Directed by James Ivory
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from the novels by Evan S. Connell
Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert Sean Leonard, Kyra Sedgwick, and Blythe Danner
I love my grandparents – most people do. Love their grandparents, I mean, not my grandparents. But why shouldn’t I love mine. They are good people, they are generally loving, they’re good to me, and I would not exist if not for them. Actually, because my grandparents were legit Catholics – 13 kids! – a lot of people wouldn’t exist without them.
So, yay grandparents!
While my grandparents are unique in many ways, I’m sure they are just like many other grandparents in many ways. If I had to guess, I’d bet my grandparents are a lot like your grandparents. Grandpa is very closed mouth about things, fairly stoic, and seems severe, when he’s really not. Grandma is the much more gregarious and the socially outgoing of the two. She’s more talkative. Plus, because they had 13 kids they tend to be very thrifty and take pleasure in the simple things in life. In that way they have been a perfect fit for something like 60 years – he doesn’t say much, she says a lot, and together they work well as a unit.
Now, I did not have them in mind when I was watching Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, though later on, when the movie was over, I did, and it was thinking about them that helped me get a handle on the film. Because while the film is ostensibly about how parents react to their kids growing up and doing things differently than they did, it’s really about what it’s like for grandparents to see their grandkids grow up and do things differently. It made me think about all the times I’ve spent with my grandparents and had the feeling that when they hear how their grandkids are living they take a moment to absorb it in a, “That’s not the way I’d do it kind of way,” before accepting that times change.
In that way, when you watch Mr. & Mrs. Bridge don’t think of them in terms of your own parents – think of them in terms of your grandparents. For a movie that left me a bit meh in the moment, this really gave me a way to connect.
What’s It About
Fairly conservative parents Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (Newman and Woodward) adjust to the changing mores of society, and the interests of their children, in Pre- and Post-WWII Kansas City.
This is the third film covered in this series to spring from the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala triumvirate. The first two were Best Picture Also-Rans Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day. This time it’s a Best Actress Also-Ran, Joanne Woodward. The reason I had to reach all the way down to a Best Actress loser? Well, here are your nominees for the major awards of 1990, with all the strikethrough’s representing the movies I’ve previously seen, the bold being what I haven’t:
This table is what happens when you are a product of the 1980s and the 1990s, or the product of any time. You just naturally take in those movies around you as a matter of course, leaving little in the way of contemporary gaps. You just absorb it as you go along. Which is why as this series progresses through the 1990s and into the 2000s, you’re going to see a whole host of Foreign Language Film winners be the subject of these entries, simply because Foreign Language Film might’ve been the only category, outside the Documentaries and Short-Subjects, where I had any unfamiliarity.
Obviously, for this entry I could have easily shifted my focus to Gerard Deparidieu and Richard Harris in the Best Actor race, or taken in lesser Woody Allen and Barry Levinson films in the Screenplay race, but as I spent 2017 making sure I watched at least a movie a week directed by a woman – I managed to see 53 – and since this year I’m trying to see at least a movie a week that wasn’t directed by a white man – I’m ahead of schedule on that – it seemed logical that, even if Mr. & Mrs. Bridge was made by a white man, it was worth taking in because the critical plaudits for the film, such as they were, were reserved for the Actress, not the white men.
That all said, it was nice to squeeze in another Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala film, if only to get a greater sense of what they were doing. If this series has done anything, it’s filled in a lot of my blind spots, one of which was for the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala oeuvre. Despite the trio having made several Oscar-bait movies in the 80s and 90s, I’d seen none of them before this project, so this series gave me the chance to color in that blank spot.
As in their two previous entries here, for Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, the running theme of repression and societal expectation is strong. And, because Mr. & Mrs. Bridge does not take place in early, or mid-century Great Britain, we get a different flavor of it. But not only a different flavor, we have it told in a very different way, with a different style. Where the previous two films were very formally controlled, and steady, this one is much looser in it’s telling. Yes, there is still emotional distance, and it’s as much about what is said as what is not, but because the story is essentially about changing mores, there is a dynamism in the storytelling – relatively speaking – that is missing from the other films. That said, I’m not slagging off either Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day for this lack, because the dynamism probably would have been inappropriate in those films and clashed with what they were trying to do.
But while Mr. & Mrs. Bridge is told looser, and less controlled, it is not actually better than the other two films. Of the three, it’s the least, while The Remains of the Day is best. Largely, the deficiency is in the story. Where The Remains of the Day was about telling a love story through indirect action, and by saying nothing, Mrs. & Mrs. Bridge has no overarching plot to hold it together. No central love story. Rather, it is more a serious of vignettes, stitched together chronologically.
