The 1995 romantic drama, The Bridges of Madison County, brought two screen Legends, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, together for the first and only time .
Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep; two of the most durable, popular and honored Star\actors in movie history. Between them, they have seven Oscar wins and more than thirty Oscar nominations. When they made “Bridges of Madison County (1995)”, Clint was 65 and Meryl 46. That makes it a very unique romantic film, because usually people don’t make love stories about such an old couple . Either the man or woman or both would be much Younger. Both Clint and Meryl play characters that are synthesis of characters that they have played before; at the same time they possess additional dimensions as well. Robert Kincaid, like most of Clint’s western heroes, is a loner; Perhaps the last cowboy, a traveler and drifter who rides into the town of Iowa. But since the story is set in 1965, he is riding a pickup truck instead of a horse. He is also a sharp shooter, except the shooting is done with a Nikon camera; He is a photographer for National Geographic. There is no violence, except for the emotional ones; no guns, no fistfights, no car chases. Contrary to usual Eastwood characters, Robert is quite a romantic; who quotes poetry, philosophy and pick flowers for the lady. This romantic, vulnerable aspect is something that Clint has not played much before and he adapts himself superbly in this role. He has always been a minimalist and it’s great to see him play this mawkish, melodramatic character with great subtlety and dignity. The film is adapted from Robert James Waller’s syrupy, soap operatic bestseller of the same name which sold about ten million copies. Clint’s minimalist tendencies as a director turns out to be perfect for toning down the romantic excesses of the novel. In the hands of another director, this would have been an unbearably schmaltzy film. But Clint finds a strong dramatic and human core, with the help of writer Richard Lagravenese- who would later do the same for Robert Redford’s The Horse whisperer. But the real star of the show, and without whom it would have been impossible to imagine the film , at least in the form as it exits today, is the great Meryl Streep. She infuses her unparalleled skills as a dramatic actress as well as her incandescent star charisma in creating the character of Francesca Johnson, that’s at once fully formed and realistic and also highly romantic and fantastical- Who, one moment, is this drab middle aged, middle class southern house wife and, in the next moment, transforms into a passionate, glamorous, fantasy woman for the macho , roaming male played by Clint.
It is usually said that the best movies are made from mediocre novels, while great novels result in mediocre movies. Look no further than this movie for confirmation. The film is a great improvement on the novel. The lead characters in the novel are bland romantic stereotypes . A bored, sexually frustrated housewife and the hero who is every Woman’s perfect dream man. But director Eastwood and writer Legravenese deepen the characters in the screenplay. The character of Robert Kincaid is portrayed as a man with flaws, Someone who is emotionally detached and creatively unfocused and hence has not fully achieved his full artistic potential. And Francesca becomes the vehicle through which he achieves it. Francesca on the other hand is a very complex woman, who hides a more passionate, emotionally volatile creature inside her prim and proper housewife character. The film is told from Francesca’s point of view. And Clint, the director and Superstar, very wisely and generously steps aside and hands over the center stage to Meryl. The basic character of Francesca is not alien to Meryl. It’s similar to her first academy award winning performance in Kramer Vs Kramer; the frustrated wife caught up in an unhappy marriage, who chooses to leave her husband and family, except here she choose not to leave. It’s also similar to the title character from Sophie’s Choice – The war bride with a foreign accent who comes over to America from an European country. There are also elements of Karen Blixen she played in Out of Africa– a woman in an alien country getting into an extra marital affair with a charming loner. But this character has a raw, earthy sexuality, a voluptuousness that’s hidden under the pretty housewife exterior that she has not played before and her character graph in the film is about this women slowly revealing her true self in the company of this exotic stranger. Meryl has the most difficult role in the film and perhaps the most difficult role of her career, because the character is more of a rough sketch in the screenplay, not like the fully developed characters she played in Sophie’s choice or Silkwood. And it is in this role that Meryl’s true genius as a performer comes through. A competent enough actor can bring a fully developed character alive on screen. But it takes a very very special one to take a roughly sketched stereotype and turn it into a very complex, very human character on screen. It’s a performance that start out with subtle gestures and movements; the performance becomes bigger and bigger as the film proceeds. She is ably supported by Eastwood-the director and co-actor Clint, being an extremely charismatic star, can effortlessly ooze charm and grace. And that’s what he is called upon to do for most of the film and mainly to be the subdued foil to the explosive Meryl.
