Walter and India Bridge in the bank vault
(Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman)

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
1990/U.S., 125 Minutes

Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward give "the performances of their careers" (Judith Crist) in Merchant Ivory's adaptation of Evan S. Connell's two novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, artfully combined into one screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Walter and India Bridge (Newman and Woodward) are a Midwestern American couple struggling to keep up with the changing world around them in 1930s America. Mr. Bridge, a stout-hearted, staunch paterfamilias, quietly lords over his children -- Ruth (Kyra Sedgwick), Carolyn (Margaret Welsh), and Douglas (Robert Sean Leonard) -- and his wife, who is warm and kind but lacks the independence to forge an identity apart from her husband. As the music, the mores, and the politics of Kansas City are transformed in front of them, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge attempt to keep up with the drama of a changing society within their own family: Ruth wants to go to New York and become an actress; Carolyn is determined to marry a man whom her father deems unsuitable; Douglas is embarrassed by his mother's attentions and rebukes her attempts at intimacy.

In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge eat dinner at their country club while a tornado sweeps through Kansas City. The other patrons evacuate, yet Mr. Bridge insists on staying in the dining room until he finishes eating. As glass shatters and the world around is literally swept away, Mrs. Bridge searches for butter for her husband's dinner.

Blythe Danner and Gale Garnett play Grace Barron and Mabel Ong, two friends of Mrs. Bridge who seem to embody the comic ennui of suburban life, but play out a quiet tragedy underneath. Simon Callow is Dr. Alex Sauer, a worldly European psychiatrist who represents the progressive attitude Mr. Bridge scorns; Diane Kagan is Julia, Mr. Bridge's secretary, who stands unnoticed in the background until she steps forward to tell Mr. Bridge her secret.

"[A]nd we should die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence," George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, one of the nineteenth century's great domestic dramas. Ivory and Jhabvala here seek out that roar that is underneath Connell's exploration of American domestic life: Newman's spartan silences and Woodward's abortive attempts to communicate with her husband and her children are perfect portraits of the things that are not said, and of the despair that lies beneath a quiet evening at home in the suburbs. The final scene, with Woodward at her best, provides us with one of the most affecting -- and terrifying -- images of Ivory's career to date.

Walter and India Bridge
consider Winged Victory in the Louvre

Shot on location in Kansas City and in Paris (in this film, Merchant Ivory add the Louvre to their peerless list of shooting sites), the film was powerfully received at the box office and was greeted with rave reviews. The New York Times wrote that Newman and Woodward's roles were "the most adventurous and stringent of their careers." Woodward received an Oscar nod and the New York Society of Film Critics Award for her performance: her Mrs. Bridge is like an American Mrs. Dalloway, all warm smiles on her daily errands but seeped with a depth of feeling that her husband forever fails to understand.

The filmmakers were similarly lauded for a breakthrough in their first film with a Midwestern American theme: "With the quiet assurance of a perfect work of art," one critic wrote, "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge sweeps all other contenders off the screen to become the best movie of the year."

Commentary From the Director

I first read Mrs. Bridge on an Indian train going from Calcutta to Bombay. I had bought it in a Calcutta bookstore, presumably having read somewhere one or more of the novel's excellent reviews. An Indian train is a wonderful place to read a book you're enjoying. Your dread is that the book will run out before the journey ends. This trip must have been in 1963. I was halfway through making my first feature, The Householder. As I thought Mrs. Bridge would be a good book to film, I showed it to Ruth Jhabvala. I remember her saying, "My God, how would you do it?" Seven or eight years passed, and in due course Mr. Bridge appeared, which I liked very much also. It carried the story of this affluent Kansas City family further - not in time, but in breadth, as the reader now was given Mr. Bridge's somewhat acerbic point of view on things, as contrasted with his wife's more rose-colored one. Gradually, the idea to film one or both books went to the back of my mind, but I kept meeting people who told me the Bridge books were two of their all-time favorite American novels. They seemed to have attracted a passionate cult of readers.

