Lately it seems like Jeff Bridges is everywhere, even in his own movies. In the not too distant past, he’s been a bald super-villain, a surfing penguin, an LSD-swilling lieutenant colonel, and an Academy Award nominee (his fifth), and soon he’ll be the focus of a daylong tribute celebration as part of this year’s 25th-anniversary S.B. Film Festival. Still, his strangest recent appearance has to be near the beginning of the film that’s gotten him all this award-season hype, Crazy Heart. There, as Bad Blake, he sits at a bowling alley bar looking straight into the camera. It focuses on him, but also takes in the lanes in the background, and for a funny half nanosecond, we feel disoriented, then realize why. We’re looking at The Dude. Certainly, director Scott Cooper intended the moment to work as sly reference to The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers’ culty THC take on Raymond Chandler. It’s an in-joke, but it also serves to alert us that it’s him, just wrapped in a different genre. This is Jeff Bridges on biopic. Maybe he’s still fun, but he’s in the world framed by Walk the Line and Tender Mercies. He’s lost, but heading to rehab, redemption, and Academy recognition. Yet even Cooper felt forced to admit that The Dude abides — even in movies where he’s not The Dude.
Of course Bridges was not always an advertisement for longhaired fecklessness (though even Wikipedia suggests he’s had a long, friendly relationship with non-prescription pot). He’s been a boxer (Fat City), a cowboy (Wild Bill), a lounge lizard (The Fabulous Baker Boys), King Kong’s love nemesis, a video game avatar (Tron), the President of the United States (The Contender), and a very convincing alien (Starman).
In some ways, Bridges didn’t have a choice. His mother was a writer and actress, his father the iconic Lloyd Bridges, who appeared in more than 80 Hollywood films (but is best known to my g-g-generation as Mike Nelson of Sea Hunt). Jeff and his incisively talented brother Beau started appearing in an omnibus TV show that Papa Bridges hosted in the early 1960s. Remarkably, he once told me, he didn’t necessarily want to be an actor. He was already a musician, a potter, photographer, and cartoonist. Omen-like, Jeff’s first big film was The Last Picture Show, which director Peter Bogdanovich wanted cast with talented unknowns. At the time, S.B. dwellers were far more obsessed with the careers of the Bottoms boys (Sam and Tim), but it was Bridges who scored the Oscar nod for playing the disaffected Duane. From there, Bridges took offered roles passively, until John Frankenheimer offered him a part in a film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Sensing some Rubicon had been crossed, Bridges started getting serious and even enrolled in acting classes. Nevertheless, Pauline Kael called him the most natural and unself-conscious performer she had ever seen. Today, he still plays music, makes records, and creates beautiful books of photography on the set of each of his movies to share with the cast and crew.
Once, in a UCSB class he generously attended, I showed the clip of him learning to speak and suggested it was genius work. He laughed, a bit derisively, and said, “I was acting, man.” Maybe it’s a SoCal thing.
Though he’s usually playing it cool, I still think he’s best when acting out. In Starman, he became a tabula rasa, skillfully creating an alien-in-dead-boyfriend character who was learning to master the American language and the vagaries of pop music. Once, in a UCSB class he generously attended, I showed the clip of him learning to speak and suggested it was genius work. He laughed, a bit derisively, and said, “I was acting, man.” Maybe it’s a SoCal thing.
By far his most “Santa Barbara” part was as the quietly devastating Bone in the 1981 film Cutter’s Way, where he played another disaffected ’70s kid. In it Bridges finds corruption behind the sleepy white walls of Santa Barbra’s Fiesta culture — and blunderingly takes on an evil plutocrat based clearly on J.J. Hollister. He’s prototype Dude, but the consequences are tragic. As usual, Bridges acts a wee bit coy about his own fictional disruption of what became of his hometown. Hollister himself told Indy reporter Nick Welsh he never saw the movie. Likewise, Bridges, who’s very visible in town, claimed not to know who Hollister was or why the story might ring true.
Still, I think Bridges is true to his place and time. My parents always used to say, “Act your age.” To them, it meant, “conform.” But certain actors do act their age; they stand in for an era: Bogart’s unsentimental strength is the 1940s, and Jack Nicholson’s shrill nerve makes the postwar transition into hippie years and Me Decade indulgences come into focus. Bridges is pure boomer contradiction: He’s rebellious and peace-seeking, self-centered, and accommodatingly grassroots. In that same UCSB class, I suggested to him that with all these weird roles, he was representing our scrambled Doctor Spock-coddled psyches — his voyage from alien to hippie to Clinton-esque president that finally, of course, culminated in The Dude, who claimed to have been a writer of the first draft of that baby-boomer Declaration of Independence, the Port Huron Statement. Again, Bridges looked at me like I was crazy.
I probably am. A couple of years later, I met Bridges at a junket for The Door in the Floor, an underrated film drawn from a John Irving novel. He had also just come from the set of Masked and Anonymous, a Bob Dylan project. After the interview, we fell into a gossip session. “What was it like to work with Dylan?” I asked. “You know, he’s the man,” he said, with typical vagueness and concision. I replied, “I thought you were the man.” “No, man,” he said. “I’m The Dude.”
Maybe he is, but he’s a lot of other people, too. It’s enough to know that Crazy Heart was originally slated for a direct-to-video release when somebody at Fox Searchlight saw the film, bought it from Paramount, and released it to theaters. I don’t know exactly what they saw, but I bet it was mostly Bridges, and I bet they liked the part where he looked back at himself across a bowling alley bar. As for what I know? I know The Dude is long overdue for an Academy Award.
The Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Jeff Bridges Day culminates this Sunday, February 14, at 4 p.m. with a screening of Crazy Heart at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For a complete listing of the day’s events, visit independent.com/sbiff.