Jeffrey Leon Bridges has been in the acting business since the age of 5. Coming from an acting family, he first appeared before the camera is in an episode of his father Lloyd Bridges’ TV show Sea Hunt. Since that time he has appeared in perhaps 150 films and TV shows. Along the way he has turned in a long list of memorable and award-winning performances.
He is now considered one of the greatest actors of his generation and a national treasure. It was not always that way. His acting ability for much of his career has sometimes gone unnoticed or at best given a grudging nod of recognition. He is a natural, charming, expressive actor that makes it all look easy, maybe too easy.
Not every film he has appeared in has been a masterpiece, but all of the films he has appeared in have benefited from his presence. Even when he appears in career killing films like Heaven’s Gate or utter duds like King Kong, the audience is more than ready to forgive him. Here is a list of some of Jeff Bridges’ most memorable films.
14. Bad Company
In Bad Company, Jeff Bridges is part of an ensemble of hot young male actors. His acting gives no doubt as to his superior emerging talents in contrast to his now forgotten fellow cast members. The film, written by Benton and Newman of Bonnie and Clyde fame and directed by Benton, is a revisionist western that debunks American myth of the promise of the western frontier.
A group of young Civil War draft dodgers end up abandoned to fend for themselves in the West of 1863. Bridges’ characters Jake Rumsey plays the leader of a makeshift gang of once naive boys trying to survive in a hostile world. Although just a boy himself, Bridges makes us believe that he has shed his own soft youth to become a tough, ruthless leader. The film is worth seeing for Bridges’ performance, intelligent writing, good directing and Gordon Willis’ photography.
13. The Last American Hero
In The Last American Hero, Jeff Bridges makes the transition from supporting actor to leading man.
The film recounts the true story of NASCAR racer Junior Johnson. Bridges plays the NASCAR legend from his early days as moonshine runner and dirt track racer in rural North Carolina to a championship driver.
Directed by Lamont Johnson, the film has a great supporting cast, authentic locations and a good script, but it is Bridges who carries the film. Bridges portrays Johnson as the hero of the title. He is totally exuberant and captivating in his performance with heroic displays confidence, courage, and skill. NASCAR is a purely esoteric American spectacle and this film with Jeff Bridges does a nice job of depicting the larger than life personalities instrumental in its gritty early days.
12. Heaven’s Gate
Jeff Bridges was cast in one of the smaller rolls in Michael Cimino’s sprawling, doomed and now reappraised epic Heaven’s Gate. Bridges manages to turn in a nice performance as a Saloon owner and friend of lead character James Averill, played by Kris Kristofferson. It is a small cameo, but Bridges does a lot by way of filling his allotted space in this huge canvas of the ill-fated film.
When asked about the film, Bridges places much of the blame for the film’s epic failure at the feet of New York Times critic Vincent Canby. Bridges relates in an interview: “A movie like Heaven’s Gate was doomed, because of the initial hysterical review that ruined other people’s experiences of seeing the movie. Everyone saw it through the filter of the critic’s eyes. He was supposed to know what a good movie was and he missed it.”
The film’s reappraisal comes too late for the careers of many of the principal actors who appeared in the film. Heaven’s Gate proved to be a career killer for many connected with it, but Jeff Bridges and Christopher Walken luckily escaped unscathed.
This film shows how Jeff Bridges can elevate even the most silly and mundane material into an interesting cinematic experience. Starman is a project from Sci-fi director John Carpenter, who has plenty of uneven action turkeys under his belt.
Bridges plays an alien lured to earth by a message of peace inserted into the Voyager II space probe. When the alien arrives, he is immediately shot down and crashes in rural Wisconsin. Bridges plays the alien as he takes the human form of a young widow’s dead husband. The still grieving widow is played by ‘80s heartbreaker Karen Allen. The film then takes us to what all good science fiction does: examine our world and experiences in relation to something bigger out there.
Bridges turns what could have been a dumb comic book premise into a touching and highly romantic love story while still being true its Sci-fi roots. The film is entertaining and sometimes profound. As the alien, Bridges is not afraid of tackling this difficult acting concept. In an early scene Bridges makes the transition from pure alien energy to human form. Bridges as the alien slowly grows accustomed to his new body.
Bridges’ craft expresses itself, depicting the alien’s fascination with the new body’s appendages and movements, almost as an infant would. It is perceptive acting. His maturity as an actor was beginning to emerge with this film and for his effort he was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe as a lead actor.
10. Cutter’s Way
Cutter’s Way could be the poster child for mishandled films. Lost in a regime change during studio shakeups early in its development, when it finally finished, skittish executives decided at first not to release it after some initial negative reviews (New York Times again).
Luckily, a few good reviews came in and studio cowards finally released it, but the damage was done. It’s the ‘80s and now the cool ‘60s are over, and the adults are back in charge at the studio and America. Czech director Ivan Passer crafted an interesting film that explores that changeover in the guise of a nicely done noir thriller.
Cutter, played by John Heard, and Bone, played by Jeff Bridges, are two burned out ‘60s friends who realize that the Utopian promise of their youth is over. Things are back the way they were, maybe even a little worse. Bridges plays a pathetic country club gigolo and Hurt is a disabled (mentally and physically) Vietnam veteran.
Together they rally against conspiracies and injustices in their small California beach town. Hurt has the meatier roll in this film, but Jeff Bridges does a good job here as the morally bankrupt and cowardly Bone making his last stand.
9. The Contender
Made 14 years ago, The Contender was ahead of its time. The film depicts the inner working and human motivations that prevail in the highest levels of our political institutions. Overly explored today in the television medium, this film takes a look at hardball politics.
The story concerns a contentious vice-presidential nomination process. Jeff Bridges plays the president, who wants to nominate the first woman vice-president. Joan Allen plays the nominee and Gary Goldman plays the senator opposing her nomination.
The opposition engages in an underhanded campaigner to discredit the nomination, using innuendo and character assassination without regard to honesty, fairness or the truth.
Here, Jeff Bridges is the president we would all vote for. He’s honest, handsome and smart. It’s a good performance and in the wisdom of the Academy, he was nominated for a supporting Oscar. The logic being, perhaps, if Jeff Bridges was really the “Dude,” then this wonderful portrayal of a smart, brave president of the United States is really good acting. Whatever.
8. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
First-time director Michael Cimino cast Jeff Bridges to play opposite Clint Eastwood in this buddy movie that rises above the genera. It proved to be a good decision, with Bridges turning in a nuanced and heartfelt depiction of a young criminal. He takes Cimino’ well-written Lightfoot character from a brash callow youth to, in the end, a doomed and sympathetic young man. He steals the film with his performance and gives a perfect counterpoint to Eastwood’s usual one-dimensional persona.
This film work put to rest any doubt as to Jeff Bridges’ future ascent into the ranks of great American actors of his generation. Jeff Bridges’ peers honored him with a second Academy Award nomination for Supporting Male Actor.