‘Breezy’ (1973): Clint Eastwood’s little-known romance

Extremely rare theatrical screenings! Plays May 21st and 22nd, 2014 at L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema. Click here for schedule.

The little-known Breezy (1973) might be the biggest outlier in Clint Eastwood’s career. Almost never revived and rarely written about, Breezy is the third movie Eastwood directed (after Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter), and the first that he didn’t also star in. The film presents an intriguing puzzle for auteur theorists, since almost nothing about it is typical of Eastwood’s work — it’s a low-key drama about the May-December romance between 19-year-old free spirit Breezy (Kay Lenz) and crusty middle-aged real estate agent Frank Harmon (William Holden).

Coming across the movie today is like chancing upon a previously unheard track from a classic rock band, recorded during their long-ago creative heyday; even if it’s no masterpiece, it’s fun to situate it in the context of the career. But Breezy turns out to be interesting for reasons beyond what an anomaly it represents in Eastwood’s oeuvre. The surprises start with the credits: the lush romantic score is by Michel Legrand. Clint Eastwood made a movie with the composer of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg — who knew?

There’s no mistaking a movie from the early 1970s.

Breezy (Kay Lenz) could be the girl celebrated in the Association’s 1967 hit “Windy” come to life. Just a year out of high school, she has hitchhiked across the country from Pennsylvania, finding in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon a milieu as sunny as her personality. She strolls around clutching an acoustic guitar, the archetypal hippie chick with her long straight hair, denim and bipperty-bopperty hat.

Part of the interest in watching Breezy today is seeing this bygone cultural type — the ingenuous hippie girl, so easy to caricature, but here presented without irony or satirical intent — brought to life. Kay Lenz may well have been cast for her disarming, mile-wide grin; just 18 or 19 herself when the movie was made, she conveys well Breezy’s mix of kookiness, generosity and idealism, endearing and exasperating in equal measure.

Watching Breezy today, I wondered how a 19-year-old actress would fare in the part today, given how the character’s dewiness and openness to experience are so antithetical to the knowingness of the 21st century. In fact, wide-eyed hippie free spirit Breezy feels a little late for 1973, as does some of the slang, so period-specific, that she and her contemporaries toss around: all the uses of “dig,” “man,” “bread” (i.e., money, kids), etc. The dialogue among Holden and his middle-aged peers doesn’t sound anywhere near as anachronistic. I can’t help wondering if Jo Heims’ script hadn’t been kicking around Hollywood for a few years before Eastwood decided to film it. The world was beginning to move on from hippie culture by 1973.

Even more than Breezy herself, the other young characters in Breezy seem like stock figures illustrating a summary notion of Youth circa the early ‘70s. While the portrayal isn’t overtly negative or satirical, the dudes — boys, really — with their long hair and uncallused hands come across as soft, and certainly callow, while Breezy’s heavy-lidded, glassy-eyed friend Marcy (Jamie Smith-Jackson) seems like a figure out of a 1970s’ antidrug PSA.

A child of the Depression and a jazz lover, Eastwood doesn’t have much feel for this hippie milieu, or even much spirit of inquiry, and why would he? These kids are the end result of an affluent, comfortable consumer society, and as both a director and a screen icon Eastwood has never been associated with middle-class suburbia, let alone a permissive, psychedelic culture.

In his initial, unwilling run-ins with Breezy, who keeps forcing herself into his life, grumpy divorcé Frank indulges in some Nixonite harrumphing about Breezy’s lifestyle. What do you bet she’s going to teach him to loosen up, get him to laugh a little? Frank is hardly the first dour middle-aged guy to be awakened by a young woman. The movie works hard to convince us that it’s his long-dormant feelings that are finally stirring, and not just his libido.

But even with the “You’re only as old as you feel” lesson that Holden’s character learns, an interesting subtext to watching Breezy today is how in the L.A. of 1973, being in your 40s consigns you to an “old,” grown-up milieu, which couldn’t seem more removed from today, when arrested development barely registers as a concept anymore.

