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Thursday
May 31 2018

Months of Meryl: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

JohnandMattheware watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.

#22 —Francesca Johnson,an Italian war bride-turned-American housewife who falls in love with a visiting photographer.

JOHN: Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is sipping a beer in a bathtub while a charming stranger waits for her to eat dinner downstairs.Francesca's husband and two children have left for a trip to the Iowa state fair,but her few days of solitude have been quickly interrupted by the welcome arrival of Clint Eastwood's Robert Kincaid,a travelling National Geographic photographer on assignment to shoot Madison's quaint covered bridges.With her brunette bangs and stray wisps of hair dangling out from her updo,Streep lounges in the bath,watching the water from the shower head above drip down into her hands.Robert has just showered,and,in voiceover,Francesca relates the eroticism of the moment,their sharing the bathtub only minutes apart.Streep's face has never looked more assured and aroused,even as she's unsettled by the seismic consequences of this romance.The simultaneous thrill and troubling implications of the moment flicker on Streep's face as she loses herself in thought,already foreseeing the end of this brief encounter while testing the boundaries between her desires and responsibilities.

In this scene,the magnificence of Streep's performance elevates this admittedly soapy and conventional tale into the pantheon,a brilliant fusion of Francesca's subjectivity given weight by a generous filmmaker and imbued with soul-shaking truth by a master performer...

The Bridges of Madison Countyarrived at a perfect moment for both this series and,more importantly,Streep's career.

After slogging through early-90s Streep fare ranging from the trivial(The River Wild,Defending Your Life) to the outright appalling (The House of the Spirits),Bridges is like the delicious dessert that rewards a tough diet.At 45,Streep's age-appropriate casting as Francesca initially troubled studio executives,who wanted younger actresses,but nevertheless,Streep had always been Eastwood's first choice,and she accepted the role almost immediately via telephone.Robert James Waller's novel had already been a bestseller when the film premiered in the summer of 1995,ensuring the adaptation's success at the box office.After a five-year dry spell,Streep scored her tenth Oscar nomination for her efforts.With this mid-career reinvention,and her subsequent return to Connecticut after shootingThe River Wild,Streep doubled down on the facets of her persona that other middle-aged actresses might abandon and revealed a level of onscreen honesty that she had yet to reveal before.

As Francesca Johnson,Streep gives one of,if notthe,most achingly honest,startlingly direct,casually dexterous,unfussy,lived-in,and luminous performances of her career.Words are pithy objects when describing the virtuosic way Streep stares at Eastwood from across her kitchen table during dinner,reluctantly poses for his photographs on the bridges,secretly watches him as he bathes,and,finally,clenches and releases the handle of a car door,resigning herself to domestic sorrow.It's a performance full of such wonders from scene to scene,so why don't you share some of your favorite moments in Streep's performance?


MATTHEW:The Bridges of Madison Countyis one of the exceedingly rare films in which I forget Streep the Legend and see only the character at hand.Francesca Johnson is the Streep creation I hold closest to my heart for reasons that are largely ineffable but no less palpable.Is it because Francesca,the solid,often-overlooked center of a family who needs but frequently doesn't see her,could be any number of the women,living and departed,who are the cornerstones of my Italian-American clan?Or maybe it's because Francesca is,at the outset ofBridges,a person who has closed herself to the unexpected,especially when it comes to passion,and could therefore be anyone who has ever sacrificed her spirit and resigned herself to a life more mundane than the one she had long ago imagined.

"Bari"is the key that first unlocks Francesca's guarded heart.She is riding shotgun in Robert Kincaid's truck,voluntarily guiding this journeyman photographer to the bridges he has been assigned to shoot.Francesca's stony looks and curt,conversation-ending answers are just a couple of the many formidable guards that she throws up in the face of this stranger's interest and arousal,which she can clearly detect but firmly chooses to divert.But then Robert asks where Francesca hail from,to which she answers,"Small town on the Eastern side no one's ever heard of called Bari.""Oh yeah,Bari,"Robert replies,"I've been there."The coy but clear-cut smile that unfolds on Streep's face at this sign of recognition is one of surprise but also furtive delight.For Francesca,this whistle-stop region is a point of connection to this rugged newcomer but also something like a shared secret."No,really?"Francesca asks,and her voice is loose and intrigued,eager to deepen the bond that will imminently unravel life as she once knew it.

