Chris Wisniewski on The Bridges of Madison County
“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
—Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard
“First you must have the images, then come the words.”
—Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County
Robert James Waller’s treacly bestseller The Bridges of Madison County opens with a prologue. Dated “Summer 1991,” and presumably written from Waller’s perspective, it puts a gloss of authenticity on a story that’s officially a work of fiction: inserting himself into his narrative, Waller tells of two middle-aged siblings who have brought a “remarkable tale” to his attention in the hopes that he might share it with the world. While settling their late mother’s estate, the brother and sister discovered a letter she wrote to them, along with journals and photographs that document a four-day affair between their mother, an Italian-born housewife, and National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, who in 1965 stumbled upon their home during an assignment shooting Iowa’s covered bridges. In the book, the author pieces together the details of this adulterous romance from the evidence left behind, not just Francesca Johnson’s letter and journals but also an interview he conducts with a friend of Kincaid’s. And though Francesca is the book’s ostensible protagonist, the novel opens and closes on Robert, describing the life of this “last cowboy” (ugh) before and after the affair in far more detail than Francesca’s. The book is more their story than hers, one that is relayed secondhand.
Clint Eastwood’s improbably great film adaptation of Waller’s ridiculous and rather terrible little book takes a different narrative approach. Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese dispense with Waller’s avatar and with the interview of Kincaid’s friend. Instead, the movie picks up with Francesca’s children going through her various belongings, finding first a letter from Robert, then their mother’s letter to them, and, finally, her journals. Their deepening investigation mirrors the book’s, even as it excises the impartial narrator, but it brings Francesca’s words to the beginning, and so establishes a radical shift in point of view.
In the letter, read aloud by her daughter, Carolyn (Annie Corley), Francesca explains to her children that “what becomes most important is being known.” The words are lifted verbatim from the end of the novel, where they function as a postscript, Francesca’s posthumous confession. Coming towards the opening of the movie, this pregnant phrase is less an excuse than a raison d’être; it frames the story told in the film as an act of self-expression so essential it has the air of revelation. Unlike the book, Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County is told in the first-person, a narrative approach made explicit minutes later, through sound, with elegant simplicity. As Carolyn starts reading her mother’s journal from 1965, the year her father took her and Michael to the Illinois state fair and left their mother alone, receptive to Kincaid's charms and surprisingly willing to have her affair, a medium-close-up of the daughter dissolves to a medium-close-up of Francesca, played by Meryl Streep, as Streep’s voiceover overlaps with Corley’s: “I know it sounds awful, but I couldn’t wait for you all to leave.”
In purely analytical terms, Streep’s voiceover is a sound bridge, asynchronous diegetic sound motivating a flashback to the movie’s story proper. This sturdy narrative device would not be out of place in any classically structured Hollywood film—take Celeste Holm’s voiceover in All About Eve, for instance, or for a more contemporary example, Gloria Stuart’s in Titanic. These voiceovers, however, neither mandate nor signal strictly subjective storytelling. Thus, in All About Eve, Joseph Mankiewicz uses Holm’s voiceover to get us from here to there—from the awards ceremony that opens the film in the “present” all the way back to the first meeting between Margot Channing and Eve Harrington—without actually tethering us to Holm’s point of view. Similarly, in Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard or Badlands or Goodfellas or Titanic, we freely accept that we, as viewers, are privy to events or information to which our respective narrators don’t have access. Not so in The Bridges of Madison County: while Eastwood may not be slavish to Francesca’s point of view (Robert gets a scene shooting the bridges by himself and another eating a meal in a diner), Francesca is present, either physically, by phone, or in writing, in all of the 1965 sequences of the film.
But the sound bridge does more than establish perspective. It also invites us to identify with Francesca Johnson—with her loneliness, her sexuality, and her desire. The words matter here: “I know it sounds awful,” she concedes, “but I couldn’t wait for you all to leave.” The admission reveals a longing that flies in the face of social convention. In the book, Robert Kincaid (played here by Eastwood) seems to just happen to Francesca Johnson; in the movie, Francesca wants desperately for something to happen—at the very least, she yearns for a respite from the mundanities of her day-to-day life as a wife and mother—and then Robert arrives.
As a director, Eastwood follows the voiceover in taking a fully subjective approach, and throughout the film, his camera shares Francesca’s lustful gaze. She accompanies Robert on his shoot at Roseman Bridge and peers at him from a distance in a POV shot, peaking from between the wooden planks inside the bridge. Later, as he washes himself, shirtless, at her well, she surreptitiously watches him from her window. The next time we hear a voiceover, Francesca lies in the bathtub, fantasizing about the man who lay there a few minutes before her. And even when she displays her body for the camera, staring at her breasts and hips in a mirror, she is the object of her own gaze, not Robert’s. Though Robert is a photographer and Francesca his muse, Eastwood’s camera sees through Francesca’s eyes, reversing the book’s implied visual logic and thus subverting conventional gendered binaries regarding the bearer of the look and the person who is looked at, the subject and the object of sexual desire.
