the distance of 33 years could have something to do with that. I was, however, aware in every moment that I was watching a really good film that deserved one of those five best picture slots in 1991, and never deserved to be looked down on by me.

Excluding the two 2023 movies I mentioned earlier, my next movie in this series will be 1989's My Left Foot, probably something I should have seen before now just because it was one of Daniel Day-Lewis' three Oscars for best actor. 

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