Meryl and Clint on set

Streep's ability to convey all of this with a smile and a handful of syllables is,like so much else in this peak performance,an extraordinary application of her physical and vocal capacities,which transform this effort into so much more than a voluptuous Magnani riff and are used here to chart every breathtaking crescendo and heartsore diminuendo in this romance for the ages.Eastwood shotBridgesin-sequence and the typically unfussy economy of his filmmaking both makes and enhances Streep's performance.At this stage in his career,Eastwood was a director wise and inconspicuous enough to often just train his camera on Streep,as in Francesca and Robert's final candlelit dinner,and simply let the master free to do her work and outline her own path to the crux of a scene.Streep provides,in return,the most attentive and unpredictable scene partner with whom Eastwood has ever shared the screen.He becomes practically boyish under her gaze,as when Robert describing a line of his writing that he thinks might resonate with Francesca,who responds with kind consideration to his earnest eagerness but renders him bashful with her perplexity.(Has Eastwood ever blushed in any other frame of film outside of this?)

Streep's thrumming and ever-occupied presence has rarely been more of an asset to a film,her voice and body serving as malleable,married instruments through which the actress can play Francesca not as a bodice-ripping heroine but as an everyday woman who is at last realizing the full extent of her yearning for something more.So many moments inBridgeshighlight this inner discovery and the romantic turmoil that coincides with it,a journey plotted through the genius touches of Streep's outward-facing characterization: using Francesca's uncertainty of her English to undercut the emotional invulnerability she attempts to project towards Robert;wavering on her tepid description of husband Richard's spousal merits;employing a blink-and-you-miss-it flinch when Eastwood asks if she wants to leave her husband in order to bring Francesca's guilt into focus.She shades each scene with a panoply of moods,emotions,and motivations.But the throwaway gestures are just as vivid and indelible,from the self-conscious pat Francesca gives her behind as Robert sits waiting in her driveway to her roaring,full-throated,leg-kicking laughter to the way she claps her hands in hurried triumph after Robert confirms their self-fulfilling second dinner date over the phone.What else stands out for you about Streep's Francesca?

JOHN: I often forget that Francesca Johnson is a fictional character and not an actual human being.Streep's performance is so naturalistic that watching her act almost resembles live theater,where the only distance between audience and a flesh-and-blood actor is just a few yards and some willful suspension of disbelief.What strikes me most about Streep's expert performance is the uninhibited agency she allows Francesca to experience,even in moments where we're meant to perceive her as a stalled and dormant woman waiting for an event to shake her slumber.In her first scenes,Streep watches her family eat dinner through bored and disappointed eyes.Later,when Eastwood first drives up to her porch,there's a game and alert essence palpable behind Francesca's cautious and guarded first impulses.Robert didn't catalyze Francesca's desires and frustrations,as Streep shows us early on,but instead loosened the faucet of her pent-up pleasure.Streep is constantly thinking and desiring,a combination she is rarely afforded onscreen in such meaty material,but an especially rare feat considering that Francesca is just an "ordinary,"middle-aged housewife,a type usually passive,misconstrued,and sold short in American movies.

Bridgesalso contains,to my mind,a top-tier Streep accent,clearly representing an Italian-born woman who has gradually adjusted to the cadences of English.Subtle though undoubtedly studied,Streep's Italian accent is in perfect sync with her exterior and becomes an asset,rather than a distraction,in bringing Francesca to life.

