Maybe Robert James Waller's best-selling novel of love forsaken, The Bridges of Madison County, had you crying in your beer along with 5.6 million other readers. It's more likely that the slim but famously fatuous volume depicting the ill-fated four-day affair between globetrotting photographer Robert Kincaid and Iowa farm wife Francesca Johnson had you puking on Waller's deep-purple prose. "There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass," writes Waller in an opening sentence that reveals the author's strain to wax Walt Whitman lyrical when what comes out is greeting-card gush. "I live with dust on my heart," Robert tells Francesca after making the supreme sacrifice of giving her up to her husband and children. The sentiment is part of a tradition – not of poetry but of great romantic crocks, from Erich Segal's Love Story ("Love means never having to say you're sorry") to Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides, with its now notorious camp incantation of "Lowenstein, Lowenstein."
As star and director of Tides, Barbra Streisand gave herself up to wretched soap-opera excess. As star and director of Bridges, Clint Eastwood tries valiantly to play it for real and not to wallow in Waller. He almost succeeds. The script, by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, A Little Princess), dumps Waller's more florid fancies. Writer-photographer Robert Waller crafted writer-photographer Robert Kincaid as a hymn to himself, 52 when the book was published in 1992: "At 52, his body was all lean muscle...belly flat as a knife blade.... She noticed how small his rear was in his tight jeans.... He was tall and thin and hard, and he moved like the grass itself, without effort, gracefully." During sex with Francesca, he "alternately kissed her lips or ears or ran his tongue along her neck, licking her as some fine leopard might do in long grass out on the veld." And here's the clincher: "Sometimes I write poetry, just for myself." Hey, he cooks, too.
It's an impossible role – a male fantasy cooked up by a preening peacock – yet Eastwood lends the character a wellspring of humor and humanity. Waller pumps up Robert as the "last cowboy," a former combat Marine who roams the world and leaves women squealing: "You're the best, Robert, no competition, nobody even close." Eastwood wisely brushes past the blather to focus on the cowboy at sunset, as much a relic of the romantic past as the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, that National Geographic has sent Robert to photograph. Characters at emotional risk bring out the best in Eastwood as an actor (Unforgiven, Tightrope, In the Line of Fire), and under the towering heap of hokum that is Bridges, he still finds a heartbeat.
So does Meryl Streep, on record as disliking the book. She uses a dark wig, added pounds and an Italian accent – Anna Magnani lite – to play Francesca, the 45-year-old war bride raising two kids in Iowa with her dull, decent husband, Richard (Jim Haynie). Streep's technique is expert but distracting. While Eastwood digs inside himself for authenticity, Streep must first fuss with surface detail. Still, her performance steadily deepens, drawing us close to a woman whose life isn't "what I dreamed about as a girl."
Francesca feels "something jump inside" when the stranger with the Nikon rides up in his truck on an August day in 1965. Her family is off for a week at a state fair, so when the lost Robert asks directions to Roseman Bridge, she impulsively offers to go with him. Sharing a smoke and conversation, they take measure of each other with charming awkwardness. Francesca has felt like an alien since her husband brought her home 20 years earlier. In Robert, whose long hair, sandals and silver bracelet get him branded a hippie in rural America, she finds a kindred spirit.
Am I making this swill sound seductive? For a while it is, thanks to funny and touching teamwork from Eastwood and Streep, who manage to infuse banal chitchat with genuine longing. As Francesca watches Robert work, cinematographer Jack N. Green, filming on location in Iowa, sets up an elegant play of light on landscapes and faces. Lennie Niehaus' haunting score is laced with grace notes that extend to the classic ballads – Dinah Washington singing "Blue Gardenia" – that squeeze their magic through Francesca's tinny kitchen radio.
In a memorable early scene, Eastwood choreographs Robert and Francesca's making a simple supper in her kitchen as a mating dance of extraordinary delicacy. When they first touch, Ftancesca – on the phone with a girlfriend – merely reaches out to caress Robert's shoulder as he sits at the table. Yet the moment is electric. Later, he leads her in a slow dance around the candle-lit table, and a kitchen that once meant domestic routine is transformed into a place for lovers.
These potent scenes could be part of a silent movie. Silence is certainly preferable to the drooling dialogue that follows when the lovers open their yaps and start spouting Wallerisms. Francesca, lying in a warm bath where a few minutes earlier water had run down his body, murmurs: "Everything about Robert Kincaid seems erotic." It gets worse. The sex – four days of middle-aged abandon meant to shake the world – is huggy-kissy Hallmark goo. Robert recites, twice yet and with stupefying pretension, "This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime." Lowenstein, Lowenstein, indeed.
It's no fair blaming Waller for everything. Eastwood must take the rap for the myth-making flashbacks. As the film begins, Francesca's grown children, Carolyn (Annie Corley) and Michael (Victor Slezak), have just buried their 67-year-old parent and are reading her journals about her secret love. "My mother was Anaïs Nin," says a shocked Carolyn. By repeatedly cutting back to the children registering stages of outrage, denial, envy and acceptance, Eastwood, in a rare lapse, cues us on how to think and stoops to selling big sentiments. He regains his footing near the end with a startling close-up of Robert standing in a downpour, his face ravaged, watching a shaken Francesca drive off to the life she led without him. This is the most passionately unguarded acting of Eastwood's career. If only it could have informed a less bogus film than this rank cheese ball.
"Where great passion leaves off and mawkishness begins, I'm not sure," writes Waller. Onscreen, the point comes when Eastwood and Streep let the tear-jerking book outrun their truthful instincts. I am not immune to movie romance, be it Casablanca or The Piano, but Waller insists that to understand Bridges we are required to enter "the realm of gentleness." Try the realm of mindlessness. By the time Carolyn and Michael sprinkle Mom's ashes on Roseman Bridge and read "Go well, my children" excerpts from her journals, all that's required is cotton for the ears and a paper bag for the head.