• U.S.

THE COWBOY AND THE LADY

7 minute read
Richard Schickel

They did not come easily to Iowa. Meryl Streep hated the book. When her assistant asked to borrow one of the several copies of The Bridges of Madison County that friends had pressed on her, she refused. “I’m not going to let you read it,” she said. “It’s a crime against literature.” She told her agents she was not interested in doing the movie version.

Clint Eastwood didn’t hate the novel. What he loathed were several early-draft screenplays based on it. They tried to flesh out Robert James Waller’s slight narrative with flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and one of them even imposed a conventional happy ending on it, in which the most famously sundered lovers of our time, roving photographer Robert Kincaid and farm wife Francesca Johnson, were reunited in Katmandu. Eastwood also fell into mutually uncompromising disagreement with the original director, Bruce Beresford, about casting the feminine lead. He told the producers he would move on if these problems weren’t solved.

But now, here they were on a fine October morning in Winterset, Iowa-cloudless sky, heatless sun, a soft breeze rustling leaves that had turned to perfectly photogenic reds and golds. Beresford was gone; Streep was present; Eastwood was directing as well as co-starring; the script was finally right and so was today’s pretty location, through which an aged Francesca was supposed to wander distraught (she has just learned that her long-ago three-day lover has died). As Eastwood ambled over to discuss the day’s first shot with his longtime cinematographer, Jack Green, he was heard to murmur, “Great, they’ll put me on the cover of Cahiers du Cinama.”

He was kidding. But Streep was not when, later in the day, she declared this shoot to be “one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life,” thus confounding widespread skepticism over how the cowboy and the lady-representing to the ever gossiping, always clueless outside world what seemed to be utterly antithetical styles and methods of work-would get along. Their contentment with each other and their project was by this time near to purring.

The harmony stemmed from several sources, the first of which was Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay, which silenced the doubts of both stars not by adding to the book but by gently pruning and slightly reshaping it. Eastwood’s confidence in his role helped too; he didn’t have to waste a lot of energy looking for his character. “I’ve been that guy,” he said of Kincaid a few days before he set out to make the movie. He was referring to a detached and wandering period in his young manhood, “years of being lost” on the American back roads, unable to define what he was looking for. Those years, those feelings are long gone, but other aspects of that young guy still cling to him; he remains restless, self-sufficient, with a large tolerance for his own company and an equally large indifference toward the good opinion of strangers. “I’ve always had the theory,” he once said, “that actors who beg their audiences to like them … are much worse off than actors who just say, ‘If you don’t like this, don’t let the door hit you in the ass.'” All these are pretty much Robert Kincaid’s sentiments.

But the main reason things worked out so nicely was Streep’s discovery that he was her kind of director and Eastwood’s that she was his kind of actress. Her criterion, she said, was someone who “doesn’t say anything to me … leaves me alone.” Well, not entirely alone; what she needs is “somebody who inspires your confidence, who sets up a safe world for you [where you can] make your mistakes and go as wild and as far out as you want.”

Certainly that’s the way Eastwood defines his task: “I feel the director’s job, besides picking a script, is casting the right people. But then after that, the real responsibility is to make those people feel at home. Set an atmosphere where everybody is extremely relaxed and there’s no tension. Coming from acting, you know what rattles people, what rattles you.”

In his view, happy movie locations are, in the famous formulation, like happy families — all alike. That is to say, they are at once quiet and good humored, energetic and efficient. And that spirit stems from the director. “If you start yelling and becoming obtrusive and beboppin’ around, you give the impression of insecurity, and that becomes infectious. It bleeds down into the actors, and they become nervous; then it bleeds down into the crew, and they become nervous, and you don’t get much accomplished that way. You have to set a tone and just demand a certain amount of tranquility.”

As an actor not only directing himself but also obliged to keep a helpful eye on whomever else he was working with in a scene, he had a rather daunting job. But Streep thought he carried it off gracefully. She had twice before worked with actor-directors and always, disconcertingly, “felt watched in the scenes I was doing with them.” That didn’t happen here. It was, she said, like doing a two-handed theater piece, with both actors “free to explore how it evolves, almost as if we were making it up as we went along.”

“Zen and the art of control” is how one of Eastwood’s veteran crewmen once described his working methods-a seeming indifference to auteurial imperatives that somehow gets him, most of the time, exactly what he wants: spontaneity and realism, qualities virtually synonymous in his mind. In practical terms, that means he’s always hoping to get the shot he wants on the first take-rough magic being of more interest to him than the more smoothly polished kind.

As it is to Streep-which even she admitted may sound out of character or at least out of image. “You know, people have called me a technical actor,” she said. “But I have always loved that first encounter. I almost always like the first reading better than anything we ever do subsequently. I come ready, and I don’t want to screw around and waste the first 10 takes on adjusting lighting and everybody else getting comfortable.” But this is something more than a personal preference. She likes the reality of a movie scene to “feel captured, as opposed to set up and then driven into the dirt.”

Eastwood couldn’t have said it better himself. On the other hand, he does know how — and when — to ask his actors and technicians for more. One day in Iowa he had a fairly serious grumble fit when a magazine printed a story claiming he was getting everything he wanted on the first or second take. He thought the item implied either indifference or cheapness on his part, and he was not amused. “We’re not making Plan Nine from Outer Space here, you know,” he snapped.

The man does have a temper, and now and then he lets fly with it when he’s directing-“when people talk outside, or a truck doesn’t stop, when time doesn’t stop for the moment he wants to get,” was how Streep put it. Yet it always comes as a shock, she added, because “it’s an instantaneous rise. You think, ‘Where did that come from?’ because all day we haven’t heard anything, even a whisper. And then, suddenly, everyone kind of flattens into the furniture and the walls.”

But not for long. And especially not on this picture. One night after work in Iowa, as Streep and Eastwood lingered over dinner with a journalist, he confessed that usually “there’s a three-quarter point in a picture where you kind of wonder, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?’ You just get that little flash, just a little insecurity thing.” He was well past that point in Bridges, and it hadn’t happened. Audiences, one suspects, will get all the way to the end without asking those questions either. For the film is, as Streep said, “a romantic story in a very unromantic time.” All of us feel an urgent need to embrace the former and banish the latter, at least for a couple of hours.

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