'The Prince of Tides' Cinematographer Once Wrote a Letter to Debunk 'Vaseline-Coated' Smear

It was “cynical and unfair,” says Stephen Goldblatt, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work on 1991 film

Columbia Pictures

Stephen Goldblatt, the cinematographer of John Patrick Shanley’s new romance “Wild Mountain Thyme,” did not have a particularly cordial relationship with Barbra Streisand when he shot her 1991 drama “The Prince of Tides.” But that didn’t stop him from coming to her defense when he found criticism of her work sexist and misguided, he recently told TheWrap.

The fuss began in the summer of 1991, Columbia Pictures held a test screening for “The Prince of Tides,” Streisand’s second film as a director after 1983’s “Yentl.” The family drama, based on a beloved novel by Pat Conroy, starred Nick Nolte as a South Carolina teacher struggling with dark memories of his childhood, and Streisand as a New York therapist. It was scheduled for release that fall and the test screening reactions would give the studio an indication of whether, as hoped, this was an awards contender.

The Los Angeles Times’ Film Clips column summarized the screening. “Whether acting or directing, La Streisand has always been rapped for ensuring that she shines in her movies at the expense of her co-stars,” the paper reported. “But in ‘The Prince of Tides,’ Streisand … reportedly gives a restrained performance while directing Nolte in a brilliant one. … About the only negatives to report is that the movie has what’s described as numerous glamour shots of Streisand’s body parts filmed through what looks like a Vaseline-coated lens.”

This was long before Twitter, and before the internet as we know it, in fact. And while the petroleum jelly bon mot took off as a colorful knock against Streisand, the film’s director of photography pushed back in the format that was most popular in 1991. He penned a letter to the newspaper.

“I cannot let an impression left by Film Clips go uncorrected,” Goldblatt wrote to the Times. ” … Your spies must be myopic, because there are no such shots in the movie and we never had to use a ‘Vaselined’ lens to photograph Streisand. She is fortunate enough not to need that kind of help.”

Asked about the letter nearly 30 years later while discussing his photography of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” Goldblatt explained to TheWrap, “We weren’t particularly friendly at the time, Barbra and I, but still I found that attitude towards her so cynical and unfair. You can like Barbra well, as many do, or you can like her badly, but that was such a nasty thing to say. ‘Prince of Tides’ is beautifully directed by an extraordinary person. And whatever differences Barbra and I had while we were shooting, I knew that this ‘Vaseline lens’ thing just wasn’t fair.”

It’s true there is a gauzy, sun-dappled use of light in “The Prince of Tides,” though as much in the flashback scenes which don’t feature Streisand as the contemporary scenes which do. Goldblatt, whose credits include the first two “Lethal Weapon” films, HBO’s “Angels in America,” and “Batman Forever,” would receive his first Oscar nomination for his work on Streisand’s film. It was one of seven nominations the movie received that year, including Best Actor and Best Picture, though Streisand herself was overlooked.

In Hollywood’s early decades, gels and jellies were sometimes rubbed on the camera lens to achieve a hazy, distorted effect. Canadian director Guy Maddin uses Vaseline on the camera lens to this day to blur his aesthetic. But Goldblatt’s use of summery light in “The Prince of Tides” seems to share stylistic qualities with techniques that gained popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, and ones that have been given popular cache by cinematographers such as Geoffrey Unsworth (“Cabaret,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Superman”). The soft light is also overcranked for effect in films of that era starring and directed by Warren Beatty (“Heaven Can Wait,” “Reds”).

Goldblatt detected a strain of misogyny in the critique of Streisand. “She was hit with more criticism as a woman filmmaker of her age, at that time,” he said. “There are many more female directors now, thank heavens, but Barbra was a leader in that respect. I’d heard a few of the war stories and I knew she could be demanding, but I was more than happy to take the challenge. So I’m happy I wrote that letter defending her. I’d write it again. I’m proud of my work on that film and she should be proud of hers.”

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