5 for the Day: Jeff Bridges

In a world of stick figures, Jeff Bridges is a Michelangelo.

5 for the Day: Jeff Bridges

When speaking of Jeff Bridges, I find even hyperbole to be too understated. I consider him to be the greatest American actor working today, if not one of the greatest actors ever. There’s not much this guy doesn’t know about film acting. He’s a movie star, and that’s clear. He exudes “star.” But his work is often darker than what is normally allowed your typical celebrity, and the specificity and emotionality he brings to every part is unparalleled. The guy is a phenom. You show me a better performance than his as Ted Cole in Door in the Floor! I dare you! He wasn’t even nominated, which seems insane to me. You show me a better performance than his grandiose comic tour de force in The Big Lebowski! I dare you! The list goes on and on. But then again, Cary Grant wasn’t nominated for His Girl Friday, Notorious, Only Angels Have Wings, etc. and so forth. Oscars are obviously not the measure of an actor’s worth. The awards are often more indicative of what Hollywood congratulates itself for. We all know that. Jeff Bridges, although born into a Hollywood family, has the wild-card feel of an outsider. His work is often not ingratiating to audiences. He is not interested in being liked, but you can’t help but like him, even though his characters often have a cruel streak, a bull-headed stubbornness that makes it difficult to sympathize with them. That’s part of what I would call “star power.” He has often been in projects not worthy of his stupendous gifts (like I said: hyperbole is too understated for this guy), yet he always comes out smelling like a rose. His integrity is impeccable.

Jeff Bridges has long been my favorite actor, ever since I first saw him stand up shakily, buck naked, in Karen Allen’s house in Starman. That was my first encounter with Jeff Bridges, and I found him riveting to such a degree that my passion for his work has never waned, and that was over 20 years ago. I remember seeing him stand up, a grown-up hunk of a man, with the twitchy awareness of an infant playing with its toes and discovering that its arms move, and whatever was going on in his eyes was not human. And I remember thinking: Who. The HELL. Is that actor? I retroactively went back and saw all of the films leading up to Starman, including the deeply bizarre Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and as I watched him in all of these different roles, I realized: Okay. Jeff Bridges is untouchable. Has he ever repeated himself? It seems that his curiosity about his fellow man and his openness to stepping into another person’s shoes keeps him from repetition. He also, unlike many big movie stars, does not have a set persona. There isn’t such a thing as a “Jeff Bridges role.” He is too versatile for that. Perhaps his ego is uninvolved. Perhaps he has nothing to prove. What constitutes genius in an actor?

There are many possible answers, and we all have our own criteria. For me, it is a willingness to put aside self, and make me believe, without a doubt, that he is that other person. My goal when I go to the movies is to get lost. Jeff Bridges seems singularly uninterested in reminding us of who he is. There is a catalog of indelible characters he has not just created, but inhabited… and they live on in my memory, as separate from who he is as an actor. Some actors are what I would call precious when they create characters. They make a fetish of things like gestures, walks, accents… It’s a “show.” The actor hovers over his character protectively, wanting to be congratulated or noticed for all the work he has done. Jeff Bridges is beyond that.

I went to a seminar once with Shirley MacLaine, and she, in talking about working with Meryl Streep, said, “She completely abdicates her own personality for that of the character’s. I still have no idea who Meryl Streep is.” This is the realm that Jeff Bridges is in. Humphrey Bogart said, “Good acting is six feet back in the eyes.” I look at Jeff Bridges’ eyes, and whatever he is doing, whatever he is creating, goes six feet back. He is not in there. He has completely abdicated his own personality for that of the character’s. That cannot be taught. It’s a gift. But I think it’s also a gift that must be nurtured and encouraged. Jeff Bridges must, on some level, give himself permission to go that deep. He knows what the job is, he knows what it constitutes, and his talent is such that he cannot go anything less than six feet back. It would be wrong for him. He knows it. We all, as human beings, are six feet back in the eyes. But it’s very difficult for an actor to so get rid of himself and his own impulses. How do you do that? Shamans do that. Jeff Bridges is a great shaman.

What is the similarity between Turner Kendall in The Morning After and The Dude in The Big Lebowski? They were played by the same person? Are you kidding me? How about Starman and Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys? Same guy? What? I don’t even think the word “range” applies here. We’re in another realm entirely.

David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, says of Bridges:

“Jeff Bridges is as close as the modern era has come to Robert Mitchum. Which is to say that Bridges works steadily, without any show of self-importance or dedication, his natural sourness or skepticism picking up weariness with the years.”

