7. Fat City
Jeff Bridges followed up his Academy Award nomination in The Last Picture Show with his next project, Fat City. Trading his pseudo-genius director Bogdanovich for the real thing, legendary American director John Huston, the film is a small character study of two third rate prizefighters and their relationship.
Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges start off in a mentor-student relationship, but it evolves as their careers go in different directions. Huston tells his story with a wise and loving look to the characters who populate the seedy bars and broke down gyms of this great little film. Bridges’ performance is even and believable, proving that the Academy Award nomination was no fluke.
6. The Last Picture Show
Filmmaking is a collaborative art and that fact is proven by the The Last Picture Show. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, and its director, Peter Bogdanovich, was hailed as the new young genius of the American Cinema. Clearly, from Bogdanovich’s later, uneven career, he got a lot of help on this film from his collaborators.
Larry McMurtry’s book and screenplay, Bruce Surtees’ superb Greg Toland referenced black and white photography and a a motherload of superb underrated American actors all made Bogdanovich look better than he actually was. Among the actors was Jeff Bridges in his third screen effort. Playing Dwayne, one of the young residents of a dusty Texas town, we see for the first time the Jeff Bridges audiences will come to know and love.
Putting exuberance and dimension into the role as a naive small town roughneck, Bridges plays Dwayne with skill beyond his years as he navigates the awkward land between boyhood and manhood. Bridges’ character finds that friendship, youth and first love provide a rocky path of sublime joy and heartbreak. He holds his own with heavyweight, experienced talents like Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn, and snags his first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
5. The Fisher King
The Fisher King takes place in a particularly grim 1990s Manhattan and depicts two of its wrecked lost souls on a journey to find redemption. Director Terry Gilliam tells the story loosely based on Celtic myth about the hunt for the Holy Grail. Jeff Bridges plays a discredited and broken shock-jock whose career was ruined by a thoughtless act. Robin Williams plays a man who has become unhinged mentally as a direct result of Bridges’ acts.
It is a meaty Academy Award-winning role for Williams, who is allowed to run wild as the deranged man with all the manic intensity you would expect. Bridges is the counterpoint to Williams’ attention-seeking performance. Restrained, crafted and totally dedicated to his sad character’s unspoken depression, Bridges pays the shock-jock along the full range of his story ark, from arrogantly successful media star to suicidal, broken failure and then to spiritual pilgrim seeking redemption.
Bridges’ portrayal keeps the audience invested in his character and the film. The Fisher King is a nice example of why Jeff Bridges’ acting ability was sometimes marginalized during this segment of his career. He just does his job with ego and self-promotion, taking a back seat to his craft.
4. Crazy Heart
A first-time director, a modest budget and a well-used story about a broke down country western singer did not add up to “eagerly awaited” for the film Crazy Heart. It was headed for obscurity, sold off early as a direct-to-video release, except for one thing: a stunning, heartfelt performance by Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, the once famous but now washed up country singer reduced to playing in small bars in the Southwest.
Instead, Crazy Heart became one of the most revered films of 2009, garnering many awards and grossing almost 40 million dollars. Many of those awards went to Jeff Bridges, who finally was recognized as one the best actors of his generation by winning almost every major male acting award. Better late than never.
In his review, Roger Ebert described Bridges’ acting “as clear as running water.” We have seen this alcoholic and self-destructive character before, but Jeff Bridges shapes the man to the point where we think we know him, and feel bad for him. Perhaps we as an audience remember Bridges as a brash grinning youth full of life from his films in the 1970s and now see him in this role as old and derelict.
It adds a layer of poignancy to the experience of watching his accurate portrayal of alcoholism and lost chances. The film has a great soundtrack of country tunes as well as good supporting performances: Maggie Challenge as a journalist who tries to rehabilitate him, Robert Duvall as an old friend and Colin Ferrell.
