Princess of Tides

          I never thought of acting and producing and directing as a problem. It saves steps for me. I don't have to get the opinions of three people.

--Barbra Streisand

          The above quote is taken from the laser disc of The Prince of Tides, wherein producer-director-actor Barbra Streisand provides two hours of voice-over commentary to complement her most immodest screen performance. The disc is more than just a high-tech vehicle for the star and her fans to talk amongst themselves: Claiming ample space for herself as artist, feminist, full-time therapy patient, and all-around "funny girl," Streisand discusses everything from why she decided not to appear nude in Tides ("I thought the audience would be distracted from the story") to society's fear of female professionalism as evinced by the Anita Hill debacle. Her ultimate point is that no one in the industry would call it egocentric for, say, Kevin Costner to command both sides of the camera. "A man's reach should always exceed his grasp," she says. "But why isn't that true for a woman?"

          Indeed, it's tempting to consider that the countless reports of directorial egotism on the set of her latest, The Mirror Has Two Faces, might in fact reflect some shade of male anxiety. And if so, it can't be a coincidence that the primary control freak in the film itself is a guy. Hearkening back to the bookworm nerds of Howard Hawks's Ball of Fire and Bringing Up Baby, Mirror's Gregory Larkin (Jeff Bridges) is a Columbia University calculus professor who, seeking mathematical precision in his personal life, formulates a celibate marriage of convenience to Rose Morgan (Streisand)--a "homely" fellow teacher whom he's certain will pose no threat to his career or his fragile libido.

          Fat chance. This Rose blooms into a temptress, of course, which only adds to her husband's screwy fear of women. As a director, Streisand has a gift for gender reversal that extends to her casting of macho actors (Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte) as vulnerable sex objects: Mirror's hero is so psychosexually delicate that he claims to identify with Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction. Conversely, Rose is Cinderella by way of Pretty Woman: She wants the fairy tale. In other words, as only a Streisand character could put it: "I want to feel passion and heat and sweat and madness. I want valentines and all the rest of that crap. I want it all!"

          How completely she ends up getting it is what gives Mirror its self-reflexivity, its inimitably campy quality of pure Barbra-ness. Like Tides and Yentl, and Streisand's own career, this is a tale of miraculous transformation, albeit one that accentuates rather than resolves the star's countless contradictions. To wit: Rose treats her lit students to a brilliant deconstruction of happily-ever-after narratives, while conceding that cheesy romance "feels fucking great"; she derives equal pleasure from classical music and Yankees games, chef salads and junk food; she's a middle-aged woman with the energy of a 20-year-old; and an ordinary-looking homebody who's somehow blessed with halo-like lighting in nearly every shot.

          As a movie whose core audience is forty- and fifty-something women, this seems the mirror-opposite of The First Wives Club, arguing not for marital emancipation but for the virtues of toning up, slimming down, and luring your man--call it self-esteem by Stair Master. Nevertheless, the director parades her pseudo-reverse feminism with such old-fashioned chutzpah that it bids to become perversely empowering. Certainly, Mirror gains depth from our knowledge that Streisand wore the pants offscreen, firing no less a cinematographer than Dante Spinotti (any guesses why?) and re-tailoring a script by the vaunted Richard LaGravenese to fit her unique proportions. Suffice it to say that this romance is mainly in love with its heroine at the expense of an actor who may deserve better. Still, it's far less self-indulgent than Warren Beatty's Love Affair or Robert Redford's Up Close and Personal. And although its ambitions outweigh its coherence, the film is never less than a hoot.

          On the other hand, this is a tough movie to talk about declaratively. Just as Streisand herself is an acquired taste, Mirror seems positioned to reflect the viewer. In fact, it pivots on the notion that, at least for the first half, the heroine is not sexually desirable--which, let's face it, is mainly a falsely modest narrative conceit allowing the star to convince us, but especially herself, that we really like her. The film's supporting roles are just that: Pierce Brosnan turns up to confirm Streisand's appeal for younger men, while Lauren Bacall, playing a surrogate for Streisand's own unsupportive mother (or so say the cover stories), functions chiefly as a reminder that youthful beauty doesn't last forever.

          The press kit for The Mirror Has Two Faces notes that this is a "story of love as the 21st century closes in." No doubt there's a palpable sense of urgency here. Near the end of this increasingly frantic movie, Rose tries to get her hubby to speed up his soul-baring by issuing the half-joke, "Quick, I'm aging!" His response comes just in the nick of time: "God, you're beautiful."

          Whew. Now this dysfunctional couple can live happily ever after, and the director-star can truly have it all--which might be a bit too much. But would anything less have been worthy of Barbara? CP

          The Mirror Has Two Faces is playing at area theaters.

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