“Natural sourness” is a wonderful way to describe what I see as an essential part of Jeff Bridges’ essence. He has movie-star leading-man good looks, but there is something there that is set apart, a true independent spirit… which is romanticized by some, to a degree, but if you’ve ever met a true independent spirit, you know that it can be hell to live with. It’s isolated. It protects its boundaries. Bridges embodies that dichotomy with such naturalness that I could almost believe we are getting a glimpse at who he really is. But then again, with such a chameleon, who can be sure? He’s a genius. My favorite actor who just gets better with age. May we continue to be blown away by his work for years to come.

It almost pained me to pick “5 for the Day” with such a long career of personal favorites. How could I not include Morning After (one of his subtlest characterizations, I think)? And what about Nadine, his first pairing with Kim Basinger? Nadine is a movie I adore, not just love, and to watch him throw himself into the “comedy of marriage”, along the lines of The Awful Truth is something delicious to behold: He’s funny, he’s irritated, he’s baffled, he’s macho, he’s sexy, he’s not all that bright, he’s likable… I love that performance. The comparison to Cary Grant is deliberate. I also think his performance in the abysmal Mirror Has Two Faces should be studied by young actors as a master class in “how to save yourself when you are in a project that threatens to sink you entirely into a tar pit of despair and oblivion.” Watch how he survives that psychodramatic mess. It’s amazing! And then I consider his performance in American Heart to be one of the greatest pieces of acting ever done by an American actor. Nobody can touch him, in terms of meticulous character building, searing emotional truth, and star power. And Starman is a personal favorite. So as you can see, I’m in a dilemma. I chose 5 for the Day merely to represent a tiny sliver of this man’s great career, movies that I felt I had something to say about.

1. Fearless (1993)

There’s a moment in Fearless that, to me, captures what it is that is so endlessly watchable about Jeff Bridges. He has escaped the plane crash, unscathed except for one small scratch on his chest. He does not inform his wife he is alive. He makes no phone calls. He rents a car and drives across the country. Peter Weir empties out the script of extraneous information. Scenes seem to end in the middle, leaving essential things—like meaning or explanation—on the periphery. We want to know more. We want to get inside his head. What is he doing? Weir does not oblige us by answering. And Bridges is more than willing to be judged by us for his behavior. He is beyond such concerns as an actor. He lets his interior life be mysterious to us. And that, that, is the mark of a great movie star. Because they leave us wanting more. They leave something in them that is un-reachable. They do not, like lesser actors, upend their selves in an endless display of “Here I am—like me, like me!” Kim Morgan wrote recently in a piece about Barbara Stanwyck:

“You absolutely get why she would think better for herself, and then, in her wounded moments, why she couldn’t quite succeed. But, true to her mystery, you never really understand why. Though Ryan spits, “Don’t kid me, baby. I know a bottle by the label,” he and the viewer never can put their finger on what that label reads. Barbara was never that easy.”

And Jeff Bridges is never that easy. He drives his car across the desert like a bat out of hell. He fiddles with the radio. There’s something going on in his face, and I’ve seen the movie dozens of times and I still “can’t put my finger on what the label reads.” He pulls over and sits on the ground beside his car, staring out at the desert panorama. He’s wearing sunglasses. His face is calm and still. He’s impossibly good-looking, but there is something forbidding about him. He stares and stares, out at the desert. And then, you can see him moving his mouth around a bit. He leans over and spits into the sand. Just a small bit of spit. The camera lingers on the spot where it hits… the small wet indentation in the dry sand. He too stares down at the wet spot, and then he reaches out, and kind of scoops up, with one finger, the small wet spot. He rubs two of his fingers together, mushing the spit and sand around. He stares at it. He stares at it.

And then there’s a quick cut—the next shot is the car shrieking off down the road, Jeff Bridges at the wheel.

I have thought about that moment a lot. I see a lot of different things in it, I come up with different “meanings” for it every time I see the film. The spit is proof that he is alive. He feels dead. And yet… the body goes on. He survived. He survived. However, none of this is stated, or even played. What Bridges is doing in that moment is staring at his spit. He has no emotional response, seemingly. But the moment has tremendous meaning, tremendous poetry. Jeff Bridges, in all his mystery and isolation, leaves vast swathes of ground open for us to interpret. He is uninterested in explaining himself. Ever. It’s one of my favorite moments in that movie, which is full of great moments. Every time I see it, it leaves me with questions and fragments and glimpses of what is really going on inside this man. But Bridges leaves most of it up to me. And that is the meaning of generosity. Talk about “fearless.” In acting, as in life, human beings want to be understood, liked, appreciated, and validated. Much of good acting has to do with letting go of those very human concerns, and just doing what the character does. To say Jeff Bridges is “good” at this is an insult to his talent. He’s beyond good.