Streep has spoken about how her childhood memories of an Italian warbride she once knew while growing up in New Jersey helped her to shape Francesca.Shedescribesthat woman as an exotic creature married to a blonde GI,who brought her back to America after the war,just as Francesca's backstory makes clear.Streep says,"I loved the way she talked and moved and spoke,so I basically copied her."This European sensibility coalesces well with Francesca's understanding of the often punishing realities of American life,especially in small towns peppered across the Midwest,where rumors and scandals swiftly create outcasts destined for bad service at the local dinner,to cite one mid-film scene that occurs outside Francesca's purview.Consider how Francesca instantaneously entertains a neighbor who barges in with dessert,stealing precious time from her and Robert,or the careful way she lies about buying herself a new dress in town.This caution roots Francesca squarely in her stifling milieu and sets up her final decision to remain in Madison.

Are you ready to talk about  —takes a deep breath— the door handle?


MATTHEW: Do I ever talk about anything else?

Bridgesremains the rare movie romance that actually seems to beat with a burning and abiding passion shared between two people.And like so many great romances,everything must build up to an inevitable moment of departure.One night,midway through their fleeting encounter,Robert takes Francesca to a predominantly-black roadside jazz club for a romantic evening of drink and dance that is interrupted when Robert drudges up what Francesca has so far managed to avoid: their impending separation.She has tried so hard to forget,but now it is here.Streep's eyes cloud over and lose their concentration,but still the pair continue swaying.

"We are the choices that we have made,"Francesca tells Robert near the end of their affair,her voice anguished but certain,breathing fresh air into Robert James Waller's cornball clichés with the hard-earned wisdom of lived experience.Francesca doesn't open the car door and join Robert in a life of ardor and adventure,which may be a failure of courage and nerve but not a failure of reason.Is it really any wonder that a number of Streep's performances climax in the act of choosing?FromSophie's ChoicetoFalling in LovetoThe Postto Francesca holding the key to her future in the palm of her hand and then slowly,sadly letting her love drive away,no other screen performer has ever confounded the border between audience and actor as completely as Streep.For me,this will always be the definitive Meryl choice.And sure,in this scene,she's aided by her own superfluous but no less sorrowful voiceover and Lennie Niehaus' soaring score,but the scene — and really the movie — lives or dies by what Streep does in the moment.

Take another scene,the fireside dialogue that follows the couple's first time going to bed,in which Francesca begs Robert to detail a bakery they both know in Bari.The memory fills Francesca's head with reminiscences and her eyes flood with tears,even though,at the same time,she admits to forgetting herself,turning her body and soul over with erotic abandon.This scene,while poignantly and sparsely scripted by Richard LaGravenese,really only requires Streep's face to achieve its desired potency.In this scene,the crystal clarity of Streep's visage fully embeds us within the headspace of her character as the actress strips herself bare so that the emotions and thought-processes are forever foregrounded and thus completely legible.In doing so,we are able to reside inside the same feelings as Francesca,not only in this scene but at every stage of her relationship with Robert.

"That's why I go to the movies,to feel what other people feel,"Streep has previouslysaidaboutThe Bridges of Madison County.Such is the magic of Meryl Streep,who has been called on time and time again to allow us lucky viewers to understand the inner workings of a complicated heart and the difficult decisions that can determine the path our lives may take.If her performances are all working towards a single truth,it may very well be that a life devoid of difficult decisions and personal stakes is a life unlived and unfulfilled.Or,maybe it's that,to paraphrase a line from another gloriously thwarted cinematic romance,the problems of two people — or even just a single person — do indeed amount to so much more than a hill of beans,both in the all-seeing eye of a camera and in the rapt eye of a viewer.As Francesca grapples with the handle of her husband's truck,reckoning with the life she must live and the love she must forfeit,Streep proves yet again that there is no greater form of transportation in the movies than an actor's miraculous ability to place us under the skin and inside the soul of another human being.

Catch up with 'Months of Meryl' why don't you?

