Clint Eastwood's American Sniper continues to do boffo biz, but on this Valentine's Day it's not really what one would call a date movie. So, for our weekend film feature, how about this Clint pic, with a dozen roses and a box of chocolates? In 1995, Eastwood took a schlock novel, and turned it into a valentine to himself - The Bridges Of Madison County:
Twenty years ago, I took a woman of the opposite sex to The Bridges of Madison County. My mistake. By about 20 minutes in, I was melting into my seat, moaning at the screen and longing for Clint to take me in his manly arms and carry me to the back of his pick-up. 'You're dribbling over the popcorn,' hissed my date. In mitigation, I was one of the last in the house to fall for his weatherbeaten charm.
Eastwood's film (he stars and directs) flashes back to Iowa, 1965: Meryl Streep is alone on the farm. Her hubby has gone to the State Fair to enter his prize cow, being the kind of hayseed who prefers entering his prize cow to his wife. And then, out of nowhere, Clint appears. A wry smile wrinkling those deep-set eyes here, a soupçon of growled self-deprecation there, and soon Meryl's long-suppressed urges are bubbling up: she begins swatting her brow distractedly and gulping her iced tea. It's a chance encounter — he's a passing photojournalist — but she invites him in.
Dusty from the backroads, he freshens up in the yard, while she watches from the window. He splashes his chest, rippling his torso and hers even more so. By now, my fellow filmgoers were breathing heavily and frantically fanning themselves with empty candy boxes. Not recognizing these first stirrings of mass involuntary orgasmic shudder, I assumed the air-conditioning had broken down.
Meryl asks Clint to stay for dinner, and he lopes around the kitchen, man enough to help with the place settings and the washing-up without being asked; never once does Meryl have to say, "Go ahead, hunk. Take my tray." For decades, we underestimated this last movie star, reckoning that if a man's good at gunplay he must be hopeless at foreplay. But that moment from In The Line Of Fire, when Clint teasingly tinkles 'As Time Goes By' to Rene Russo, should have reminded us that the great defining classic of Hollywood romance needed a tough guy: like Bogart with Casablanca, Eastwood is crossing the tracks. So the small talk grows smaller and the erotic charge more palpable and every tingle in their unhurried courtship crackles round the theatre like static electricity in polyester trousers. The audience is urging them on: "Oh, God! Yes, yes!! Now!!!" we shriek silently.
But Clint goes away, having laid nothing but the table. The sexual tension is wound ever tighter: he knows he wants her, but he also knows it will be all the sweeter if he waits till tomorrow ... or next week…or maybe the sequel…
Movies pose as a stud's medium, but they're really for premature ejaculators: eyes meet across a bar, and next thing you know clothes are flying and sheets are crumpling and guitars are wailing, and that's it; they saw, they conquered, they came, all in three minutes. Eastwood's courage is in playing this seduction in real time. He was, even 20 years ago, a "senior" (in Yank English), a "pensioner" (in Brit), and, when old-timers do movies, they're supposed to show they're just as funky as the young, like Don Ameche breakdancing in Cocoon. But Clint's too cool for that stuff. In the slow-burn confidence of the dinner scene, he's signalling: there's some things we do better than you kids.
That, of course, was the consoling message of Robert James Waller's blockbusting novel. Waller so identified with his conquering hero that he even gave him the same name — Robert — and complained of the film that Eastwood had made him "very ordinary" — the implication being that, for his whimpering female fans, any one other than Waller in the role is bound to disappoint. For the rest of us, the film's great merit is that Eastwood has de-Wallered it. Gone is the unrelenting authorial voice, forever eschewing "he said" or "he replied" or "he added" in favor of things like "he quickly tacked on his caveat". Perhaps I wasn't paying attention; perhaps a caveat is a traditional Iowan contraceptive. But it gets to you after a while: the real love story in the book is between Waller and his fictional idealization.
True, that relationship is translated to the movie: Eastwood has skewed the story to Streep's point of view - which means that much of the time the camera is lingering on his weathered loveliness, just as much of a valentine to himself as Waller's book is. But you don't mind because Eastwood has better taste than Waller. Where the novel seeps maudlin country ballads, Clint's score is so smokey and jazzy he must have figured Robert Waller is Fats's brother. I mean Johnny Hartman? Singing Schwartz & Dietz? On a radio station in rural Iowa?
But, when Hartman sings, as Meryl stands framed in the doorway with a silly six-buck party frock accentuating her beefy hips, the trick works: in toughening the story, Eastwood justifies the romance. In When Dirty Harry Met Sally, no one has to fake orgasm.