February 28, 2005

Mr & Mrs Bridge

Mr & Mrs Bridge is perhaps the most intensely successful transfer of a book onto film that I have ever seen, and when I get around to it, I will run through the country club/tornado scene to prove the point. Right now, I can't remember which of Evan Connell's novels the scene comes from, Mr Bridge or Mrs Bridge. But I'm learning - slowly, to be sure - that I don't need to begin with "final" copy. The fact is that watching the movie takes up a lot less time than reading the book(s). Is it a substitute? Of course not. But while I've read Howard's End twice, I've seen the movie at least thirty times - and I'm not exaggerating.

So I will speak of Mr & Mrs, even though "the original" consists of two books. To start with - and this is a starter post, one that may, like Versailles, lose all but a few of its salient features as reconstructions occur - I'm unhappy with the ending. The originals make it clear that, when Mrs Bridge gets stuck in her garage - her car backs up a foot or so but then stalls by the accordion doors, so that she can't get out - Mr Bridge isn't around to save her, because he has already died of a heart attack. I'm almost certain that the film was shot to be faithful, and that producers intervened, demanding a "happy" ending, or at least one not so grim. Evan Connell leaves us suspecting that, in the very very end, Mrs Bridge freezes to death in her own garage. It is a sign of her immense helplessness. Aside from this, however, the adaptation doesn't fudge.

What it's good for you to know is that an immensely glamorous actress can turn herself into Mrs Bridge. Shortly before or after the film was made, I saw Joanne Woodward at the Metropolitan Opera with my own eyes, and the image of her on the stairs to the Dress Circle - blonde, pant-suited, svelte, a complete New Yorker - is still so totally odds with the dowdy India Bridge that I wonder if, really, there wasn't a stunt double in every scene of Mr & Mrs Bridge. In that case, however, it would have been the double who got the Best Actress Nomination. I have never seen such a transformation. How did she do it?    

How did she turn into someone who could have been one of my mother's older friends, or perhaps one of my grandmothers' younger bridge partners? How did she become the fool who, when her best friend, descending into madness, says that she's lost her mind, puts on a kiddie-bright face and ostentatiously looks under her chair for the misplaced article? It's quite true that Paul Newman (Mr Woodward) plays a condescending husband of extremely limited imagination, but he's still Paul Newman. Ms Woodward simply disappears in her impersonation of Mrs Bridge.

Mr & Mrs Bridge opens a window on the lives of the parents and grandparents of this country's grande bourgeoisie; in case you needed proof, it was "Senator Bob Dole", after all, who got credited with teaching Paul Newman how to rehearse Romeo, Kansas Style, with Kyra Sedgwick. I remember seeing the film for the first time at a theatre in Danbury, Connecticut, and overhearing a parting viewer asking, in dullard tones, what that was all about. I sympathized. There have been few-to-none such existentialist films about comfortable Americans living at a safe distance from standard dramatic problems. That's why this film is so very good at delineating the the not! extraordinary dysfunctions of a nice WASP family on the eve of Word War II.

For the moment, I'm going to content myself with two moments, both starring Robert Sean Leonard (at the beginning of his careeer). The runner up is the attic scene, where father and son ought to share a hug after their pregnant conversation - but, being men, they can be pregnant indefinitely. The other is the Eagle Scout induction, where Douglas can't - can't - kiss his own mother, even though all the other boys can. It is one of the most heartbreaking moments in film.

When Grace Barron (Blythe Danner) goes off the deep end, Mr Bridge says, "She was critical of everything, even herself." To him, it's an explanation of madness. How we will rescue this country from people who don't understand that it's the definition of sanity, I'm only beginning to have an idea. 

Posted by pourover at 12:23 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack