• U.S.

Cinema: The Way We Were MR. AND MRS. BRIDGE

3 minute read
Richard Schickel


Directed by James Ivory; Screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Stolid houses and spacious yards. The whir of hand-powered lawn mowers in the summer, the scrape of snow shovels in the winter. Romberg on the radio, dinner at the country club once a week, a trip to Paris once a lifetime. Dad wears vests, Mom wears funny hats, the maid nips at the cooking sherry (must speak to her about that). If their son makes eagle scout and one of his sisters pledges Kappa, does it really matter that the other daughter decamps for Greenwich Village and a scattershot involvement with “the arts” that her parents will never understand?

Probably not. For what is really important to Walter and India Bridge (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward), citizens of Kansas City a half-century ago, is that the order of their rounds — diurnal and annual — is preserved. Drama in their lives is like crabgrass on their lawn: something to be rooted out the minute it appears and not dwelled upon thereafter.

Walter can usually wither the untoward with a cold stare through his steel- rimmed spectacles, though sometimes it is necessary to bark a few brusque commands in order to send it scurrying. India, on the other hand, has a more coquettish relationship with it: she takes painting classes, flirts momentarily with divorce, psychoanalysis and the ideas of Thorstein Veblen. But whether the Bridges are confronting a tornado that Walter refuses to let interrupt dinner, their children’s romantic and sexual hubbubs, a friend’s suicide or simply the long silences of their own relationship, there is never any question about who is in charge around here.

In the 1950s and ’60s, when Evan S. Connell wrote the two quiet, delicately crafted novels that are expertly and faithfully conflated in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, we had not yet learned to call marriages of this kind “traditional,” putting a slight, sneering spin on the word. Just as this movie refuses to impose a thrusting dramatic structure on a story that is all incident, it also refuses to adopt anachronistic sociological attitudes toward its people. It retains novelist Connell’s tone — one of ironic compassion — and sustains as well the perfect pitch of his voice, never going flat or sharp. That is to say it neither falls into easy sentiment nor strains for cheap satire. Instead it grants the Bridges the dignity that they — and most people of their time, place and (upper middle) class — worked so hard to achieve and that is usually denied them in serious film and literature. In the process, it also grants its two stars the freedom to explore the couple’s humanity.

They exercise it with delicious subtlety. Walter’s children and friends would be startled if they could hear him bellowing Stouthearted Men in the privacy of his car. Or see him make a sudden lurching grab for his wife in the ; privacy of their bedroom one hot summer’s day. These urges do not surprise him. He is entirely aware of his secret life, and really quite pleased with it. But that’s his business and no one else’s.

India is less open to herself, but Woodward invests her with sudden flashes of inarticulate understanding, a subtext of suppressed intelligence, that makes her submissiveness all the more poignant. Blythe Danner and Austin Pendleton in supporting roles are touching in much the same way. But then, this memory piece, shy in manner but tough in spirit, has brought out the best in everyone connected with it.

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