Barbra Streisand provokes extreme reactions: She either thrills you or makes your flesh crawl. In the interest of critical disclosure, I confess to belonging to the latter camp — What’s Up Doc? notwithstanding. But even a dissenter has to marvel at what she has wrought with The Prince of Tides. Pat Conroy’s 1986 novel was a slab of new-male sensitivity that dissected Tom Wingo and his sister, Savannah, through a lens of pop psychiatry. Streisand, however, is more interested in romance, both as a movie director and as a movie star. Almost every film on her résumé passionately insists on romance, on the handsome lead male inevitably seeing past Barbra’s disguise — funny girl, yeshiva boy, clinical psychiatrist — to the throbbing, singing woman underneath.
So, not for her the sprawling family portrait of Conroy’s novel; in her version of Tides, Streisand has for all purposes written out the character of the sister (played by Melinda Dillon) and boosted the role of the psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein (herself). In so doing, she has created a new entry in a hoary old genre: the Couch Affair movie.
Couch Affair movies are a subgenre of the ”woman’s picture,” dependent on the push-pull between secret sin and social propriety. The difference is that here they’re called id and superego. Two peaks of the genre are available on video: the excellent, almost forgotten The Seventh Veil and Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Spellbound. Both are great fun to watch in tandem with Tides, just to see the variations on the themes of love and analysis — even more obvious with the visual grandeur that was Tides‘ theatrical trump card voided by the small screen.
The Seventh Veil is a British film made in conscious emulation of ’40s Hollywood: swankly photographed, impeccably acted, shot through with vibrant neuroses. Ann Todd plays a fragile concert pianist who has had a breakdown; through hypnosis her psychiatrist (Herbert Lom) uncovers a tangle of emotional allegiances to three men, most of all her guardian (an evilly sexy James Mason). What’s most interesting about Veil — aside from the fact that it’s a smart, absorbing soaper set to a swooning classical score — is that it clearly sets up an attraction between handsome young shrink and patient but never quite gets from couch to bed. Trust the Brits not to betray professional ethics, I guess.
Spellbound isn’t as finicky. Despite a convoluted plot that Hitchcock described as ”just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis, ” this is a head-over-heels romance. The doctor played by Ingrid Bergman has to find the name of hunky amnesiac Gregory Peck so she can clear it of murder, but the real battleground is within the psychiatrist herself — and psychiatry loses. ”The mind of a woman in love is operating on the lowest level,” snaps Bergman’s aged mentor (Michael Chekhov). Bergman replies with quintessential melodrama logic: ”The mind isn’t anything. The heart can see deeper sometimes.” Peck heals Bergman’s heart; she mends his mind: quid pro quo, Hollywood style.
The Prince of Tides offers the same trade-off but in reverse. Susan Lowenstein helps Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) exorcise the demons in his past; Tom in return provides love, sex, and football tips for her son (Jason Gould). What director Streisand doesn’t do, unfortunately, is blend the two halves together with finesse. In fact, she doesn’t blend them at all.
The flashbacks to Tom’s youth, his life with his wife (Blythe Danner) and mother (Kate Nelligan), his tormented memories of a long-ago stormy night — these are all rendered with dramatic flair, thanks to ace performances and Streisand’s solid directorial eye. It’s only after Tom is ”cured” and her character moves into the foreground that things get sticky: You can hear the gears clank as The Prince of Tides becomes a big, gauzy Barbra flick.
This divide-and-conquer strategy blows up in Streisand’s face, because it dissipates the elementary tension of movies like Spellbound and The Seventh Veil. She plays by the rules of the Couch Affair genre only to betray them: If there’s no conflict between love and medicine, all that’s left is to gaze fetishistically upon the star, her lips, her nails and that’s a chore for all but the staunchest of fans. Streisand toys with psychiatric notions like the id, but when Tides goes down, it’s beached on ego.
The Prince of Tides: C+
The Seventh Veil: B+