  1. Julia(1977)
  2. The Deer Hunter(1978)
  3. Manhattan(1979)
  4. The Seduction of Joe Tynan(1979)
  5. Kramer vs Kramer(1979)
  6. The French Lieutenant's Woman(1981)
  7. Still of the Night(1982)
  8. Sophie's Choice(1982)
  9. Silkwood(1983)
  10. Falling in Love(1984)
  11. Plenty(1985)
  12. Out of Africa(1985)
  13. Heartburn(1986)
  14. Ironweed(1987)
  15. A Cry in the Dark(1988)
  16. She-Devil(1989)
  17. Postcards from the Edge(1990)
  18. Defending Your Life(1991)
  19. Death Becomes Her(1992)
  20. The House of the Spirits(1993)
  21. The River Wild(1994)

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Reader Comments (33)

Lovely write-up.Still haven't seen this yet but can't wait,even though I'm not the biggest fan of Eastwood.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

I know this is about Meryl's movies,but will there be a mini Bonus round for her Television work at the end?

Bridges is definitely a top 5 Performance.
The Scene with the door handle is a pure killer.So many emotions.
I bet a lot of People screamed: "Open the goddamned door and get out of that car!"

1995 was such a great year for actresses,even for Performances that missed like Kidman for To Die For or Kathy Bates for Dolores.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

What I found amazing is how sexy she made Eastwood look,I would've opened that door soaking wet and ran off into the wild with him and I think Francesa should have the same,these moments come once in a lifetime,

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Definitely one of her top performances and required viewing.I like that Carrie Fisher was the one who gave Clint Eastwood Streep's phone number.I also like that the movie is very relaxed,and you are right,the characters are very lived in and alive,never forced.It's unabashedly a grownup love story but seldom sappy.I think for Streep,this movie put her back where she was in the 80's – back into adult,well-made dramas where she previously exceled.The 1990-94 output is not terrible,but as you have described,it's a little whacky and very different than what came before.She had a similar slump in the late 90's,until Adaptation and The Hours gave her career another jolt and put her back on top again.But Francesca is genius,up there with Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis's best work.Thanks again for this series.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Regardless of his politics Eastwood was always a handsome man.
@markgordonuk

I'll say something nice.Bridges is the best of Streep's 90s quartet of nominations.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

My very favorite Streep performance and Eastwood deserved directing/acting Oscar noms too.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Her best performance,the best movies she's ever been in.It was the best of the 90's according to Cahiers du Cinema,if I can remember well.I love every second of it.

What I love best about her is how she's earthy,carnal,sexy.She reminds me of Grazyna Szapolowska in A Short Film About Loving,a perfect (PERFECT) European post-war sexiness.Of course her accent and characterization are superb,but,the most important thing is that she's there,body and soul.We see Francesca,not an incredibly skilled actress playing Francesca.

That was the moment of Eastwood's career,his third masterpiece in a row,after Unforgiven and A Perfect World.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

This is definitely a high caliber performance.Every nuance is perfectly handled.Yes,the car handle scene makes me cry overtime I see this movie.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

The Book was a piece of drivel...by focusing on Francesca,and not the Eastwood character was a brilliant idea by the screenwriter.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

One of the BEST Best Actress lineups ever.

E V E R!

Sarandon
Shue
Stone
Streep
Thompson

Amazing

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMallinkrodt

The performance that made me fall for magical Streep.She owns the performance from the first scene alone making dinner and the physicality on display in just those first moments tell so much about he character when she is not even speaking.Streep should have won her third Oscar for this performance.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Along with Clarissa Vaughan and Miranda Priestley,Francesca Johnson is the reason why I will always love Meryl.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterFerdi

A perfect example of the movie being better than the book.

