No Concessions: Why I “Heart” Jeff Bridges
If the Oscars are truly serious about slimming down the Academy should just mail Christoph Waltz and Mo’Nique their supporting performer awards. Or hand them over at next Tuesday’s nominations ceremony and not even bother announcing the other nominees. They’ve won every other award in lockstep and all that’s left is to star in a mash-up, Inglourious Precious, where Mo’Nique’s Mary Lee Johnston takes boards Waltz’s aging, scalp-less Hans Landa and hijinx ensue. (“Mary, it’s a BINGO!” “Hans, GET ME MY CIGARETTES!”)
This year’s winner for Best Actor has to be Jeff Bridges. For Crazy Heart he has a SAG award, his after two prior nominations, to go along with his Golden Globe, which he won after three times at bat. His winning an Oscar on his fifth try, at the world-wise age of 60, would be perfect. Who doesn’t want to see this happen? All I can say is if I ever buy a car again it’ll surely be a Hyundai, so persuasive his voice is when selling them on TV. If Jeff Bridges believes in a Hyundai, I believe in a Hyundai. And that’s because I believe in Jeff Bridges.
Who doesn’t? His “brand” has integrity. He grew up in Hollywood, avoided its worst excesses (his 33-year marriage makes for an appealing backstory) and has become a quintessential (maybe the quintessential) American character lead. His leads rarely lead; they’re fallible, confused, angry. Their victories, hard-won, tend to be small ones. He’s not a shouter or a chest-thumper and he never condescends. You know this guy, and perhaps wish to be him when everything’s going to hell. If you’re uncomfortable with Jesus, ask instead, what would Jeff do?
Which makes him easy to overlook when acting becomes a contest. Or, alas, when it’s his name atop the marquee. Sad but true: Jeff Bridges, an extraordinary channeler of ordinary Americans, is pretty much a flop indicator as a headliner. (Taking a page from his playbook—Bridges is not entirely immune to showbiz and career maintenance—junior FI Sam Rockwell is looking for the boxoffice bounce he got from Iron Man by co-starring in its sequel.) I have a feeling Crazy Heart will join a boatload of seaworthy credits as a film destined to be more remarked upon than seen in theaters, the kind of semi-independent feature that has more producers than viewers. But Bad Blake, a falling-down drunk of a faded country singer/songwriter who learns the value of getting up again, is in good company. Let’s review.
Bridges got off to a charmed start, receiving his first Oscar nomination for his first significant feature, 1971’s The Last Picture Show. He was 22, and was cast by director Peter Bogdanovich to make a potentially abrasive character more approachable. This he does with ease, and also fits in comfortably with an unbeatable ensemble in an instant classic. He lost, fair and square, to co-star Ben Johnson, in a legendary summing-up part. Clearly the kid was going places, however, and the comical sequel, 1990’s Texasville, showed how he matured; the cocky Duane, now rich, is still stuck in place, and aware of the shadow of his former self.
The wind at his back Bridges could have gone for the easy dough. Instead, he apprenticed with masters: director John Huston on the on-the-ropes boxing picture Fat City (1972) and absorbing what he could while more than holding his own in the company of Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Fredric March in John Frankenheimer’s 1973 film of The Iceman Cometh. He is irresistible as a thinly disguised version of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson, all bravado and down-homeness, in The Last American Hero (1973), another film to drop into your Netflix queue.
Then the second nomination, for 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Was it the dress he wears in one scene? No, more than that—the male bonding flick is a cliché that he and star Clint Eastwood, an Oscar untouchable back then, make fresh and interesting. It’s got robberies and broads and George Kennedy and is still one of the gayest movies ever made, without ever asking or telling or letting the mask of machismo slip. Eastwood, in one of his departures from his established image, let first-time director Michael Cimino get away with a whole lot, and that includes letting Bridges’ unpredictability be its driving force. They should work together again. (Cimino and Bridges did reteam, for the time-has-been-kinder epic fail of Heaven’s Gate.)
Then came the shoehorning. But Bridges has never clicked as a major star, not in 1976’s King Kong, where he and newcomer Jessica Lange work mighty hard to animate their balky animatronic co-star, not making nice with Farrah Fawcett in 1978’s Somebody Killed Her Husband or Sally Field in 1982’s Kiss Me Goodbye, or rolling around Mayan ruins miming noir passion with Rachel Ward in the glossy remake Against All Odds (1984).
The key credits were at the margins: the low-key and funny Hollywood cowboy yarn Hearts of the West (1975), the bizarre assassination farce Winter Kills (1979), acting with Huston this time, and the very despairing death-of-the-American dream melodrama Cutter’s Way, a great, unsung “70’s movie” that happened to come out in 1981, by which time that “malaise” attitude was out of fashion.
1984’s Starman was a concession, made in the wake of that archetypal 80s movie, E.T. True to form it wasn’t hugely successful, but it’s honest work. Actors on their way up usually play parts like this: Bridges’ Stay Hungry (1976) co-star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, defined his career as The Terminator earlier that year. Not quite in mid-career yet for all that A-list pushing not really established Bridges brings an endearing quirkiness to it, and heart; he and Karen Allen really connect here, and director John Carpenter plays gently off that vibe. You, too, would want to have his alien love child.
