Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I hope you’ve been watching Ethan Hawke’s six-hour documentary The Last Movie Stars, which chronicles, in a distinctive and unusual way, the lives of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. The series climaxes with an appreciation of the couple’s final film as co-stars, the 1990 Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.
Here’s my review—published in The Herald upon its release—of that fine Merchant Ivory film, as a way of remembering a movie that ought to be better remembered. It goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway, that Scarecrow has almost any film featuring Mr. Newman and Ms. Woodward—a definitive collection, as opposed to what you’ll find streaming.
Mr. & Mrs. Bridge
In Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward have the kind of onscreen ease and chemistry that surely comes from having been married to each other in real life for more than 30 years. They even look at each other with a sense of long-shared history.
This is crucial to the feel of Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, because this exceptional film is about a marriage, and a family, although not an especially happy family. Newman and Woodward play a middle-aged couple, ordinary if just upper-middle-class, who live in Kansas City in the 1930s and 40s.
Mr. Bridge is a lawyer, set in his ways and remote. Mrs. Bridge, as the film opens, is just beginning to feel the glimmerings of her own independent personality. She has devoted herself to her husband and her children for years, and now she wonders if she might be missing something.
It is a tribute to the film that nothing much comes of her budding liberation. Mr. Bridge isn’t capable of allowing any such shift in family dynamics, and the pre-feminist times preclude Mrs. Bridge from making any but the most tentative forays into independence.
The film beautifully captures the drift of their lives through the years (the passage of time must be inferred, as there are no helpful titles). Their ripely sexy daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) moves to New York to become an actress. Another daughter (Margaret Welsh) marries a man who turns out to be a disappointment. Their son (Robert Sean Leonard) finally leaves the smothering home for the military.
Events pass. Some are major: the outbreak of war and the disintegration of Mrs. Bridge’s best friend (Blythe Danner), whose bohemian ways have no healthy outlet. At other times, the film simply creates some of the thousand minor moments that make up such lives: Mr. Bridge attempting to mollify his wife by thoughtfully offering her part of his beer, a son and daughter comparing notes on the extent of their “sex education” (both were handed the same hygiene pamphlet by their mother), Mr. Bridge unnerved by strange stirrings when he watches his daughter sunbathing.
Mr. & Mrs. Bridge is based on two novels by Evan S. Connell, and is adapted by the longtime filmmaking team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (their collaborations include A Room with a View and The Bostonians). They’ve created an exquisite, very sad American story, in which time and survival are main characters.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward will doubtless receive many accolades for their performances, and rightly so. Newman is trim and gray and his skin looks like it has shrunk over his head. He absolutely communicates a sense of rigidity. But Woodward gives the best performance in the film. Mrs. Bridge is accommodating and sympathetic, desperately trying to keep everyone satisfied and maintaining a happy face over every disappointment. Lovely work, all around.
August 5, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.