'Prince of Tides' affirms life as it explores emotional trauma

August 07, 1992|By Nancy Spiller | Nancy Spiller,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

The Prince of Tides

Columbia TriStar Home Video (1991)

Rated R

It 's a crime that this film didn't receive a single Academy Award (it received seven nominations, including Best Actor for Nick Nolte, Best Supporting Actress for Kate Nelligan and Best Picture). It's also a crime that the highly talented director Barbra Streisand did not receive an Academy nod for this accomplished work.

"Prince of Tides" is a multilevel psychological drama and love story that affirms life and looks to the possibilities for mental peace. And while the screenplay, co-written by Pat Conroy from his novel of the same name, may try to fit in one too many therapeutic bromides, it's an often poetic presentation of the crushing array of emotional problems we all face -- with our children, our parents, our spouses, our siblings, crippling memories of the past, fears for the future.

Nobody's got it easy in this one -- Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) is an unemployed Southern high school coach lost in midlife. His brother is dead, his twin sister has tried to commit suicide for the umpteenth time, he hates his mother, he loves his three daughters, he can't express anything close to a feeling for his wife (Blythe Danner). A trip to New York to help in his sister's mental recovery brings him to the office of psychiatrist Susan Lowenstein (Ms. Streisand), who's able to pummel the memories out of his gut -- memories horrible enough for us to understand his frozen emotional state.

The properly applied techniques of Lowenstein's trade bring about the desired results. Tom Wingo's charming Southern ways and eventual love bring changes in her life. Dealing with a difficult son, Bernard (Jason Gould, Streisand's real-life son with Elliot Gould), and a cold and cheating husband, she finds happiness, sigh, in his arms. If there is one tremendously weak interlude in this film, it is their encounter in her country home. Beyond that, however, the characters are sharply presented and the conflicts anchored in reality.

MGM: When the Lion Roars, Part 1

MGM/UA Video (1992)

Unrated

In my first encounter with this three-part series in its debut on cable's TNT, I found the gilded interludes with host/narrator Patrick Stewart unbearable to watch. The actor who has gained some popularity in Star Trek's second generation appeared a pompous ass. His over-enunciated, hammy reading is the kind of performance that would have gotten him laughed off the lot at MGM, the studio whose history this video saga documents. Add to that the commercial interruptions of a television screening, and you wind up with a lot of potatoes, little meat.

It's a far different experience on video. Mr. Stewart is somewhat more palatable, if no less laughable, when there are no commercial breaks. Chewed scenery aside, this is a fascinating history of the birth and growth of MGM, the world's premiere film studio of Hollywood's Golden Era. Part 1 takes us from its founding in the silent age on through the early years of talkies. It is woven from a treasure-trove of old clips and more current interviews:

Groucho Marx tells the story of how he and his brothers stripped naked and started roasting potatoes in Irving Thalberg's fireplace while waiting for him to return to his office.

Joan Crawford, who began as a chorus girl in the silents, describes in an old black-and-white TV clip how the studio polished the stars, a requirement for some of the biggest, like Crawford, who were fifth-grade dropouts.

But the real stars of this story are the studio founder, the former scrap-metal dealer Louis B. Mayer, and its head of production, the exceedingly young (23) and fragile (a serious heart condition) Irving Thalberg. The studio's stated goal was nothing less than 52 feature films released a year. To produce one film a week it had to become a factory, the dream factory. An assembly line of stars, writers, directors and technicians was created, with strict controls placed on artistic natures.

Signing with MGM is said to have been Buster Keaton's downfall, while it brought the rise of more malleable personalities such as Jean Harlow, Crawford and John Gilbert. Others came on the coattails of special interests. Marion Davies was signed with the agreement that her lover, William Randolph Hearst, would mention the studio every day in his national chain of papers. The rare clips shown here back up testimony that she was a talented comedian, yet Hearst's insistence on seeing her in leaden period dramas apparently sunk her career.

Favorite highlights in the first volume include rare color footage of the silent "Ben Hur" (look for the topless dollies leading the Roman procession in the days before the Hays office moral code); a pudgy Swedish actress with bad teeth Hollywood transformed into Greta Garbo; former kid star Jackie Cooper on Wallace Beery; the real avalanches and white water that took the lives of extras in "The Trail of '98"; the real African chieftains living in primitive splendor on the back lot; the furor over Maureen O'Sullivan's costume in the "Tarzan" films. And on and delightfully on.

If not as substantial as the recent multipart history of the RKO studio, "When the Lion Roars" is full of intrigue and juicy gossip, a thoroughly enjoyable, and most entertaining, history of a once great film studio.

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