I also agree that it was one of the best Oscar lineups ever.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

This is a film where if you're a guy and you expect to see Clint kill someone.This is not the film for you.I hope to revisit it soon as I wasn't initially fond of it when it came out.I was only 14 when it was released.I was more into QT and all sorts of crazy shit.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Meryl gives another great performance but Eastwood is too old for the role- he should have just directed the movie and cast a younger actor- Jeff Bridges for example

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Possibly one of her most underrated performances.Mostly because it is possibly her best.The movie works mostly ok but thanks to her it's actually really good.Whenever I hear criticisms that Streep is a mechanical actor (and she can be) I think of this.At her best,she's a luminous,incomparable presence on screen.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlexD

One of her best performances - no question about it!

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

And should I add,one of her well-deserved Oscar nominations (unlike the dreadful Music of The Heart and Into The Woods)!

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

So many small yet great moments in this film.The scene where her family returns to the house is heartbreaking.She's just lost the love of her life but she has to completely mask her feelings as she goes out to greet her kids.I also like the scenes where she's an older lady - they did a great job with the makeup.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

Love this performance and YES the car handle scene - the best!!

Apologies in advance but a better Oscar lineup would have been:

-Bates (Love Dolores Claiborne)
-Kidman
-Sarandon
-Stone (I LOVE CASINO FYI)
-Streep

I don't remember much about Shue's and Thompson's performances - so that is why I replaced them :)

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterTony

I always thought Harrison Ford would have been perfect as Robert.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Michael -- ooh,i can totally see that!

Tony - Shue i cannot live without in that lineup but to each their own.My lineup woulda been

KIDMAN - To Die For
MOORE -Safe
SARANDON - Dead Man Walking
SHUE -Leaving Las Vegas
STREEP - Bridges of Madison County

but yeah,it was a fab Oscar lineup,too.

May 31,2018 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Eastwood is a huge hit or miss as a director and his famous shortage of takes clearly weaken his films when the actors are not brilliant,Eastwood`s work is as good as his actors and he couldn`t have found a more luminous actress here,that opening breakfast scene where all of her story is written in her magnificent face,there is not a single false note.Clint Eastwood,clearly,dedicates the film to Meryl Streep,and the results are pure magic.

Agree that 1996 was one of the BEST ever BEST ACTRESSES line up,but I would have replaced Sarandon ( I know,the winner,but the winner that year should have been Sharon Stone ,her portrait of Ginger in CASINO,a woman for whom even happiness is unsatisfactory is brilliantly done,and her final breakdown is achieved with genuine subtlety as well as power ) and Thompson.My even better line-up would`ve been-
BATES
KIDMAN
SHUE
STONE
STREEP

June 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterEder Arcas

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Alicia Silverstone for Clueless.She's so wonderful.The lineup as it was is fine,one of the strogest ever,but she could replace either Stone or Shue,who are just a tad below the other 3 for me.

June 1,2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s

The most magical moment for me is when Francesca said she was from little town no one ever heard of called Bari and looked genuinely surprised when Robert said he knew that town.This is the best Meryl performance ever.This should be the role that won her an Oscar.I think the movie really underperformed during the Oscar nominations.In my world,The Bridges of Madison County is one of the four movies (other three are Moonstruck,The Fabulous Baker Boys,Notting Hill) that should've won both best picture and best actress at the Oscar because the perfection of the leading ladies made their movies so damn perfect.Glad Meryl has this Francesca role in her unbelievable resume.And like everyone said,that was the year of great female roles and for me all five nominees were nominated from their career best performances.

June 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

Sigourney Weaver in "Copycat"was also a favorite performance of mine in 1995.

