Program Notes: Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990)

For years it was accepted that Evan S. Connell’s novels Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969) were unfilmable.

They were plotless, consisting of brief scenes (each chapter was only a couple of pages long) from a 30-year marriage. Moreover, the title characters – members of Kansas City’s stuffy Country Club set in the 1930s – were incapable of change or even of communicating fully with each another.

How could you dramatize that?

It was a good thing, then, that the job fell to producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who over 40 years specialized in bringing “unfilmable” literature to the big screen (The Europeans, Quartet, The Bostonians, A Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day).

Film Screening:
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990)
Monday, Jan. 7 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

The 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, which drew upon scenes from both novels, retained Connell’s fragmentary, episodic style. Much of the movie’s dialogue was lifted directly from the printed page.

Moreover, the film’s unshowy approach nicely approximates the experience of reading the book.

Even the movie’s stars, the real-life husband-and-wife team of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, seemed to leave behind actorly egotism. These aren’t bigger-than-life characters. Rather, they are exactly life-size, and that’s what makes them so affecting.

Woodward’s India Bridge has reached middle age having had all her decisions made for her. She is useless in the kitchen (the Bridges can afford a cook). Her children (Kyra Sedgwick, Robert Sean Leonard, Margaret Welsh) regard her with affectionate dismissal. Her remedy for all of life’s ills is a well-made cup of tea.

And yet Mrs. Bridge knows something is missing. Quietly, pathetically, she tries to find it, taking art classes, studying horoscopes, begging friends to recommend good books. If she were around today she undoubtedly would be taking yoga classes.


Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman

Beneath Mrs. Bridge’s stifling banality, Woodward finds a soul struggling to get out.

If she is a reed bending in the wind, her husband is a pillar of stone. Lawyer Walter Bridge could easily have become a caricature of the Babbitt-ish American male, a guy who sleeps through movies and proclaims that artists should get jobs like everyone else and make art on the weekends.

But Newman finds strength in the character’s complete self-justification. He may be pompous, but he earns our grudging respect. Also, he’s hilarious (unintentionally so). Just look at the way he threatens to blow a blood vessel when the family’s black cook announces that her nephew wants to study at Harvard.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge is packed with tasty supporting performances. Simon Callow is amusing as a libertine psychiatrist who represents everything Mr. Bridge distrusts. And Blythe Danner is terrific in the film’s most overtly dramatic role, a housewife who drifts into insanity, smothered by an excess of Midwestern gentility. Late in the film she has a hair-raising meltdown.

With the exception of a scene in Paris and another which took advantage of a Toronto snowfall, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge was shot entirely in Kansas City on the same streets that Connell navigated as a child and teenager.

In fact, keen-eyed viewers may note in the film landmarks such as the Liberty Memorial, the interior of the Midland Theatre, the Country Club Plaza, and Drexel Hall in Midtown – all of which had their own post cards in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The residence used as the Bridge home during filming is just a block west of Loose Park on W. 54th St.

There’s even a scene set in the vault of the old First National Bank. Ironically, the bank building is now the Central Library, and that very same vault is now the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault where Mr. and Mrs. Bridge is showing.

Other films in the series “Goin’ to Kansas City”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

The series complements Greetings from Kansas City, the current exhibit of vintage post cards now on display at the Central Library.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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