In ‘The Bridges of Madison County’, Meryl Streep Proves She Is the Author of Her Films

It takes a superior actress to convey a character’s entire history in one scene, and in this film, at least, Meryl Streep does it masterfully.

What should we talk about when we talk about Meryl Streep? Do we consider the fact that she’s the most honored actress in Hollywood history, with an unprecedented 19 Academy Award nominations? How about her impressive range and chameleon-like ability to convincingly play nearly every role that comes her way? Do we discuss ageism, and that she’s practically the only actress over 60 who can be considered a movie star? Or do we view her career through a cynical lens, and dare claim that her recent performances are overwrought and awkwardly unhinged?

Perhaps all of these would be fruitful starting points, but another one that’s often overlooked is that Streep’s most celebrated performances are her least impressive, and that her best performances are incredibly underrated.

It’s doubtful that anyone would rank her turn as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011) among her best work, yet this performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, her first since Sophie’s Choice (1982), and third overall. Meanwhile, the Academy ignored her iconic portrayal of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada in favor of Helen Mirren’s subtle to the point of yawn-inducing depiction of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006). As screen legend Katharine Hepburn once said, “the right actors win Oscars, but for the wrong roles.”

Streep’s most neglected performance can be seen in Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995). In the film, which is set in the ‘60s, Streep plays Francesca Johnson, a bored Italian housewife who is left alone on her Iowa farm when her husband Richard (Jim Haynie) and children travel to the Illinois State Fair for four days. Francesca’s mundane existence is reinvigorated by Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood), a National Geographic photographer from Washington who wanders into her driveway looking for directions. During the brief period of her family’s absence, they fall in love, and Francesca is forced to choose between this stranger with whom she has an inexplicable bond and her family.

The film is adapted from Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel, whose trite prose could not have prepared us for the emotional depth that Streep brings to Francesca. Streep turns a contrived character into a modern heroine. We root for Francesca and want her to be with Robert, even though we know that this decision would devastate her family. Rather than present Francesca’s affair as a selfish act or even a side effect of ennui, Streep convinces the audience that she’s doing it just as much for her family as she is for herself. In Francesca’s mind, this brief passionate affair is the antidote she needs to overcome her despair, and without it, she would be a zombie to her husband and children for the rest of her life.

Francesca acts out a feminist fantasy, the kind about which Betty Friedan warned the world when she published The Feminist Mystique in 1963. In her seminal text, Friedan compares the housewife to a prisoner, and she blames infidelity on sexual repression, which in her view stems from the norms that define the institution of marriage. According to Friedan, married women are not sexually satisfied by their husbands, cannot find fulfillment in housework and children, and resort to extramarital affairs in order to fill a void. Francesca is one of these housewives, and she suffers from what Friedan calls “the problem that has no name”; namely, the unhappiness of married stay-at-home moms in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As Friedan explains, “Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’” (Page 15, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

It’s appropriate to assume that Francesca never asks herself “the silent question” until Robert comes into her life. She is taught to be a loyal wife and a caring mother, and it never occurs to her that her happiness could be a priority. In the beginning of the film, however, Streep conveys Francesca’s misery and dissatisfaction, and we get a sense that she indeed feels like a prisoner.

The first time we see Francesca, she is cooking dinner for her husband and children. Italian opera plays on the radio, and Francesca raises the volume to enjoy the soothing music. She is alone. A few seconds later, her son Michael (Christopher Kroon) comes inside and slams the door behind him. Francesca is startled by the sound. “Michael, what did I tell you about that door!” she quips. Richard enters the house immediately after Michael, and he, too, slams the door behind him. Francesca is startled a second time, but she doesn’t say anything to Richard. Instead, she brings him a piece of cake.

Next enters her daughter Carolyn (Sarah Katheryn Schmitt), who changes the radio station. “Leader of the Pack” now plays in the background, and although Francesca is visibly annoyed, she stays silent. She brings her food to the table and asks the children to say grace. Carolyn says “grace” in a mocking tone typical of teenagers, and Francesca holds back her frustration. As her children and husband silently eat, Francesca observes their nonchalance. She looks at the three of them, and they never once notice her presence.

In this one scene, we learn everything we need to know about Francesca, and we sense that this is a daily ritual for her. If Michael, Carolyn, and Richard had bothered to look at her, they would have noticed her unhappiness and boredom. They would have sensed that something was off, and maybe they would have tried to make her feel better. Since she is the housewife, however, her needs are not a concern. As long as the food is cooked, the house is cleaned, and the husband and children are tended to, she has done her duty.

Streep expresses Francesca’s misery with silent facial expressions and body language. It takes a superior actress to convey a character’s entire history in one scene, and Streep does it masterfully. This scene is crucial to the film’s success because we need to understand Francesca’s motivation for the affair, and given the potential ramifications of that choice, we must have reasons to justify it. That she is stuck in a passionless marriage with children that don’t pay her any mind is one such reason, and it’s enough to make us sympathize with her. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is Streep’s finest moment and that it speaks to her ability to turn otherwise ordinary scenes into unforgettable cinematic experiences.

Unlike her contemporaries, Streep has never expressed a desire to work with auteurs. Her collaborations with Mike Nichols are certainly memorable, and there’s no denying the directorial skills of Eastwood, but for the most part, she is the author of her films, and the directors she works with lack a distinct cinematic style or thematic point of view. As a result, she is able to run wild with her roles. Her sustained success stems from her ability to make character choices that a director would never consider.

However, there’s an interesting paradox at play here that is seldom discussed. When roles have certain expectations attached to them, Streep often fails to deliver, but when roles don’t have any expectations attached to them, she often delivers her best performances.