June 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

Streep's performance as Francesca Johnson mirrors and extends on her performance as Sophie Zawistowska,in fact it's a glimpse of what might have been had Sophie shacked up with Stingo (as was planned) in a rural American heartland...only for Nathan to turn up in the guise of a National Geographic photographer.Both characters are post-war European exiles requiring accents and a degree of physical transformation;and there's even a pivotal scene with an iconic red dress.Hitting all those marks again was undoubtedly coincidental,but it went a very long way towards rescuing Streep's A-list status with audiences in addition to the industry.The review makes an excellent point about Eastwood showing a rare and refreshing vulnerability in this film (and perhaps no other,apart from his work in Million Dollar Baby).Another commenter put forward Jeff Bridges,which seems an amazing missed opportunity (imagine how the pun-loaded headlines would have worked too).I also wholeheartedly agree with the commenter who praised the make-up work that aged Francesca,surely the work of the great J.Roy Helland,and an absolute benchmark of entirely convincing onscreen ageing.I believe Streep was aged to that degree in only one prior film - the glimpse we see of the older Karen Blixen in Out of Africa - but older Francesca came at just the right time,and was executed with such skill,that those scenes foreshadowed the rest of Streep's career to date.Bridges is a great movie and it shows what's possible with literary adaptations,especially when the focus is shifted considerably,as this was,to the key female protagonist.

June 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

@AlexD

Underrated?No,I don't know anyone who didn't like her Performance.
Underrewarded for sure though.*sigh*

June 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Well - thank you so much John & Matthew for this inspiring write-up ...and for these insightful comments!I can't wait for a rainy Sunday to watch "Bridges"again!Also now you really got me hooked up on this series.Hard for me to call out favourite Streep performances,as she (nearly) always seems to get me.(Even in seemingly less relevant movies like "Hope Springs"...,she pulls of such a heartwarming and touching character that moves you deeply way beyond the running time.BUT Francesca is definitely one of my Top 5 as well.
As fare as I remember the movie wasn't really regarded as anything special back in 1995/6 - the love for it only grew over the years ...and Meryl definitely wasn't a front runner in the race !

I would not like to see Sarandon empty handed (but would have given her the statue for "The Client"rather then "DMW") which leaves me with handing my personal Oscar to Streep for an extraordinary fine-tuned moving portrait of a little flame that flickers in all of us ...grab that goddamn handle and run into the rain Franny !!!!

June 1,2018 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

I remember being a kid when this came out.EVERY FEMALE RELATIVE YOU HAD IN THE '90S HAD THIS BOOK AND WENT TO THIS MOVIE.My grandmothers and aunts often talked about going to see it and boasting about who cried the most.

Streep noticed how Eastwood commanded a room despite never raising his voice and was floored by how he spoke so quietly yet everyone hung on his every word,because he was CLINT EASTWOOD and he had such a strong presence about him.This style of speaking by someone with such immense power made such an impression on Meryl that she used it for inspiration when deciding how Miranda Priestly would sound.

June 2,2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

This movie makes me CRY bucket every singe time,,,& I rarely cried at movies

The door handle scene no doubt is a killer,but for me the scene that makes me really lose it is when Eastwood asked Meryl to leave w him and he said he will only ask her once and then after he left,Meryl was sobbing so hard running to the back door,wanting so much to rush out to join him but,,,,,,,,Omg,,,my eyes r misting as I typed this!

I also wld luv to see Meryl win her 3rd Oscar for this,but 1995 is sooo ridiculously STACKED w so many brilliant actresses' performances!!I cant berate Sarandon for her well deserved win but my pick wld be Shue...My top 5 that yr:

Shue
Streep
Sarandon
Kidman
Stone

June 3,2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I agree with all of the accolades here.Fantastic performance and film.My only criticism would be the wraparound story..totally unnecessary.In fact I had forgotten about it until reading a comment above.

June 7,2018 | Unregistered CommenterParanoid Android

Great write-up on a beautiful film,Streep is magic,Eastwood is sexy and a really amateurish novel became a heart-breaking,romantic masterpiece.And kudos to Eastwood for casting Streep instead of an actress 25 years his junior.What a treat to see two real middle-aged people fall madly,passionately in love!
And the door handle!Her resolve to give up this burning desire,heart-wrenching!Love this film!

August 9,2018 | Unregistered CommenterCalvin

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