Monday, January 25, 2010

Streep straight up

My recently developing interest in Clint Eastwood's earlier work, especially as director, led me to The Bridges of Madison County (1995), which I had avoided at the time because of the dreadful reputation of the potboiling bestseller the film was based on. From what I understand, the screenplay by Richard LaGravanese toned down the purple quality of the book, as well as the self-absorption of the male protagonist. Which makes sense, because there is scarcely a more self-effacing actor or director than Clint Eastwood.

The result is a fairly harmless reworking of Brief Encounter and other similar romanticizings of adultery. It's important to maintain perspective and look at this sort of thing as a fantasy that most intelligent adults recognize as a fantasy. Because how could how a powerful passion by held in such precise check as to be maintained throughout one's life without engulfing one's other relationships. I am no expert, but I cannot imagine passion which can idle in low gear for 30 years without disturbing a pre-existing marriage. It is the nature of passion to sweep all else aside; otherwise it's not passion. So this is a titillating but ultimately silly bit of housewife porn rendered in exquisitely pale good taste by Eastwood & Co., which almost makes it more unpalatable.

So what is left? Meryl Streep. Recently, she graduated from Respected Actress in Serious Films to bonafide Movie Star, a status she clinched with back to back hits Julie & Julia and It's Complicated. The former is the perfect example of utter piffle for which a Real Actress is required. You know what I mean--Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow or the Great Meryl.

Funny thing, she is often described as a chameleon who disappears into her roles. I have been watching Meryl act since 1965, which she was a sophomore in high school along with my brother. So while others see all these other identities, I can always see the essential Meryl-ness inside. This is no denigration of her art, which has been more convincing and more artfully concealed as the years go by. (When she was younger I could always see the wheels turning when she acted, all the technique too close to the surface.) She is strangely convincing in Madison County, especially when she stops worrying about maintaining the Italian accent--the character is so improbable anyway--and plays the sweet-and-sour discontent that permits her to drift into a relationship with a somewhat bland stranger. She provides enough color for both actors.

Most unexpected pleasure of this film--the performances of Annie Corley and Victor Slezak as Streep's adult children, who are at first shocked and then led to a re-examination of their lives by reading their late mother's journals of her forbidden romance. Again, a fantasy, but the surprising charm of these actors sell this somewhat distasteful idea. So...well done, I guess.

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