No one expected Francesca to be one of Streep’s most memorable performances, which is exactly why it is. On the contrary, everyone assumed that she would bring her “A” game to the role of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but despite the Academy Award, most critics and cinephiles consider it to be one of her weakest performances. The same applies to Doubt (2008) and August: Osage County (2013), two performances that should have been met with applause, but instead were met with eye rolls.

In Doubt, Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a Catholic nun who confronts a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) about a sexual abuse scandal. The film is based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, and the role of Sister Aloysious was originally performed by Cherry Jones. Jones’ performance was universally praised, and she won a Tony and Drama Desk Award for her work. It’s fair to say that every actress in Hollywood over the age of 40 coveted the role of Sister Aloysius, and because it was offered to Streep, those familiar with the play understandably assumed that she would be terrific.

Instead, her performance is an epic fail. Rather than make Sister Aloysius human, as she does with Francesca, Streep turns her into a caricature. Streep’s interpretation of Sister Aloysius is the most over-the-top spectacle since Beijing’s opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics. As Manohla Dargis of The New York Times writes, “Ms. Streep appears to be in a Gothic horror thriller while everyone else looks and sounds closer to life or at least dramatic realism.” (“Between Heaven and Earth, Room for Ambiguity”, 11 December 2008)

Streep continues this trend with her performance in August: Osage County. Like Doubt, this is an adaptation of an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning play. Streep plays Violet Weston, the drug-addicted mother of a dysfunctional family. Violet is the most prominent role in the production, and it was made famous by Deanna Dunagan, a lesser-known stage actress that won a Tony and Drama Desk Award for her performance.

Another juicy role with great expectations leads to another disappointment. Once again, Streep cannot keep her character’s emotions in check, and she chews the scenery in such a self-indulgent manner that hasn’t been witnessed since Faye Dunaway’s campy performance as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981). The difference, of course, is that Dunaway is in on the joke, whereas Streep seems unaware of her seemingly desperate look-at-me-I’m-the-best tendencies. As Dana Stevens of Slate puts it, “Her performance as the narcotics-popping, bile-spewing Violet Weston would be too broad as seen from the back row of Yankee Stadium.” (“A gifted ensemble cast can’t save this messy adaptation of the acclaimed play”)

The reason why these films don’t work is because Streep seems to think that they require the biggest performances that she can muster. It’s as if she’s in direct dialogue with the roles’ expectations, and with something to prove, she hams it up in order to announce her presence and make the audience notice her acting. We notice her alright, but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than marvel at her ability to bring these complex characters to life, we wonder why she didn’t take it down a notch to make them more human.

Such over-the-top dramatizations ultimately do a disservice to Streep’s legacy as our most gifted actress, as well as the many other actresses that could have benefited from the opportunity to play these characters. Those of us who suffer from “Streep fatigue” do so not because she keeps winning awards, but because she keeps winning awards for the wrong roles.

The amount of “bigness” that Streep brings to a performance is directly proportional to the amount of hype that surrounds the role. If, for example, a role is met with a massive amount of hype, then Streep will overact as if her life depends on it. If, however, a role is met with little hype, then Streep will show more subtly and nuance. Francesca is the prime example of a throwaway role that Streep makes her own, but there have been others throughout her career.

One fantastic Streep performance that no one saw coming is Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). With her iconic silver haircut, her dismissive “that’s all” catchphrase, and her refusal to raise her voice when she is angry, Miranda is one of Streep’s greatest creations. With Miranda, she showcases her genius because every single character choice comes from her mind, and each choice serves to elevate the film and turn Miranda into a fully-fleshed woman. This is in stark contrast to the off-putting choices that make her portrayals of Sister Aloysius, Violet Weston, and Margaret Thatcher so one-dimensional.

And yet, as great as The Devil Wears Prada is, the one Streep performance that I always return to is Francesca. Perhaps I’m moved by the brief moments of blissful passion when she is with Robert, or the inevitable lifetime of heartbreak when Richard and her children return from their trip. The climactic scene of The Bridges of Madison County is similar to the opening dinner scene in that they both rely entirely on Streep’s silent facial expressions. The scene occurs after Francesca parts ways with Robert.

Since the film is a romance, the climax takes place in the pouring rain. Francesca is out buying groceries with Richard, and she waits in the car while he shops in the store. Robert, drenched in rain, slowly walks over to Francesca, who can see him from the car window. He stands there for a few seconds, and then suddenly turns back. Richard returns from the store, gets into the car, and drives away. They approach a red light, where Robert’s car is stopped in front of them. Francesca can see him. The light turns green. Robert stalls. Francesca puts her hand on the door handle and slowly begins to open the door, and just as she does this, Robert drives away.

Streep’s control of her emotions in this scene is brilliant, and she plays it for maximum suspense. When it’s over, we’re overcome with feelings of dissatisfaction because we never quite know what Francesca would have done if Robert waited a few seconds longer. The purpose of the scene is to convey Francesca’s conflict, and to represent the many restrictions placed on American housewives in that time period. Francesca is too confined in her role to leave her family behind, and even when she is presented with an opportunity, she cannot break free. As a result of her sacrifice, she lives a lifetime of regret and unhappiness.

Streep echoes this sentiment in one of the film’s final scenes, in which a much older Francesca reflects on her time with Robert after he passes away. In the scene below, Francesca receives a package of Robert’s personal items, all of which he wanted her to have after his death. Francesca painfully learns that she meant just as much to him as he meant to her. It’s a quietly powerful moment, and the tactile way Streep touches the materials with her hands represents her desire to hold onto Robert once more. The memories flood her mind and they bring her to tears.

It’s been 20 years since The Bridges of Madison County was released, and although Streep continues to receive Academy Award nominations for each new role, her performance as Francesca will always be her crowning achievement.