2. The Door in The Floor (2004)

I personally feel that Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Ted Cole was the best piece of acting that year, and in recent memory. It raises the bar, that kind of acting, and interestingly enough, I think it is THAT that isolates Jeff Bridges from much of the kudos that lesser actors receive. It shows other people up, it makes other people’s work look shallow and unfinished. To paraphrase a quote from a friend of mine: “In a world of stick figures, he is a Michelangelo.” When you look at the other Best Actor nominees that year—Jude Law in Cold Mountain being the most obvious example—you wonder what is rotten in the state of Denmark. There is such a thing as being “anointed” by the insiders in Hollywood, and Bridges never has been. His Ted Cole is a masterpiece, and there are moments in the film that rank among his best work. John Irving has said that Ted Cole is obviously an asshole, and he remains an asshole, through the rest of the book Widow For One Year. He is unrepentant, a womanizer, a faker, manipulative… and yet… and yet… the most important thing to get about Ted Cole is his charm. In Widow For One Year, Irving writes:

“Ted had charmed her—Ted charmed almost everyone up to a certain age.”

He’s not a villain. Watch how he strolls up and down that haunted hallway of photographs, buck naked, holding his young daughter in his arms, talking to her about the photographs of his dead sons. He loves his daughter, and he is concerned for her welfare. He’s not a good husband, but we are all complex beings, and we are not all A+ students in every area. Ted Cole is a mixed bag. He was crushed by the death of his sons. But he has recovered through the cunning use of alcoholism and womanizing. He uses his body as a weapon, and not just on the self-built squash court: watch how he blatantly strips down and takes a shower outside the first time he meets his 16-year-old writer’s assistant. He uses his nudity to intimidate, to daunt others. “See how free I am? See how much I don’t care? I’m naked!” But there’s something else going on in that moment, too: “I may be a middle-aged man, and you may be on the cusp of being an adult, but I’m more of a MAN than you are and than you ever will be. Pipsqueak virgin.” It’s hostile. But he doesn’t play it hostile—he plays it (and his whole character) with a vague cloud of plausible deniability surrounding it: Ted Cole could never be convicted in a court of law for what he is actually doing in that outdoor shower scene, although young Eddie O’Hara certainly gets the message.

But what a difficult tightrope walk Bridges does in that film. It takes the breath away. He could have gone the easy route, which would be to make Ted Cole a villain. Easily judged. A lesser actor would have gone that way (not to mention a lesser director, with a more obvious and cautious screenplay); it also would have protected the actor from being judged harshly by the audience. Meaning: if the actor played Ted Cole as a villain, it could be the actor’s way of saying, “This isn’t me! I’m not like this! But man, look at what an ASSHOLE this guy is!” Bridges never protects himself like that. He does not separate himself from the characters he plays. There are parts of Ted Cole that are irredeemable. And there are parts that are deeply lovely. They cannot be separated. It’s a difficult performance, difficult to take. He does not let us off the hook. In the last scene between him and his wife, when she is leaving, and he kneels by the driver side, and slowly kisses her hand, leaning on the car door, we see something emerge on his face that we have never seen before. His eyes are so sad. There is such tenderness in his behavior here. All that is between them is their grief, their shared grief that no one else can experience. I’ve never seen such a quiet, sad face as his in that exquisite moment. And so he lets Ted Cole be complex. He has taken the cue from John Irving’s words, obviously, which you get when you read the book. But what I am left with in this masterful performance, which includes comedy, tragedy, farce, subtlety, and also a kind of Wild Kingdom alpha male gorilla-pounding-his-chest, is Jeff Bridges’ uncanny gift. How does he keep all of those balls in the air? How does Bridges walk that line? How on earth is it that you ache for Ted Cole just as much as you ache for his wife Marion? I don’t know the answer to that. I just know it is so.

