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Jeff Bridges: A likely Oscar contender

The cult hero could earn his fifth nomination for his solid performance in ”Crazy Heart”

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Jeff Bridges is early. When I pull up to the beachfront hotel restaurant where we’re supposed to meet for dinner, he’s standing outside, strumming a guitar while staring out at the Pacific Ocean. The sun has just begun to dip below the horizon. The 90-foot-tall Ferris wheel at the end of the Santa Monica Pier, off to our right, casts a neon glow over the California night, changing patterns every minute or so. Bridges seems hypnotized by it. As I approach, he snaps out of his trance. ”Oh, hey man! Sorry, I was kinda spacing out looking at the wheel.” He laughs and extends his hand. ”I thought I’d come down here, uh, get the guitar out and see what happens, you know?”

Inside the restaurant, Bridges — whose latest film, Crazy Heart, is earning him some of the best reviews of his career — heads straight toward a seat by the window facing the Ferris wheel. He’s a few days shy of 60, and he has a bushy gray beard and deeply etched wrinkles around his eyes, but there’s something about the view and the spinning lights that turns him into a saucer-eyed kid who’s witnessing a birthday-party magician for the first time.

He orders a glass of chardonnay. ”Sometimes I get a room at the hotel here and just sit on the balcony and look at that Ferris wheel for hours and smoke a cigar,” he says. ”It’s heavy, because the pattern never repeats itself. It’s totally cool.”

Cigar, huh?

”Well,” he says, leaning in to share a secret that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one, ”I like to smoke a joint from time to time, too.”

Bridges has an almost superhuman ability to find things ”cool” and ”heavy.” If you didn’t know that he was one of Hollywood’s most undersung, versatile, and consistently great actors, you might mistake him for a sharper, slightly more together version of the Dude — the brilliant and blissed-out cosmic flake he played in The Big Lebowski, the 1998 Coen brothers movie that became a cult hit and spawned an annual festival he’s been known to attend. He seems to have a knack for finding wonder in everyday things like Ferris wheels, and sharing that awe with whoever’s along for the ride.

Bridges began acting before his first birthday. When he was growing up in L.A., his father, Lloyd Bridges, was the star of the long-running hit TV show Sea Hunt. And whenever there was an episode that called for a child actor, his dad would bribe him or his older brother, Beau, to do the part. ”He’d say things like ‘You’ll get out of school! You’ll get money and be able to buy cool toys!”’ Bridges says. ”Unlike a lot of Hollywood actors, my dad really loved acting and wanted to turn his kids on to it. I mean, you never want to be a product of nepotism, but one of the hardest things about acting is getting your foot in the door. And for me, that was handled at an early age.”

Bridges was still a kid — just 22 — when he was nominated for his first Oscar, for 1971’s The Last Picture Show. Back then, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to be an actor. He wasn’t sure he was any good at it. But as the film’s director, Peter Bogdanovich, recalls, ”Even at that age, there was nothing you could ask him to do that he couldn’t do. He was just so good right away.”

Since then, Bridges has appeared in more than 60 movies. He’s never been a box office draw like Mel Gibson or Tom Cruise, but he’s also never been anything less than totally believable, whether he’s playing a guy trapped inside a video-game (1982’s TRON and its upcoming sequel), a plane-crash survivor (1993’s Fearless), or the broken-down country musician he portrays in Crazy Heart. You never catch him acting. Over the years, Bridges has been nominated for an Oscar four times. Following Picture Show, there was 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, 1984’s Starman, and 2000’s The Contender, in which he played a particularly Dude-like version of the President of the United States (see sidebar on page 42). Each time his name has been announced, he says he’s been both pleasantly surprised and mystified. ”When I was nominated the first time, I think I was living with [actress] Candy Clark in Malibu — we’d met and fallen in love on Fat City. I was asleep and the phone rang at, like, six in the morning. I thought it was a dream. I realize that the Academy Awards are a show, but it’s not totally a sham. To be honored by your peers, that’s a wonderful thing, man.”

Next month, Bridges will likely get another early-morning phone call for his work in Crazy Heart, which has already attracted Golden Globe and SAG nominations. In the modest $7 million indie film, he stars as a washed-up country musician named Bad Blake — an alcoholic singer-songwriter who drives a beat-up truck from small Southwestern town to small Southwestern town, playing in dive bars and bowling alleys. Bad was once a music legend, but after years of living like one of the characters in his hard-luck tunes, he’s just bad. At least, until he falls for a newspaper reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who interviews him and eventually makes him want to change.

It’s a raw and powerful performance in the kind of heartbreaking, redemptive drama that’s usually catnip for Oscar voters. And just in case the Academy doesn’t get the hint, the ad campaign for the R-rated movie trumpets Bridges’ portrayal as ”the performance of a lifetime.” For the most part, Bridges doesn’t mind this unusually naked PR bid for a nomination. Mostly because he agrees that it is the performance of a lifetime. ”I kind of feel like playing Bad Blake was like a gift,” he says. ”Every once in a long while you get a part that you feel like you were born to do. And that’s what this felt like.”