3. True Grit
In a rare Hollywood occurrence, the Coen brothers’ remake of Charles Portia’s novel True Grit is far better than the book’s first incarnation under Director Henry Hathaway in 1969. You can take the comparison further by putting John Wayne’s Oscar-winning performance next to Jeff Bridges’ crafting of the cantankerous US marshal Rooster Cogburn.
Wayne plays the marshal as John Wayne, a character he cranked out many times over the years. Jeff Bridges is an actor; John Wayne was a movie star. Jeff Bridges gives us a performance of depth and clarity in his portrayal of the larger than life Rooster Cogburn.
Is Rooster just an old blowhard trading off a reputation he earned long ago or does he still posses true grit? It is a question that lies at the core of the film. Mattie Ross, the little girl hell-bent for revenge, needs Rooster to be the man he was, not the diminished whisky snorting one-eyed fake he has possibly become.
In the end Mattie and the audience get the answer to that question. Rooster’s showdown with the bad men, guns blazing, horses at full gallop, courage in the face of evil and overwhelming odds, reminds us why we have always liked westerns.
Of all the films Jeff Bridges did in the ‘90s, none show off his acting skill better then Fearless. It is some of the best work he had done up to that point or since. Fearless is Director Peter Weir’s story of the survivor of a devastating plane crash and its life-changing effects in its aftermath.
Bridges plays Max Klein on a routine commercial airplane flight that crashes. Only a few survive the crash, and Max is among them. He emerges physically unhurt but mentally deeply altered. The trauma of his experience seems to have elevated him into a higher state of mental awareness in how he now sees the perpetual riddle of human existence. Max has no fear of death, and in fact he thinks of himself as immortal. His behavior becomes distressing to his family.
The once normal Max now has become reckless and emotionally distant from his loved ones. A psychiatrist, played by John Trout, puts him together with another troubled survivor played by Rosie Perez. Max’s empathy helps her through her survivor’s guilt and the two grow close, but not on a romantic level. It is not an easy story for an actor, as much of the drama of Bridges’ character isn’t easily conveyed.
Bridges’ acting is subtle but devastatingly effective in conveying to the audience what is happening in the character’s mind. Small and naturalistic acting cues add up to a successful job in a difficult acting situation. At times the film approaches poetry. Co-star Rosie Perez was nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award, but Jeff Bridges’ performance went largely unnoticed. In an interview, director Peter Tier admits that the studio did not even want Jeff Bridges for the role because of his perceived inability to “open” a film.
If this is Jeff Bridges’ best work to date, it is ironically also the high point of the astonishing indifference of both the industry and the main-stream media to his talent.
1. The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski’s “Dude” will endure as the role Jeff Bridges will be remembered for in years to come. Amazingly, the Coen brothers more or less had both Steve Busch and John Goodman in mind when they began writing their roles for their new film The Big Lebowski.
The role of the Dude, the quintessential California slacker, the laid-back Zen master of marijuana, bowling and “Caucasians” (“White Russians”), proved to be a more difficult casting issue. Eventually they sent the script to Jeff Bridges. The indecision seems laughable now in retrospect because Jeff Bridges is the Dude, and the Dude is Jeff Bridges.
Perhaps no actor in recent memory has been so closely identified with a fictional character they have portrayed. It would be easy to say that Jeff Bridges isn’t acting in this film that he is just being himself. Perhaps it’s just a case of an experienced actor with a subtle and naturalistic acting style.
The key to Bridges’ Dude performance is that it is probably both. It is true that the Dude’s wardrobe for the film came right out of Jeff Bridges’ own closet. It would be a disservice, though, to not give credit to Jeff Bridges’ acting skills, which brought so much to this role.
Director Coen recounts an anecdote that sheds light on these skills. Bridges would rub his eyes until they appeared red and bleary for the scene because the Dude would probably want to fire up a joint at this point in the story. The little things good actors do.
Author Bio: Larry Salvato is a filmmaker and film journalist. He co-authored Masters Of Light: Interviews With Cinematographers which has been re-issued. by UC Press. He lives in Santa Fe New Mexico.