By John H. Foote
23. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995)
When Steven Spielberg walked away from directing The Bridges of Madison County, the highly anticipated film, Clint Eastwood had already been tapped to play the photographer from the National Geographic who comes to Iowa in the sixties to photograph the covered bridges. With Spielberg out of the picture, Eastwood decided the film was something he had not attempted as a director and Warner Brothers gave the film to him to helm. Eastwood’s first job was to cast the plum role of Francesca, the Italian war bride left home for the weekend and who falls in love with the photographer over a weekend. Sigourney Weaver had the inside track, with Anjelica Huston, Isabella Rossellini, and Jessica Lange close to getting the job too, but in the end Eastwood decided to try and get Meryl Streep, though it was well known she had hated the book. The best seller had been written by Roberts James Waller and released to tepid reviews, but screen writer Richard LaGravenese had turned the lightweight book into a rock-solid story with richly drawn characters, giving the story real meat. So Eastwood sent her the screenplay, which she loved, screened Unforgiven (1992), which again she loved, and she called him back he had his Francesca.
As for the question could Eastwood capture Robert Kincaid as Streep would capture Francesca? People forget Eastwood had evolved as an actor through the seventies to the nineties, and the magic the two put onscreen was enchanting. Here was something of a rarity, a love story for the over 40 crowd, beautifully acted and directed, written with honesty and charm, two very real very lonely people who find a love that is once in a lifetime.
There is something that happens when actors possess chemistry, it is sheer magic. No one knows where it comes from or how it happens, if just flows out of them organically, with every line and gesture, as though they were born to be together. When it happens onstage it is immediate, though film often takes longer and cannot as though be created in the editing room, it is either there or it is not.
“This kind of certainty comes along just once” he says to her, asking her to come away with him.
From the moment he pulls into her driveway, they do a delicate dance towards each other, each feeling the heat, the raw carnality growing between them, feeling the pull that comes so rarely. Dancing becomes erotic, intensely so, and watching waiting for the other to make their move is electric, so that when they finally kiss is like an explosion on screen, the while film building towards it.
Set in 1965, with her family away for a weekend at a state fair, Francesca is looking forward to a few days of peaceful reading, listening to music, and not having to prepare meals and clean the sprawling house. We see the family before they leave having dinner and it is a silent existence, as Francesca is hungry for conversation that never comes. Into her midst drives Robert Kincaid in an old truck, searching for the covered bridges the state is so famous for. Lonely, intrigued, Francesca invites him to dinner after they spend the day shooting the bridges, getting to know one another. Their connection is near instant, and over the next four days they have a passionate, exciting affair, filled with the kind of sex everyone should experience once or twice for a very long time, and a love that is instant. It is a certainty they are soulmates; it is equally certain they are meant to be together.
And she considers running away with Robert, but the children and her loyalty to her dull husband hold her on the farm. They encounter one another before Robert leaves town, and she reaches for the door handle as he stands in the rain, the pounding rain running down his face as tears would, but she never gets out. For four days she had a passion she had dreamed of, but she chooses loyalty over love, and remains on the farm for the rest of her life. She never hears from Robert again, but one day a trunk is delivered from a lawyer, and in it are Robert’s most treasured belongings, his cameras, photographs, clothing and a book published of his work dedicated to Francesca.
Francesca’s husband had died three years before Robert, and though she tried to find him, he had left the magazine and she never could.
The film is bookended by the arrival of this trunk and Francesca telling her children about the affair. Truthfully the film did not need the bookends, because the performances of the actors portraying her children cannot touch the magic of Eastwood and Streep together. Her story to her kids gives them new direction in each of their troubled relationships, but again, did we need that?
Streep is wonderful as Francesca, one of her top five performances, absolute perfection. She was fleshier here, having gained weight for the part, voluptuous, curvy and spectacular. Her Francesca is playful, funny, a tease, and presented with the kind of passion she has never known. Has she orgasmed with her husband? Probably but not a night of multiples, where you are left screaming from the rooftops for more. Robert brings her that lust she has never known with her husband Michael, for while he is a good and fine man, he is passionless. With Robert she gets hot at the thought of him having been in her bathtub earlier, the scent of him, until she cannot imagine her life without him. Yet she must because what kind of woman puts her own feelings above the needs and love of her children? What was she saying to her daughter is she ran off with a stranger, though by the end of the weekend they are strangers no more. Streep brilliantly conveys the intense loneliness Francesca feels, and we see her evolve into a sexual being who cannot keep her hands off this man.
Eastwood had by the nineties grown as an actor, aging had done him well. His superb performance in Unforgiven (1992) had earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor and he and the film won Oscars as Director and Best Picture. With The Bridges of Madison County he was going toe to toe with possibly the greatest actor in film history, but did so beautifully. There was something authentic about Francesca and Robert, something we absolutely believed, every movement, every kiss, every single word. It remains one of his finest achievements as both actor and director, and I think he deserved far more attention for his artistry on the film than he received.
The Bridges of Madison County did very well at the box office with strong reviews, especially for the film’s performances and the realistic manner in which the story was told. Unhurried, unrushed, Eastwood took his time, telling a languid love story that builds to a bittersweet conclusion. In the summer of 1995 there were so few realistic romantic films to see, this was it. Strong reviews bolstered the visibility of the film, and adult audiences flocked to see it.
The picture was nominated for a single Academy Award, not surprisingly Best Actress for Streep, who was also nominated for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award. The film was robbed of nominations for Best Picture, Actor and Director (Eastwood), Best Screenplay, Score, Cinematography and Film Editing. In the end it won nothing despite that glorious Streep performance.
Streep loved working with Eastwood, her style perfectly merging with his style of shooting the rehearsal or doing a single take, two at the most. Eastwood shot the film in sequence, another rarity, but he thought essential as they were like the lovers they were portraying, getting to know one another. Seeing Eastwood take his time directing was thrilling to Streep, having worked with just about every other director in movies. He was careful, gentle, and never raised his voice, “it was the quietest set I have ever been on.” Streep told me she considers the shoot one of the happiest of her career and loved every moment working with Eastwood, who she got used to calling Clint. Their chemistry together carried the film, it felt natural, and very intense and real, not easy all the time.
It remains a remarkable film, and aside from the bookends which do not hamper the film as they are instantly forgettable, a perfect love story.
The following year The English Patient (1996) was declared a masterpiece and won nine Academy Awards for its sweeping, majestic love story. Yeah, right. Boring, dull, not a shred of chemistry between the lovers. It felt like all the love due The Bridges of Madison County mistakenly went to The English Patient, which is tragic.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.