Clint shot the film in continuity so that the performances and their relationship between characters could be developed organically. The film , like many a Clint Eastwood directed movie, does not have many big moments or loud confrontations. It has an elegiac tone with scenes taking their time to play out. It’s composed of very subtle, quite and delicate moments. Francesca Johnson is a middle aged Italian woman who finds herself with a husband and teenage children, living on a farm in the middle of a flat Iowa horizon. Francesca’s husband and children have left home for several days to go to the Illinois State Fair. That’s when Robert Kincaid enters her life. He was on his way to photograph the Roseman Bridge, but gets lost and lands up at Francesca’s doorstep. Francesca impulsively agrees to take him to the bridge. On the way they make small talk and Robert’s hands briefly brush against Francesca’s bare legs when he is searching for a cigarette. For a moment, there is a subtle shift in her emotional state and later we realizes that she really cherished that moment. Once on the bridge Robert goes about setting up his shots, while Francesca walks around keenly observing him. Robert surprises her with a bunch of flowers he had picked for her , she say thanks , but in the same breath and with a straight face she says that they are poisonous. Robert drops the flowers to the ground, only to see her laughing mischievously. She has lied infact and the flowers are perfectly safe. Its the first time we see a mischievous, volatile side to Francesca. She herself don’t know why she lied. Nothing up to that point had given us an inkling to this side of her. May be , in the company of this stranger who claims to have visited her native place of Bari in Italy, she is going back in time to the girl she was before her marriage , someone whom she herself has forgotten. While returning from their little excursion to the bridge, Francesca invites Robert to have some Ice tea and he accepts; and then comes an invitation to stay for supper and he accepts that too. And through the course of these events, and to her own disbelief, Francesca is getting more and more attracted to Robert .
The scene were they are preparing supper in the kitchen is a pivotal moment in the film. It is constructed as a subtle mating ritual between the two as they stand close together. He is making salad at her insistence, while she is cooking dinner. Earlier in the film, we have seen the kitchen as a place of family get together, when Francesca was having dinner with her husband and kids. We had also seen her place in the family, that she is more of an invisible member , whom the other members hardly notice. But now she is the star , being the sole object of this handsome stranger’s undivided attentions and, as we will see later on, the kitchen will be the main location where their love story will develop .Post supper, they start drinking; and slowly Francesca becomes freer and freer with her questions and answers. Her regrets with her current existence comes to fore. She describes her husband as ‘clean’ and very loving , but the life she has now is not what she expected when she got married. Meryl is juggling a lot of stuff as an actress in the scene; she is trying to hide her true feelings for the stranger; trying to convince herself that everything is alright with her life and at the same time, cant help expressing her regrets. I have always felt Meryl is at her best, when she is playing scenes where she has to hide the character’s true feelings, and this is one of them. The conversation ends on a rather acrimonious note when Robert fires a rather indiscreet question as to whether Francesca wants to leave her husband. Francesca snaps , as if Robert has just read her most intimate thoughts. Robert apologizes and walks out of the house. Eastwood frames this moment. as the door shuts on Francesca, as if she is being imprisoned back into her domesticity while Robert resumes his traveler’s life.
Francesca then makes the move for reconciliation and Robert accepts, and they decide to meet again. She becomes as giddy as a teenager going on a first date, jumping up & down in joy, going out for shopping and buying a new dress. But then Robert becomes familiar with the delicate moral structure of a small town like Iowa, when he has an encounter with the ‘Redfield woman‘, the woman who is ostracized by the society for having an extra marital affair. He has second thoughts about meeting Francesca again, but she is determined to press on. So, once again he comes home for dinner and she comes down the stairs in her new dress looking drop dead gorgeous and he is totally transfixed. This is the moment when their romance begins, the first touch, the first dance, the first kiss. When they first touch, Francesca – on the phone with a friend, who is talking to her about spotting Robert in the town – reaches out to caress Robert’s shoulder as he sits at the table; she adjusts his collar, brushes his neck with her finger, and then leaves her hand resting on his shoulder and he gently takes her hand in his. The scene is the epitome of subtlety and silence, Yet the moment is electrifying. Later, he leads her in a slow dance around the candle-lit table, and once again, the kitchen that was once the place of domestic routine is now transformed into a lovers paradise. He says he will stop it right now if she asks him to but she says nobody is asking you. they kiss , they make love and their epic love story that’s going to last just four days begins. But once the love affair starts , Francesca is plagued by doubts, guilt, confusion and insecurity as she tries harder and harder to understand and accept the new man in her life, who doesn’t seem to need anybody or anything in particular in his life. They have a lover’s quarrel, in which she accuses him of being a phony and a hypocrite, but is immediately remorseful, as she grapples with her dilemma; of either staying on the farm as a loving wife and mother or go away with Robert ,who she knows by then is her true soulmate . He wants her to leave with him – This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. , he says, while she cannot bear the thought of subjecting her family to shame. They part, with Robert insisting that the parting is not final.