On the subject of age, the movie didn’t quite sell me on its biggest conceit, namely why Breezy quickly responds to Frank as a potential lover than as a father figure. Frank is dignified and distinguished looking, but Holden is 54 here, and looks every day of it. A trace of the old movie star shines through whenever he smiles, but if someone had told me he was 64, I would’ve believed it. It’s to Holden and Eastwood’s credit that the film doesn’t resort to lighting or camera tricks to make Frank look more youthful.

Visually the film is much less distinctive than either Play Misty for Me or High Plains Drifter, both shot by the gifted Bruce Surtees. But by using extensive natural light and carefully selecting their locations, cinematographer Frank Stanley and Eastwood create an improbably romantic, inviting Los Angeles. It’s an L.A. where much of the actual city has been neatly excised: The movie takes place exclusively in the lush green canyons, in swanky bars with commanding views high above the city, and along windswept trails overlooking the coast. No smog, gridlock or prefab eyesores here. What’s funny is how much Eastwood has made L.A. resemble his beloved Northern California coast.

This poster just screams “date movie,” doesn’t it?

Clint himself makes a Hitchcock-like cameo leaning against a railing when Frank and Breezy stroll along a boardwalk; his lanky frame and pompadour are instantly recognizable even in a wide shot. Adding to the relaxed, convivial mood, Frank and Breezy go see High Plains Drifter on one of their first evenings out — not the most romantic date movie that comes to mind, but then, moviegoers in the early ‘70s famously had different tastes.

9 thoughts on “‘Breezy’ (1973): Clint Eastwood’s little-known romance

  1. I remembered this movie from the mid-70s when it was in theaters and I remembered the May-December angle. I had not seen it since. What I did not remember was the life lessons the two main characters taught each other. Now I’m about 20 years older than Frank’s character was in the movie, but the story still resonates with me. Probably even more today than it did 40 years ago. I had not seen the film in 40 years, but always remembered the title and some of the plot. I finally looked it up on the Internet and watched it twice in two days. I think it’s a really good film. They don’t make movies on location this way anymore. That’s a shame, too. The locations were perfect. And the young Kay Lenz – what can you say about her. Fresh, charming, real — the kind of girl who could win the stone heart of anyone.

  2. Just saw this movie for the first time. Once relating more to the young adventurer of the movie (1970) now more to the retirement age generation, I was quite caught up in the emotional dilemma (trust or faith vs knowledge). I was suprised at her self-assurance, as if she were his life coach, and his ‘secret’ that “nobody really matures.” Quite a few tears at the not-dining at home scene and when the dog wept at the door as she left. Nice cathartic movie for boomers from the east coast who fled to the west in search of Shangri-La in those days.

  3. I was working at Countrywide Home Loans or Countrywide Financial at the time. Before I left to go work in this ludicrous collateral or file room, where I had to provide the work load for most of my lazy coworkers, this movie caught my eye for some reason. It amazed me and I was just watching the last few minutes of it. I was transported to this exciting new world full of emotion. I waited another year for it to finally come out on dvd, luckily I still remembered the film. I saw it and it really is a film full of emotion. At least it took me back to that time period and how it was in Los Angeles back then, where I lived nearby, although I’m in the valley.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. BREEZY may not have been a big hit when it came out, but apparently a lot of people still remember it — for 2 years running now, my post about it has been one of the most-viewed pages on this website.

      • I make it a point to watch “Breezy” at least once a year, and sometimes more often than that. It’s the way each learns the life lessons that intrigues me, as well as the free spirit that makes life a joy.

        • God, that was SO WELL said, Howard! I also watch “Breezy” at least a couple of times a year. Some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen by the finest actor who ever lived-William Holden, and the most beautiful woman in the world, Kay Lenz! God bless…………..

      • I’m one of those who found this film captivating. I remembered it from the 70’s, and try to view it at least once a year to remember that life is
        dear and not to waste it.

Feel free to weigh in