Then, where Oscar was concerned, the Gobi, the Sahara. Sixteen years would pass before his next part deemed worthy. But we who love screen acting knew better than any voters. Nominations or not these are the great years. They got off to a false start, with a rare name-above-the-title hit, 1985’s Jagged Edge. Villainy doesn’t come naturally to Bridges, though; you can catch him acting to be a cardboard threat. He’s flat-out incomprehensible in 1993’s The Vanishing, though it should give him and Oscar possible Sandra Bullock something to talk about at the nominees’ lunch: “Remember when I had that wheezy accent and buried you alive?”
No matter. This was the golden era. Believably obsessive in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Self-hating, and an Eastwood-ian rudder for Robin Williams, in The Fisher King (1991). Selfish, streetwise in American Dream (1992). To the point of madness, a bravura performance as a real risktaker in 1993’s Fearless—one of the great overlooked parts of the last 20 years.
The Big Lebowski (1998). The Dude. “That rug really tied the room together.” Comic ingenuity, the part that brought him cult immortality and a franchise character, that he’s ported over to the cartoon Surf’s Up (2007) and last year’s The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Congress should screen The Contender (2000), the Academy’s welcome back after nearly two decades of slumber, every year. Bridges is the president of our hopes and dreams, wisely, forcefully negotiating a tight spot ethically. There’s still time for our own thoughtful, principled, yet somehow wanting leader to learn from him.
Just typing the name of The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), the best noir-inflected film ever made, makes me want to see it again. It’s my favorite Jeff Bridges performance, my favorite Beau Bridges performance, my favorite Michelle Pfeiffer performance. No murders, no capers, just ordinary, debilitating crimes of the heart, and struggling to overcome the damage, set to a silky lounge rhythm. Bridges to Pfeiffer: “I didn’t know whores were so philosophical.” Her retort, nailing why we respect Bridges for not taking the safe way out as an actor: “At least my brother’s not my pimp. You know, I had you pegged for a loser the first time I saw you, but I was wrong. You’re worse. You’re a coward.” Stunning.
The aughts were an unsettled decade for Bridges. He seemed more interesting in photographing film sets, a passion, than engaging with the work. There’s stuff on his resume that I haven’t seen, or wish I’d avoided, like the Kevin Spacey hamfest K-PAX (2001) or the theater-emptying Tideland (2006). He was on equal footing with Kong but Seabiscuit (2003) belonged to the horse.
Then, Crazy Heart, the movie that started me on this reverie. It’s not a great movie, or, rather, it’s a decent movie uplifted by his performance. Maybe he was saving up for it, conserving his energies for a part that mattered, one where he needed to fill in some of the emotional blanks. The rehabilitation of Bad Blake happens more offscreen than on, as in Tender Mercies (1983), which it’s been compared to. But Tender Mercies is a drier, more “church-y” kind of film, and Bridges gives a similar part a messier, more disorganized, and no less riveting spin. Talk about brass balls—he’s giving it in a movie that Duvall helped produce and co-stars in, as Bad’s sobered-up friend.
Bad is another of Bridges’ characters who are running away from something without any idea of what they might be finding. His singing career, in bowling alleys this side of Spinal Tap, is tapped out and his songwriting is moribund. Careening around in his battered ’78 Chevy Suburban (one of those cars that comes to look like its owner) he refuses anyone who throws him more than a one-night lifeline of booze or sex. That is, until a single mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) eking out a living freelancing profiles of has-beens (I can relate) in Albuquerque cracks open a window onto a brighter future, one that forces him to confront his accumulated demons. (And perhaps, given time, his accumulated weight. Beery and fat on what he calls a Haagen Dazs diet, Bridges was almost outside my comfort zone in his love scenes with his charmingly no-nonsense co-star, for whom any man would try to reform. Even I have limits on Bridges’ strictly enforced no-vanity clause.)
This makes the movie sound punchier than it is. Bridges has a couple of big scenes for the Oscar reel: An anguished phone call to a son long ignored, and a moment of clarity involving Gyllenhaal’s son. But first-time writer/director Scott Cooper takes his cue from Ryan Bingham and T. Bone Burnett’s Globe-winning song “The Weary Kind”—observational, non-judgmental, down if not out under the untroubled Southwestern skies, beautifully shot by DP Barry Markowitz. If I found this approach a little withholding, I’ll add that the ending could not be any more perfect. Win some, lose some, prime Jeff Bridges.
After all this I’ll feel awful if he somehow doesn’t get nominated this time. We’ve seen this movie before, though, again and again. Bridges, the exemplary American actor, will pick himself up and carry on. We’ll see him (or a digitized version of him) behind the wheel of his lightcycle in Tron Legacy, a valid idea for a thirty-years-after V.2 that brings the concept up to date. More fascinating is the notion of The Dude trying on The Duke’s boots in the remake of True Grit that the Coen Brothers are directing. The original won John Wayne his Oscar as Bridges was starting his career, in 1969. “Looking back is a bad habit,” growls fat, one-eyed sheriff Rooster Cogburn in the film. But hard not to do when considering the honorable career of Jeff Bridges.