If all goes as expected at the Academy Awards tomorrow night, this is the last "Jeff Bridges is an under-appreciated genius" article you'll ever have to read. After four previous nominations over 38 years, he'll finally have a best actor Oscar, for playing sozzled country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. He'll deserve it, too, because even though Crazy Heart has "star turn" stamped all over it, Bridges refused to ham it up. He plays Blake quietly, as he plays everything, always favouring subtlety over pyrotechnics.
Bridges, 60, is constitutionally incapable of showing off. That's been his great strength, and the source of his mystique - i.e. he's so good that no one can see how good he is. It's a mystique he's happy to use, judging by his speech when he was named best actor at the Golden Globes earlier this year (followed closely by another win at the Screen Actors Guild awards): "This is messing up my whole under-appreciated thing," he said. But I'd argue that Bridges is well appreciated. I think everybody gets how great he is. He just likes to do it on the margins, and on his own terms.
He has a movie-star pedigree (his father Lloyd was Hollywood royalty) and a leonine handsomeness, but instead of playing conventional heroes or villains, he's continually drawn to ambiguity, to guys who had it all and screwed it up. He came of age with Nicholson, Hoffman, Redford, Pacino and De Niro - fine actors, but shinier, showier and shoutier than Bridges. He worked with great directors, but often on their less-seen pictures: Francis Ford Coppola on Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), Peter Weir on Fearless (1993), Walter Hill on Wild Bill (1995). And his attempts at going mainstream were always off: King Kong (1976) was a disaster; TRON (1982) looked ridiculous next to Blade Runner, which came out the same year; and when Bridges made a Joe Eszterhas-written thriller, it was Jagged Edge (1985), not Basic Instinct.
Bridges was happiest when he was prepping a character - gaining or losing weight, growing facial hair, digging in, disappearing. When I interviewed him for GQ magazine in 1994, I watched him do a costume consultation for Wild Bill. Pacing around his living room in a buffalo-skin coat, scribbling notes, peppering the costumers with questions - "Do you think he would have had one set of buckskins or a couple? Did they always wear long underwear, even in the heat? I read that he carried his guns in a red sash - that's kind of weird, isn't it?" - he was downright giddy. When he went to his Montana ranch to work on the part, he wore his Wild Bill shirts, boots, hat - and that long underwear - non-stop.
"He gets lost in his work, but he's aware that he's lost," Peter Bogdonovich told me. (He directed Bridges to his first Oscar nomination, in 1971's The Last Picture Show, and in the sequel, 1990's Texasville.) "On Texasville I'd look at him and say, 'Jeff, are you in? I want to talk to you.' One time he answered, 'He hears you.'"
Bridges has a hippie-guru sensibility that I can only describe as Californian - bright, off-centre, rich. He peppers his conversation with illustrative noises, ah's and uww's and huffs and HAHA's. At a Toronto International Film Festival press conference last September for The Men Who Stare at Goats - about a secret U.S. military unit trained to use paranormal powers - Bridges sported a long, gray braid and drew the most attention; co-stars George Clooney and Ewan McGregor clearly deferred to him. "I think we're all paranormal, man, all further up than we think is going on," Bridges said. And when asked about working with dolphins, he replied, "I actually am a dolphin."
So that funky, lived-in quality Bridges brings to his characters isn't just acting, it's part and parcel of his being. And it's resulted in some of my favourite movie moments: the one in See You in the Morning (1989) where he sits in his study and talks to the dog, embodying every second husband who feels at sea in his new family: "This isn't my chair, and you're not my dog." His look of fury undercut with abject panic when he realizes he's playing piano on a rinkydink telethon in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). The moment in The Fisher King (1991) where he hooks Mercedes Ruehl's bra strap out of her blouse and drags it down her arm. (Ruehl won an Oscar for that role, one of many actors who've been nominated while playing opposite Bridges. He makes everyone look great.)
Like many devotees, I love everything he does in The Big Lebowski (1998), especially the indignation in his voice when someone causes him to slosh his ubiquitous White Russian: "Hey, I've got a BEVERAGE here." And if you really want to see how much texture and nuance Bridges brings to a character, read the first chapter of John Irving's A Widow for One Year, where the protagonist is a one-note ass, and then watch how Bridges humanizes him in the 2004 film of it, The Door in the Floor. It's possibly my favourite Bridges performance.
The four roles for which he was Oscar-nominated actually represent his showiest work. He was startlingly good right out of the gate in The Last Picture Show, and as an itchy bank robber in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). Playing an alien in a human body in Starman (1984), he was just the right degree off physically. And as a U.S. President in The Contender, he painted a full portrait of power and entitlement in the way he ate a sandwich.
Crazy Heart is in that continuum. Its writer/director, Scott Cooper, was a frustrated actor who befriended Robert Duvall while playing small parts in 2003's Gods and Generals and 2006's Broken Trail. When Cooper decided to channel his artistic ambitions into writing, he sent Crazy Heart to "Bobby," and asked him to get it to Bridges. "I wrote the role for Jeff," Cooper told me during a January interview in Toronto, "and I always thought if I didn't get him, I shouldn't make this film."
Once Bridges signed on, he and Cooper discussed Blake "ad infinitum," Cooper said - how overweight he should be (25 pounds, which Bridges gained), what kind of clothes he'd wear (two sizes two small, because he's in denial). Bridges brought in his magic tricks: He plays guitar and writes, so he made sure the songwriting scenes had the verisimilitude of someone really creating on the spot. He borrowed a necklace of elk's teeth from another musician. He dabbed Jack Daniels on his temples so he always smelled like booze, and eschewed shampoo. And - my favourite detail - every time he gets out of his car he buckles his pants, implying that on long drives he lets his gut spring free.
Still, as preordained as Bridges' Oscar for Crazy Heart seems to be - a perfect storm of the right story, the right approach, and the right time in his career - he's also lucky that this is an unusually quiet year for lead actors. The roles of fellow nominees George Clooney ( Up in the Air), Colin Firth ( A Single Man), Morgan Freeman ( Invictus) and Jeremy Renner ( The Hurt Locker) are all about containment and withholding. For a change, Bridges' is the most bravura performance on the list.
It'll be fun to watch him win, though: the sublime actor who's also a beloved hometown boy; the outsider whose next three projects are a sequel ( TRON Legacy), a remake ( True Grit) and a blockbuster ( Iron Man 2); the ultimate Dude who eccentrically, empathically, gloriously abides.