Waller’s novel tells its love story evenhandedly, but the same cannot be said of the movie. Despite playing the male lead, Eastwood keeps his character at arm’s length, and while he may betray a certain self-regard by casting himself as the love interest-cum-erotic object, he effectively cedes the movie to Francesca by aligning us so completely with her perspective visually, erotically, and emotionally. This is a true women’s picture—a delicate and heartbreaking character study of a complex, beautiful, and fully sexual middle-aged woman, the sort of movie that rarely gets produced in the contemporary studio system and that certainly doesn’t get made by name-brand Oscar-winning filmmakers. The Bridges of Madison County follows in the tradition of the great Hollywood melodramas of the classical period like Letter from an Unknown Woman or Now, Voyager: it takes female sexuality seriously but sets it at odds with the socially prescribed roles its protagonist is expected to play. And as in any great women’s picture, Robert’s arrival doesn’t create Francesca’s crisis, it exposes it—a narrative fact revealed casually with Streep’s first line.
Eastwood was an unconventional choice to direct the project, and The Bridges of Madison County is an outlier in an uneven oeuvre dominated by meditations on morality, masculinity, and violence. At a formal level, it has the spare and graceful craft typical of Eastwood’s best films, but it’s the sort of movie that challenges auteurist assumptions, in part because it doesn’t fit into the Eastwood filmography in any straightforward way, but also because it doesn’t seem to fully belong to him. If The Bridges of Madison County is really Francesca’s movie, it belongs to Streep as well. Yet Streep’s casting was also unexpected and, initially, unpopular (“Bridges Cast Doesn’t Hold Up for Fans,” ran an August 1994 headline in USA Today). Jessica Lange, Cher, and Susan Sarandon had all been mentioned for the role, and Waller publicly expressed his preference for Isabella Rossellini, who had recorded the book’s audiotape. Rossellini would have been an obvious choice; in comparison, Streep seemed neither sensual nor, frankly, ethnic enough for the role.
Amazingly, Streep sweeps these concerns aside with that perfectly sensual and expertly ethnic initial voiceover. There’s something jarring about the first time we hear a well-known actor “doing” an accent in a movie, something uncanny, because the voice is both familiar and strange. When successful, it can ease our way into a performance and a film, but when it doesn’t come off it exposes the movie’s artifice in a way that can infect the whole of the performance (see Kim Cattrall in The Ghost Writer) or even the whole of the film (perhaps most famously, Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Streep’s great talent for vocal verisimilitude is well known, a quality that has earned her exhausting acclaim (“She mastered the accents of an astonishing array of regions and countries,” A.O. Scott raved while praising her “chameleonism” in a recent New York Times appreciation) and some misguided derision (Pauline Kael, a vociferous detractor, dubbed her “Our Lady of the Accents”). Even the most sympathetic critic could be forgiven for taking this extraordinary vocal talent for granted, for simply assuming that Streep could, of course, make herself sound convincingly “like” Francesca Johnson, as if the character had a voice that predated Streep’s embodiment of her. It is easy to forget that Streep is effectively creating Francesca Johnson, a person who previously had existed only on the page, with those words—“I know it sounds awful, but I couldn’t wait for you all to leave.”
Because of the vicissitudes of film history—or perhaps more precisely, the history of film technology—we tend to valorize actors’ faces and bodies above their voices, to elevate the visual aspects of their craft above the sonic. Streep puts the lie to the fictions that great film performances are made through close-ups rather than dialogue and that great film characters come to life through images rather than words. If Singin’ in the Rain made a joke of the very real impact synchronized sound had on film acting, Streep’s incontrovertibly impressive body of work provides decisive evidence of the centrality of sound to the craft. This has never been more the case than in The Bridges of Madison County (Scott tellingly labeled the performance “syllable-perfect” in the same Times piece).
Of course, Streep’s Francesca Johnson can’t be reduced merely to an accent. In one of the film’s best exchanges—which isn’t even in the book—Robert tells Francesca about the time he visited her home town in Italy, on a whim, because he felt inspired to get off the train he was on. “You just got off the train because it looked pretty?” she asks incredulously, but it’s the look of utter confusion on her face—those shifting eyes—and the apprehensive gesture she makes with her right arm that sell it. At the end of the film, she breaks down in the passenger seat of her husband’s truck as Robert drives out of her life. She narrates the scene in her voiceover but conveys the emotional devastation Francesca feels as a result of her self-sacrifice wordlessly. It’s not that Streep only does accents, but that she builds her characters from the outside in, mastering those aspects of performance that are most superficial and then using them to reveal the person behind the words, the movements, and the expressions.
Of the disparate elements that make up a performance, the actor’s voice is singular for being almost completely under her control. Hair and makeup artists, costume designers, cinematographers, editors, and directors all work together to determine what we see of a performance; the actor alone is responsible for how we hear. When we speak of film authorship, we tend to focus on mise-en-scène, camera movement, and editing—those elements of image and story that are more or less under the stewardship of a film’s director. The Bridges of Madison County, though handsomely shot and assembled, derives its greatness not only from Eastwood’s direction but also, principally, from the actor who delivers the star turn at its center. As a storyteller, Eastwood places his faith fully in Streep, and she rewards him with a performance that is, at turns, passionate, gentle, nervous, playful, seductive, aching, and droll—a performance that truly defines the film it occupies. Streep is, in almost every sense, the movie’s coauthor. She takes a character who was flat and empty on the page and gives her dimension and depth with her face, her body, and—the most potent and precise of all of her actorly tools—her voice.