One of the members of the cult was Joanne Woodward, whom I first met in 1987. She was thinking of trying a television adaptation of Mrs. Bridge. I jumped in and said it could be more interesting to weave both books together into a theatrical film, and then went further and said that Ruth Jhabvala had always wanted to write a screenplay based on them. "In that case" said Paul Newman, who was also present, and who now jumped in - we were all getting carried away a bit - "if she comes up with a screenplay I like, I'll play Mr. Bridge."

It's one thing to make a film set in the distant past - in Edwardian England, or Boston in the 1870s, for instance. To do a period film about your youth, about a time you can remember very well, is a different and harder proposition. You know (or you may think you know) how things were, or should have been, how people spoke, and what they meant and sometimes didn't say, what they wore, how they fixed their hair and exactly what would have been on their plates in the way of food.

For the Newmans and myself, this process became somewhat Proustian; it could be frustration, as well as a little eerie. Props appeared which had been out of our lives for half a century, the very existence of which we'd forgotten: Douglass Bridge's Boy Scout manual, for example, that thick and rather greasy looking well-thumbed paperback, which I again held familiarly in my hand (and with some of that same old feelings of distaste).

Sometimes these props meant nothing to the younger actors. I remember Joanne one day even having to show the Bridge offspring (in a scene no longer in the film) how to balance their silver knives and forks, how to cut their vegetables and pass a roll, and so forth. The younger actors and extras no longer knew how to hold their partners close when they danced. It had been two generations since anyone had done that kind of high school proms the Newmans and I had once attended. To get those kids to do it now was as if we'd made them an indecent proposition. They preferred the more impersonal Conga line. That is partly what the film is about, I suppose: how things are done, and no questions asked - whether it be in the practical or in the ethical spheres of life, which, with Americans like the Bridges, tend to be one and the same.

-JI

Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
Music: Richard Robbins
Editor: Humphrey Dixon
Production design: David Gropman
Costumes: Carol Ramsey
Associate producer: Robert Halmi
Casting: Joanna Merlin

Cast: Paul Newman (Walter Bridge), Joanne Woodward (India Bridge), Blythe Danner (Grace Barron), Simon Callow (Dr. Alex Sauer), Kyra Sedgwick (Ruth Bridge), Robert Sean Leonard (Douglas Bridge), Margaret Welsh (Caroline Bridge), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Gadbury), Saundra McClain (Harriet), Diane Kagan (Julia), Gale Garnett (Mabel Ong), Remak Ramsay (Virgil Barron), Robert Westenberg (Ruth's boyfriend), John Bell (Douglas Bridge as a boy), Marcus Giamatti (Gil Davis), Robert Levine (Avrum Rhinegold), Addison Myers and Roger Burget (Men at Businessmen's Table), Al Christy (Judge), Joe Tinoco (Plaintiff), Ben Stephenson (Law Clerk), Alison Sneegas (Band Vocalist), Mark Yonally (Youth at High School Dance), Buck Baker (Scoutmaster), Danny Cox (Country Club Steward), Robyn Rosenfeld (Genevieve), Roch Leibovici (Watch Seller on the Quai), Hubert Saint Macary (Copyist in the Louvre), Laurence Goua (Principal Can-Can Dancer), The Nocolodis (Moulin Rouge Tumblers), Judy Judd (First Bridge Player), Nora Denny (Second Bridge Player), Charles Perkins, Allen Monroe, Richard Ross, Milton Abel (Jazz Musicians), Spencer Keesee (Couperin), Kathy Quinn-Byrne (Paquita), John Anthony (Rod), Jennifer Conforti (Rod's girl), Tom Hall (Aztec Room Waiter), Joanne Carr (Prison Matron), Florence Hall (The Barrons's Maid), Lee Lambert (Corporal Cipkowski), Jocelyn Hamilton (Florist's Assistant), Anny Knott (Flower Shop Owner), Melissa Newman (Young India at the Pool).