Now the trademark of all great love stories – whether its Brief Encounter, Casablanca, The way we where etc etc. – is that the lead pair part ways at the end of the film. It’s the unrequited nature of their love that makes these movie memorable, which comes about as a result of one or both of the lovers deciding to renounce their love. Bogart’s renunciation enabling Bergman to leave Casablanca with her husband makes the film what it is. Similarly here, the emotional peak of the movie is Francesca’s renunciation, when she does not open the door of her husband’s truck and run to Robert. Francesca is out buying groceries with her husband Richard; this is after she and Robert had parted and her family has come back from the fair. She waits in the car while her husband shops in the store. Robert, drenched in rain, slowly walks over to Francesca, who can see him from the car window. He stands there for just a few seconds , but it feels like an eternity. This moment marks one of the most brutally honest displays of emotions in Clint Eastwood’s career as an actor. Words cannot do justice to the amount of love, pain and longing he conveys in that moment when he looks at her, with the rain hiding his tears. Then suddenly he turns back, as Richard returns from the store, gets into his car and drives away. They approach a red light, where Robert’s car is stopped in front of Francesca’s car. Francesca can see him. The light turns green. Robert stalls. Francesca puts her hand on the door handle and slowly begins to open the door, and just as she does this, Robert drives away and Francesca breaks down into tears. Her husband, like always unable to understand her , is perplexed by her behavior. She just asks him for some time to regain herself as they drive back to their home. This is the moment, the big climax that the film has been slowly building towards. The film was never about their love having a happy ending, which they knew was impossible from the beginning, but it’s more about the idea, the promise of experiencing that perfect love and finding that perfect soulmate which would continue to give them hope and strength as they navigate their lives in the future. If Francesca was to run away with Robert, then their love wouldn’t remain perfect; as she tells him in one of those emotionally charged moments, that if i walk out with you now , i will start hating myself for it. The fact that their relationship lasts only four days and they know that it would only last four days , makes it so much more beautiful and fulfilling for them. Many years later, Francesca receives a package from Robert where we see that their love has helped Robert in finding some meaning in life and his true calling as an artist.
The weakest aspect of the film is the framing device used by Eastwood, of telling the story through Francesca’s children . The movie opens with Francesca’s grown children returning to the family farm after she dies, and discovering three journals written by Francesca to her kids, explaining the four-day affair she had with the photographer back in the 1960s. It is a necessary device for setting up the ‘once upon a time’ fairy tale nature of the romantic story as well as the feeling of loss inherent in the story. But then it goes on to explore the deep consequences the mother’s story has on the lives of her children : Michael and Carolyn, who are both experiencing marital problems. Their mother’s story helps them to find a sense of direction in their lives. This is just too much melodrama in such a delicate film . Secondly, the actors in this story are no match for the screen giants carrying the main love story and every time the story cuts back to present , the film becomes inert and bland. But still, the real love story is so powerful and moving that it manages to overcome this handicap.
Meryl Streep was nominated for an Oscar for best actress for her performance in the film, but she did not win. It’s the same old story with Oscars where truly great performances never win awards. Its looks rather ridiculous that she didn’t win for this one and won an Oscar for her lackluster performance in Iron Lady. I am not a fan of Meryl’s highly regarded performances like Sophie’s choice or Silkwood. I admire them and can appreciate the work she puts in. But her technique in those performances are so overpowering and obvious that one never fully connects with those characters. My favorites has always been her more subtle, less showy ones like The French Lieutenant’s women, Plenty; and absolutely love her in her comedies like She Devil , Devil wears Prada , Its complicated ,etc….She does not get enough credit for them. And above all i love her in this film; Francesca and Sara (from The French Lieutenant’s women) are my two all time favorite Meryl performances. For Clint Eastwood, this film was a continuation of his hot streak, post his career reinvention with Unforgiven. The film was both critically and commercially successful, making close to 200 million dollars at the box office. The film also showcased his extraordinary growth as an actor and director. Pulling off this very delicate, romantic film from a very mawkish literary source would forever remain a crowning achievement in his career, which is more often marked by very dark, masculine pictures. It’s also a great gift he gave to an extraordinary actress like Meryl Streep; who was at the time facing a crisis in her career as all actresses over forty do in Hollywood, and thereby to her die hard admirers, by facilitating one of her greatest screen performances ever. I regret the fact that Clint and Meryl never worked together again, and that Clint never made another romantic drama like this, even though he gave an even more vulnerable (and fantastic) performance in his own Million Dollar Baby(2004), for which he should have won a best actor Oscar. Anyway, I am glad that “The Bridges of Madison County” exists; it’s more than enough for us to celebrate the union of these two great talents.