Bright Lights Film Journal

Sparks and Marks: Clint Eastwood’s Rohmerific BREEZY (1973)

You can tell that if you were a girl on a date with Clint Eastwood and he wanted to sleep with you, there wouldn’t be a thing you could do about it. And I don’t mean in some smug James Bond way or furious date rape way, I mean he’d play the perfect music at all the perfect times, speak eloquently of Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus and when he finally smiled wide enough to show his teeth, you’d find yourself making the first move, despite your best judgments, or maybe because of them.

The closest to come to Eastwood the director/auteur as far as the slow rhythm by which real seduction occurs (post-Nicholas Ray) is maybe Eric Rohmer, only he wouldn’t break his Bazin-influenced naturalism by playing a ’70s soul-folk ballad over a beach at dawn scene/montage, or set a park-side tryst to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)” as Eastwood does in PLAY MISTY FOR ME. But where angels fear to tread, Eastwood just advances more slowly, inexorably, like a mongoose on a cobra.

If Eastwood’s romantic fictions betray autobiographical ground, I think he must be a bit of a player, ladywise, and dislikes this part of himself. He has an insider’s grasp of how society and his own maleness make new love fade to guilt when the hangover and harsh California noonday sun dispels the Roberta Flack of the eve before. This is not the sort of thing celibate film school nerds understand and so seldom put in screenplays. Eastwood’s a tall, handsome specimen, more used to girls falling in love with him and having to spend the night figuring ways to politely ditch them just so he can go off and play piano with the local bebop combo. His wariness of the clingy tendrils of a young, spontaneous, slightly crazy chicks doesn’t mean he’s afraid of them, or doesn’t desire them, it’s just that he hates his wariness, and his wariness is often right. As befits a twin sign (he’s a Gemini), Eastwood has that ability to embrace two directly oppositional views at once: Breezy’s a groovy chick who loves Holden and brings a spark to his midlife crises, BUT she’s also a homeless mooch–30+ years his junior–looking to affix herself to an easy sugar daddy. A May-December romance leaves the older party renewed by youth’s spark but also feeling very aware of old age’s slowing-down decrepitude. The angel of life is also the angel of death. The young party gets a free ride up at lest a few ladder rungs but also must face the impermanence of the situation, as their lover grows less and less potent (this was long before viagra) and they are perhaps robbed of being allowed to make their own mistakes. Both views are right, but only one isn’t jaded and self-destructive. Like any real artist, Eastwood refuses to pick a side. He pretends to anguish on the off ramp like he doesn’t know which way to turn, but the truth is he just wants to stay right there, on the off ramp, where all good artists live.

His previous film, PLAY MISTY FOR ME starred Eastwood as a womanizing DJ forced to tangle with the catastrophic effects of his tom-catting on sensitive female psyche. For BREEZY, he amends the damage, even sidesteps a few of the muddier plot-holes that can strand films like this in group-think quirkiness and conservative cop-out endings. Like Nicholas Ray and Eric Rohmer, Eastwood’s a cynic who nonetheless will go to toe-to-toe against all other cynics, anytime, in the name of love… even if that love inevitably wanes by Sunday evening. And thus the true artist embraces disillusion like the true surfer embraces being sucked under.

The plot of BREEZY was a familiar fantasy of the early 1970s: free love for me too! All the older unhappily married guys looking out their windows as cute young runaway girls gave themselves over to younger men just for the privilege of a night on a crabby mattress, cuz it was “the style of the time.” It must nag at the craws of older balder uglier dudes, but our hero is William Holden, no pug-ugly. Instead he seems like a playa in a poker game so weary of cards he no longer hides his tells when he has a bad hand. All the petty social acceptability of his age group is a turn off to him. He’s an old reprobate seeing in Breezy what may be his last chance before the dustbin.

