5.20.2016

The homosexual in the text: George Carlin as Eddie Detreville in "The Prince of Tides" (1991)


Gay and straight buddies: Nick Nolte and George Carlin in The Prince of Tides.

Eddie Detreville in The Prince of Tides (dir. Barbra Streisand, 1991) is a typical example of the gay-best-friend character that began to appear semi-regularly in Hollywood comedies and dramas of the early 1990s.  The figure of the gay best friend can be seen as representing the domestication of the homosexual by dominant culture: while, on other fronts, queer independent films and passion plays about AIDS put homosexuality front and center, films like Tides treat it as a flavoring particle, a garnish for a heterosexual entrée.  (It’s interesting to think that Tides came out the same year as both Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and Todd Haynes’ Poison.) 

As played in a relatively low-key performance by George Carlin, Eddie provides support to both halves of the film’s central couple, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) and Susan Lowenstein (Streisand).  Eddie’s role might better be described as fairy godfather, insofar as he oversees Tom and Susan’s romance, arranging for both of them to attend a party at his apartment and later giving them his blessing when he learns that they’ve slept together.  No need to fear queers like Eddie: he’s only there to help facilitate the tasteful fucking of straight people to the accompaniment of saccharine James Newton Howard music.

More interesting is Eddie’s relationship with Tom, a repressed, hyper-masculine football coach who, over the course of the film, must learn to cry and be vulnerable so that he can Truly Love.  What’s interesting is that even before Tom starts confessing his childhood traumas to Susan and crying into her Donna Karan blazer, he already shows a level of comfort in interacting with Eddie that’s surprising; the two men hug each other affectionately when Tom arrives in New York, and they even exchange some gently flirtatious banter.  “You look terrible, Tom; you’re not even cute anymore!” Eddie tells him sulkily.  Tom inquires about Eddie’s boyfriend, only to learn that they have broken up and Eddie is living alone for the moment—“unless,” Eddie adds, “I can tempt you into crossing the line while you’re here…”  Tom responds to this (joking?) proposition with a good-natured laugh, telling him “I got enough troubles.” 

At this early point in the film Tom is already a figure for the new masculinity of the late twentieth century, comfortable enough with himself that he’s immune to homosexual panic.  In Eddie and Tom’s playful dynamic, each recognizes and affirms the other’s sexuality with no animosity or tension.  Eddie even comes to Tom’s rescue at the party when a gay friend tries to hit on him, swooping in to snap “hands off!  He’s spoken for.”


"Hands off! He's spoken for": Eddie shoos a predatory friend away from Tom.

Tom’s comfort with Eddie is even more surprising when we learn of Tom’s rape at the hands of a male intruder at age thirteen—a traumatic memory the confession of which brings about his therapeutic breakthrough with Susan.  But the violent scene of male rape serves to isolate and contain the gay sex that the film disavows in relation to the celibate Eddie.  Eddie, in other words, is allowed to exist within the world of the film because the threat of gay sex has been off-loaded onto the figure of Tom’s rapist—and because he himself has no sex life of his own to speak of.  The Prince of Tides becomes a case study in how 1990s Hollywood managed to contain the figure of the gay man by splitting and compartmentalizing him—pitting the benign fairy godfather against the dark shadow of his own sexuality. 

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