Even so, Bridges had to be dogged for nearly a year before signing on to do the movie. First-time writer-director Scott Cooper says he wrote the part specifically for Bridges and had no idea what he would do if he couldn’t get him. ”I knew I was in for a long haul,” Cooper says, ”because I’d heard that Jeff does everything he can to say no to movies.” When asked about this, Bridges laughs in agreement. ”I do my best not to work,” he admits. ”When the script first crossed my path, I was working on something else, and there wasn’t any music in the script yet. Plus my bar was set pretty high in terms of music movies after doing The Fabulous Baker Boys. For me, it’s almost like a Godfather thing: Make me an offer I can’t refuse, man.”

Bridges says that in general, he’d rather stay at home in Santa Barbara with his wife of 32 years, Susan (they have three daughters, ranging in age from 24 to 28). But when he found out that his old friend T Bone Burnett had signed on as a producer and to oversee the music on Crazy Heart, he knew that the film might just work. He packed on 25 pounds, steeped himself in the music of country legends like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson (Bridges, a longtime musician himself, released an album in 2000), and gathered up his usual assortment of ”juju power objects” to help get into his character — in this case, a necklace of elk’s teeth, among other things. Then there was the challenge of getting inside the head of an alcoholic. ”I’ve never had a real problem with drinking, but I certainly know people who have,” he says, adding, ”I have a relationship with intoxicants — booze, marijuana, when coke was in fashion, I did that. Sometimes it feels good to numb yourself. I can understand that.”

Crazy Heart was never supposed to be released in 2009. But after its distributor, Paramount Vantage, folded, the orphaned film found a home at Fox Searchlight, and the executives there were so bullish on Bridges’ go-for-broke performance, they rushed it into theaters. ”Whether it’s going to be financially successful, that’s another story,” says Bridges. ”That would be the maraschino cherry on top. But this movie was like homemade ice cream, homemade hot fudge, and homemade whipped cream. It was just delicious on so many levels, man.”

Only Bridges could compare a movie about a sad drunk to a sundae. But that’s how he talks. In fact, interviewing Bridges is, at times, like being taken on a verbal safari. You find yourself hacking through twisty metaphorical vines just to follow the path he’s leading you down. For example, when I ask him about what he looks for in a director, he says, ”I see it like a pyramid with the director at the peak of the pyramid. But there’s also an invisible upside-down pyramid. And there’s cosmic rain or whatever you want to call it — inspiration — raining on all of us. And occasionally you’ll get some heavy rain. Oh, and the pyramid is made up of a bunch of little pyramids…” There’s more, but you get the idea.

Later, when asked about his unwaivering Zen outlook on life, Bridges laughs and says, ”Just when you think you have it all figured out, life’s going to bite you on the wee-wee, man.” Then he unspools a long, pretzel-y joke about a little kid digging through a pile of horse s— because he assumes there must be a pony underneath all the manure.

Both on screen and off, Bridges refuses to be pinned down or predictable. ”Early on in my career, I was determined to mix it up and not develop any kind of persona. When I go see a movie, 80 percent of the experience depends on what you bring into the theater — what you last saw the guy in. So I like to pleasantly confuse the audience.”

Joan Allen, Bridges’ costar in both Tucker: The Man and His Dream and The Contender, says, ”Jeff is like a character actor to me. On Tucker, I remember one of the actors fell asleep during a scene. Jeff was so taken by someone who could be that relaxed. Like that was something to aspire to.” Adds his Baker Boys leading lady Michelle Pfeiffer, ”Every morning he would have the makeup artist paint these broken capillaries on his nose because his character was an alcoholic. And I remember thinking, ‘No one’s going to see that.’ I was incredibly impressed by that. Jeff approaches his work without ego. It’s a crime he hasn’t won an Oscar.”

While Bridges is the first to admit that winning an Academy Award for Crazy Heart would be a huge honor, he’s not blind to the potential downside. ”What is it the Dude says? ‘Life’s made up of strikes and gutters’? First, you have to give the speech! Oh, man! Then you’ve got something you have to live up to. The good side is you get the ‘Attaboy’ from your peers. That’s cool! Maybe you attract better parts.” He grins ”But even that, I mean, come on, I’m f—ing tired! Now you’re going to give me a bigger, harder thing to do?! Oh, great!”

Bridges looks at his watch. He’s late for an event across town. But before he leaves, he has a request. It’s not that I be nice to him in print. Or refrain from mentioning that he smokes the occasional joint. It’s that I stay after he leaves and sit in his seat so that I can appreciate the lights on the Ferris wheel.

”Just hang out and enjoy it, man.”

And with that, Bridges picks up his trusty guitar, says adios, and walks off into the night, ready for the next wonder to sneak up on him.


A History with Oscar
Over the past four decades, Bridges has snagged acting nominations for a wide variety of roles.

The Last Picture Show
(1971)
Bridges was just 21 when the nostalgic coming-of-age saga hit theaters. His turn as a charmed jock shipping off to Korea is devastating.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
(1974)
As Clint Eastwood’s hot-headed partner in crime, the fresh-faced rising star stole Michael Cimino’s debut film from his living-legend costar.

Starman
(1984)
What could be tougher than convincingly playing an alien from outer space? Bridges made it look effortless, bittersweet, and even sexy, opposite Karen Allen.

The Contender
(2000)
The actor soared in this political thriller as a sly president cutting backroom deals — and trying to outwit the White House chef.