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

I’m almost intimidated to write about The Big Lebowski because so many before me have done so. All I will say is this, and it may seem trivial, but to me it is key: I read somewhere that Jeff Bridges knew, in his heart, that “The Dude” always wore “jellies.” There’s so much to say about his performance in the film, how adept he is at comedy, how he is never less than completely real, how convincing his drunkenness is, how he is always alive, even when the camera is not on him. Watch him in the background, at all times. Every time John Goodman says the word “Vietnam,” you can see some twitch of reaction on Jeff Bridges’ face, and I laugh out loud just thinking about it. He’s not a “close-up” actor, although very few actors can do a close-up with anything even approaching the power of Jeff Bridges. But what a joy it is to watch him in a group scene, with the camera including 3 or 4 people in the frame. I love the humor of this performance, and it somehow is campy without ever sacrificing reality. Again, it’s a difficult line to walk. But I want to go back to the jellies. It came to Jeff Bridges in a flash: “I must wear jellies when I play The Dude.” I cannot imagine why, I do not know why he made this choice, or where it comes from… who can say where genius lies? All I know is that every time I see that movie, and I watch him galumphing across a parking lot, jellies flapping on the pavement, I know that it is deeply right. It seems so right that it feels as though it must have been a conscious choice from a wardrobe department, or somehow imposed from above. But no. Jeff Bridges thought: “Jellies. I must wear jellies.” And this is why he is my favorite actor.

4. The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King gave me hope in one of the darkest periods of my life. I was lost, floundering, and there was something in it that spoke to me, that told me to hang on. Therefore, I cannot be objective about it as a movie. Jeff Bridges is in rare form here. It’s a toe-curlingly sexy performance (excuse me as I allow a small fan-girl appreciation of that level of his appeal—which cannot be discounted. Yum.), but it also has worlds of regret and sadness and loneliness. It’s not a realistic movie, obviously, it’s an urban fairy-tale, and Bridges inhabits that world as well as he inhabits the kitchen-sink indie-movie reality of American Heart. There is nowhere that he does not feel at home. Watch him in the beginning, as Jack, the pampered Howard Stern-like radio host, lying in his bathtub, rehearsing for an audition the next day for a sitcom. Jack is the ultimate arrogant cool guy, but Bridges manages to suggest the almost desperate feeling of ambition and longing in him. He can’t allow himself to really say, “God, I SO want to nail this role…” because that would be too vulnerable, too human. Instead, he lounges in his limo, making ridiculous demands beforehand, throwing his star-power around, in order to shield himself from rejection. He lies in the tub, rehearsing the trademark line, “Forgiiiiiive ME,” over and over and over. He tries it emphasizing different words. He tries to throw it away. He elongates one syllable, then he tries elongating another. As he does this, he smears a white thick mud-mask over his face. “Forgiiiiiiive ME! ForGIVE me. Forgive me. Hey. Forgiiiiiii-ive meeeeeeeee!” By the end, he looks like his own totem pole, gleaming white face, with patches left out around his eyes, his repetition of the stupid line sounding more and more absurd. But Jack is in the dream-space, he is in love with his own ego, he has no self-awareness, he is not outside himself in the slightest.

It is one of Jeff Bridges’ most surreal moments. Almost frightening. The transformation he goes through in that film is one of my favorites in his catalog of great work. Like I said, I can’t be objective about The Fisher King, and I am aware of its faults, but they don’t matter (to me). The relationship he creates with Mercedes Ruehl is truly adult. There are so few really adult romances in film, so swayed are audiences towards the fairy-tale, the soulmate, the happily-ever-after. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I can go for a little happily-ever-after myself, but to watch Jeff Bridges and Mercedes Ruehl argue and talk and make love and fight and jostle for position and have moments of tenderness is to see two adults, trying to connect, trying to break through. Jack has been brought so low by what he has done that he cannot accept her tenderness. He obviously is not looking for another woman, he is way beyond the pale. But to commit? To say “Yes” to this fabulous leopard-skin clad, jangly-earringed goddess who is also a cook. Who says to him at one point, “I’m not a modern woman.” And she’s not. She’s old-fashioned. She’s not “dating” Jack. She couldn’t “date” him if she tried. She’s a long-haul type of girl. And Jack’s responses to that, to her love for him, which is truly an adult kind of love, is so moving, so painful. Bridges can barely be with it. She touches his cut face with tender fingers and he winces. Not only because it hurts the cuts, but because it hurts him elsewhere. His soul, his spirit. Who is he to demand tenderness from the world? Who is he to accept goodness in his life? He must deny himself those things, as penance for his sins. All of this could be rather hokey. It sounds hokey to me as I write it out. But Bridges doesn’t have a “hokey” bone in his body, and his creation of Jack makes a deep impression on me, in terms of its pain, its scope, its bravery. And lastly: He has a moment where he is wasted, sitting outside in a park, talking to a kid’s toy as though it is his only confidante. Bridges is such a good drunk. It makes me kind of sick to even watch him in that scene, and I’ve seen it a hundred times. It’s the kind of acting I love: committed, no holds barred, and absolutely believable.

5. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

In retrospect, it’s kind of a thin movie. There’s not much to it, although it features three wonderful performances, by Jeff and Beau Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer. The script is almost a sketch, and it is only through the actors that all of the necessary elements are filled in. Now here’s the thing, here’s what I keep trying to get at in writing about Jeff Bridges, and why I think he is so rare: The man is hot. Okay? He is a smokin’ hot hunk, and because of that, audiences project things onto him. Desire, hope, expectation, whatever, it’s part of being that beautiful. Every movie star with that kind of beauty has to deal with those audience expectations. And many of them are sunk by it. They either begin to believe that being beautiful is who they are, and therefore they protect themselves from being seen in any light other than favorable. Or they desperately try to not be beautiful, believing that only by playing “against type” will they ever be accepted. In both cases, what interests the actor is acceptance. Now. Jeff Bridges. You’d be hard pressed to find a man more good-looking and sexy than Bridges was in Fabulous Baker Boys. He’s at his prime, he’s a leading man. Bridges, in that film in particular, does not seem to mind that he is the true sex symbol of the film. Pfeiffer is circling around him, trying to get something from him—acknowledgement, love, whatever it is.

Now obviously I am speaking as a straight woman who is understandably moved by lust for someone like Jeff Bridges, but he is the object of desire in the film, not her. There’s something strangely passive about him in Fabulous Baker Boys, and it is that that makes him “the object.” He doesn’t pursue the woman. She pursues him. So now, again, we are in the realm of Cary Grant. Let me talk about that for a minute. Pauline Kael, in her amazing tour de force essay about Cary Grant called “The Man From Dream City”, repeatedly suggests that it is Cary Grant’s passivity that makes him one of the most compelling movie stars. Cary Grant knew it himself. He always stood still in romantic scenes and let the woman come to him. He never pounced. It gave him more power in the situation. Despite the fact that he was never a throw-down type of guy, he is dominant. He is the one in control, by the very fact of his passivity. What an odd and complex combination, especially in a man of such spectacular good looks. Jeff Bridges has that in Fabulous Baker Boys. He is an isolated sad guy, still waters running very deep, with a personality comprised of bitterness and cynicism. Like I’ve mentioned before, there is something somewhat forbidding about him, and the fact that he’s so good-looking only adds to the disorientation. Michelle Pfeiffer goes crazy, trying to just be around this guy. He gives nothing. His good looks are part of his facade. He is obviously aware of the effect he has on women, but it seems to not interest him, and even adds to his cynicism. In my memory of the film, he has about 20 full lines. But again, he dominates. He dominates by withholding. Fascinating. Richard Schickel, in his book Cary Grant: A Celebration, says of Cary Grant’s marvelous performance as Geoff Carter in Only Angels Have Wings:

“Grant’s character here is not playing hard to get; he is hard to get.”

Schickel’s statement is essential to understanding Cary Grant, and it is essential to understanding Jeff Bridges. Playing hard to get is easy. But to actually be hard to get is rare, and you can feel the difference. Jean Arthur’s entire personality unravels throughout the film of Only Angels Have Wings, because she is, for the first time, confronted by a man who is truly hard to get. At first she thinks he’s playing, he’s doing the “don’t fence me in” act that is part and parcel of most courtships. But she soon realizes the error of her understanding. This is no act. And Michelle Pfeiffer goes through a similar journey in Fabulous Baker Boys, which doesn’t have nearly the script that Only Angels Have Wings has, but still, there are many similarities. At first she thinks that the character Jack Baker is your typical aloof guy, playing games with her to keep her on her toes. But Jeff Bridges is working on another level here, and Jack Baker emerges as a truly pained romantic hero, a guy whose independence is so deeply ingrained that she must, she must, play by his rules if she wants to play with him at all. It’s not an ingratiating part, Jack Baker, or at least not the way Jeff Bridges plays it. We are struck by his beauty in that film, his smoldering sexiness, his stoic tough-guy appeal. But he doesn’t let us in. It’s not in his nature. His beauty is a fortress, and whatever is going on behind it, is deeply private. He has set up his life that way. He’s not playing hard to get. He is hard to get.

In a world of stick figures, Jeff Bridges is a Michelangelo.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O’Malley blogs about film, literature, photography, and life at The Sheila Variations. Her writing has appeared in Roger Ebert, Film Comment, The New York Times, and other outlets.

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