Eastwood appears at the marina in a blink and you’ll miss cameo and he deserves this Hitchcock style indulgence, since BREEZY is one of the few films that captures the May-December vibe with a clear view of both side’s pros and cons. Interestingly, Leonard Maltin gives a four star rating to the much less interesting take on the theme, PETULIA, starring George C. Scott and Julie Christie. But time has been less kind to Richard Lester’s brand of droll “quirkiness” (stealing a tuba out of a store window, returning to her abusive husband played by Richard Chamberlain), BREEZY (given a mere two stars by LM) throws quirks away and goes for real connection, and a series of well-written monologues dazzlingly rattled off by Lenz as she sits next to Holden in his big yellow Cadillac, or otherwise tries to win his good graces so she can mooch off his nest. There’s almost a snag when Holden puts too much stock in his bald older friend’s lament that such a love is really an exchange of goods: the hippy chick brings a spark into your crappy married life in exchange for ripping you off to pay her pimp or drug habit. Poor Holden’s insecure enough at just that moment to not see the difference between his A-list star self and his less charismatic pals (like Roger C. Carmel, aka Mudd, from the Star Trek episode “Mudd’s Women”), so tries to push Breezy away. It’s tragic to watch his chipper new outlook seal back up.

While other directors would establish this May-December relationship to make some point about the ultimate importance of conservative values (“Taming the Breeze!”) Eastwood lets his characters do their own selling. When Holden’s older friends see our heroes together they all make their obscene judgments–the men licking their lips, the women gnashing their teeth–but are they really or is Holden reading too much into everything. Maybe it’s just a sign of Eastwood realizing it’s time to switch off the Gemini mode and project all the cynical bitterness onto Holden’s older posse, leaving him eventually free to live in the sunshine of willful repression. When you’re in love you transcend type, you become happy and gorgeous and those trapped by their own hands want, naturally, to tear you down. Eastwood holds back like Rohmer (or a good therapist) and tries not to influence Holden’s decisions with any corny “looking out the window in the rain” montages, though there some ominous cues that might make you squirm in unease if you’re waiting for some junkie pimp to rush out of the shadow and try to shake Holden down or reclaim his girl (ala LEAVING LAS VEGAS, THE RAT RACE or TRUE ROMANCE). But the only villain here is Holden’s own preconceptions, his tendency to mistake mere jaundiced cynicism for adult wit. Breezy is, as her name implies, above it; she only cares about the real connection, the real person, and when Holden finally smiles in surrender to her charms, you realize– maybe for the first time ever–that he’s really a great, great actor, fearlessly casting off the set-in-iron visage he’s been lugging around since THE WILD BUNCH to expose the sweet guileless smile of a six-year old kid. And you feel your heart dissolve into crashing chunks like a globally warmed iceberg.

No wonder Holden was so believable as an old codger clinging for dear life to the hyperactive whirlwind of Faye Dunaway in NETWORK (1976). There he plays a later version of his character from BREEZY, now a younger-woman addict. And so it goes that love becomes inextricably entwined with the terror of age, the grave looming closer ever day while the girl in the bed beside you stays the same age, the shady prophecy of Matt McConaughey in DAZED & CONFUSED come to terrible fulfillment.

In the end it wouldn’t add up to much however if not for the radiant Kay Lenz in the title role. Where did Clint find her and where did she go? She’s one of those stars who vanished into plain sight through numerous TV guest spots in various forgotten shows over the years (though she won a couple Emmys for RICH MAN POOR MAN). Overall the movie would make more sense if she wasn’t so dazzlingly attractive. Some minor character flaw or deformity would make Holden’s initial resistance to her charms more believable… But who, really, is dumb enough to complain? Whether or not you’re dating someone half or twice your age, gorgeous as Lenz or ugly as Roger C. Carmel, BREEZY may speak to you. Get it while it’s eternally preserved in the digital age and revel in the way it sets your own inner ambiguities against each other: the wrasslin’ twixt polarities of life/death, youth/age, idealism/cynicism, and the way true love ultimately has no opposite, but leads into a sunrise all its own and ends in bed, with Clint, just like he planned all along. Now please let yourself out, he’s got a big day.