We have Mrs. Bridge taking a painting class and learning a bit about the leisure class. We have the Bridge’s oldest daughter (Sedgwick) screwing around with boys and deciding she wants to go to New York to be an actress. We have Mr. and Mrs. Bridge going on a European vacation, where Mr. Bridge grumbles about long lunches and the laziness of everybody around him. We have the youngest daughter marrying a man from the wrong social strata. We have the youngest child, the son (Leonard), joining the Army for the war, then coming home to be a lawyer, just like his father. Somewhere in there we have Mrs. Bridge’s best friend falling into some sort of mental illness, then committing suicide. Also, Mr. Bridge’s secretary seems to declare her love for him, but nothing happens. At the end, Mrs. Bridge gets the car stuck in the garage and has to wait for Mr. Bridge to come home and pull her out. Then the film ends, just like that, without even seeing her pulled from the car. Nor do we have the foreshadowed heart attack we’ve come to expect from Mr. Bridge happen.
Yes, the camerawork is fine, and the art direction and costumes are fine, but there’s no part of this movie that feels essential. There’s nothing in it that could not be lifted out, or shifted around, or shortened, that would make any material difference with the film. This is the essential problem with character pieces, or other plotless films like Mr. & Mrs. Bridge – without the plot to push it along, the characters and other elements have to be extra-compelling to make up for what is missing. Unfortunately, the characters here, and their day-to-day lives aren’t really that compelling – they feel just a wee bit rote.
Better Than Best
Because this particular entry in the series got here by virtue of it’s Best Actress loser, I’m not interested in whether Mr. & Mrs. Bridge was better than Best Picture winner, Dances with Wolves, but whether Joanne Woodward was better than Best Actress winner Kathy Bates.
Bates’ performance as the deranged #1 Fan! Annie Wilkes in Misery is a performance that for some has not stood the test of time. To some, it is a caricature of overacting and nonsense cursing. To some, it’s to be laughed at for failing to be truthful. But as a person prone to my own bouts of performative anger when my buttons are properly pushed – ask people who turn on their phones in movie theaters, or criticize my coaching during a soccer game, if I respond calmly when pushed – her performance seems right to me. When Bates acts out it seems the right explosion of anger after all that time she spent hiding it under the guise of ‘propriety’.
If there’s anything wrong with Misery it’s that James Caan can’t really match Bates as an actor, and that Rob Reiner doesn’t really know how to direct this type of film. Unlike his comedies, his direction is pedestrian, the film is over lit, and the way it’s made doesn’t really add to the experience of the film. Yes, he was great with actors, but he’s not exactly visual.
Given that Kathy Bates in Misery is iconic – to me – Joanne Woodward has to bring a lot to Mr. & Mrs. Bridge to overcome it. And early on in the film, I thought she might do it. It’s in the early scenes, when we see that life is about to change for the Bridges, because the oldest daughter is about to fly the nest when the promise of drama is most ripe. Here Mrs. Bridge seems to respond to the time she suddenly has on her hands with her children growing up and moving on by taking a painting class and learning a thing or two about other world views. Hell, she seems to flirt a little bit with socialism.
But just as soon as we get the idea that Mrs. Bridge is also going to spread her wings and slip out from under her husband’s shadow, the film abandons it. Instead of being herself, she goes back to being a reflection of others, of being subservient to them. That might be the greatest failing of the film and in recognizing Woodward for it – Mrs. Bridge seems to have no internal life and is only anything because the people around her are anything. She doesn’t even get to have the dignity you usually find in stay-at-home mothers. That inner strength. To take it back to my grandmother – yes, she was a stay-at-home mother all those years, like Mrs. Bridge, but she did have a life outside the home and children. She was not a blank, and to me, that’s all Mrs. Bridge ever is.
Perhaps the failing here, though, isn’t with the character of Mrs. Bridge, it’s with the way Woodward portrays her. Bluntly, I don’t think Woodward is very good in the film, and I don’t think she understands how to play this character at all. Rather than play the humanity under the conservative, repressed exterior, and be subtle in her shadings, Woodward is often cartoonish and all surface. Whereas Bates’ role in Misery is meant to be broad, and playing her that way is right, Mrs. Bridge is meant to be small and when Woodward flirts with bigness – relatively – it clashes terribly. Sometimes she plays her as mousy, sometimes as a dope, sometimes as if she’s just mentally deficient.
There is no unity to it
If you want to see a good take on a similar-ish role, see what Sally Field does in Places in the Heart. It’s a similar role, the difference being Field has a grasp on it Woodward never does. Yes, while Fields could be a bit broad with it, in small ways, it just seems real for the character. With Woodward, though, I was never really lost in what she was doing and was always aware that I was seeing a performance. And not a particularly good one.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 Whenever I talk about having my own social awkwardness, I always think of my grandfather, because I get the feeling he’s the same way.
 After all, at the time the movie was made, Woodward was 60, and Newman was 65, while Kyra Sedgwick as the oldest daughter was 25, and Robert Sean Leonard as the youngest child was 21.
 It’s unfair that Merchant/Ivory is a thing, when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was pretty damn important to the Merchant/Ivory films anybody actually knows and cares about.
 Let’s be brutally honest here – aren’t most Barry Levinson films lesser Barry Levinson films?
 Woodward was not an accidental nominee for the Oscar, having also rated noms from the Golden Globes, The Independent Spirit Awards, and a win from the New York Film Critics Circle.
 The heart attack is so foreshadowed it’s literally Chekov’s Heart Attack.
 It’s not.
 She’s not.