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How Jeff Bridges became this year's dude, and an 'Avatar' hunch

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Image Credit: Lebowski: Everett Collection; Crazy: Lorey SebastianWhen Jeff Bridges, as just about every handicapper expects, gets up tonight to receive his Academy Award for Best Actor, we all know that the award will be given — and received, and deserved — on two levels at once. It will be a tasty double scoop of victory. Bridges’ performance in Crazy Heart is superb by any standard: a note-perfect piece of transformative acting, and also, like the film itself (or, at least, the best parts of it), a beautiful throwback to the lived-in, shaggy-psychodrama spirit of the let-it-all-hang-out ’70s. His Bad Blake is that memorable contradiction, an intensely sympathetic man who gets dragged down by demons of his own devising. Letting yourself identify with a character this flawed is a cathartic experience, an essential part of what movies are all about.

The other level of triumph that Bridges will be getting honored for, of course, is his entire career: all the sturdy, soulful performances that he has given over 40 years, ever since he broke through in The Last Picture Show (1971). I always have to do a mental double take when I think of how long Bridges has been around, because even now, at 60, with a twinge of gravel in his voice, he still has the mellowness and robust handsome grace of an aging Beach Boy. What audiences liked about him way back when is what they still like about him now: his ability to give decent men ripples of furtive, troubled urgency.

When an actor or actress takes home an Oscar that is also given, in part, for what they’ve done in the past, it works one of two ways. Either they’re getting, in effect, a kind of overall career-achievement award; or they’re winning the Oscar in belated acknowledgement of one or two especially beloved and acclaimed performances that the Academy, in its infinite wisdom, somehow passed over. Examples of the former include Henry Fonda, whose Best Actor Oscar for On Golden Pond (1982) was a classic lifetime-achievement nod, or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (1992), or even Sandra Bullock this year. If and when she wins for The Blind Side, surely it will be, as much as anything, a tip of the hat to the Bullock brand, and what that brand has meant to Hollywood over the past 15 years. Examples of the latter include Denzel Washington in Training Day (a belated nod for his work in Malcolm X and Hurricane), or Kate Winslet in The Reader (those who aren’t snobs know that it should have gone to her for Titanic).

In the case of Jeff Bridges, though, his Academy Award is so long overdue that it does raise the question: Why now? Why is an actor who Hollywood always regarded as a bit too recessive and “quiet” for honorary hoopla suddenly being massively singled out for what you could argue is a rather quiet performance in a quiet film? Sure, he’s great in Crazy Heart, and sure, what Mark Harris, in his brilliant New York magazine dissection of how the Oscars work, described as the ultimate Academy Awards trump card (“It’s time!”) is certainly in play here. Yet my hunch, my intuition, my gut tells me that Jeff Bridges might not be poised and in place to win an award tonight were it not for one particular performance from his not-so-distant past: his cult-turn-gone-classic as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in The Big Lebowski (1998). Bridges himself all but acknowledged it when he accepted the Best Male Lead award two nights ago at the Independent Spirit Awards.

What’s so singular, funny, and richly ironic about this, to me, is that Bridges’ shambling, engagingly disheveled, white-Russian-in-his-mustache stoner clowning around as The Dude has, in the 12 years since the movie came out, become one of the most celebrated and iconic performances of its time — but no way in hell is it an Oscar performance, and that’s part of the appealing slovenly mystique of it. Yet the Dude, in his Zen ’70s-relic way, now looms majestically large in Bridges’ legend. The performance is revered by a generation of DVD couch potatoes who have probably never even seen Bridges in The Last Picture Show or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) or Cutter’s Way (1981) or The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). What’s relevant, at least in Hollywood, is that this generation now includes a number of Academy voters. For them, Bridges’ work in The Big Lebowski isn’t just a “cult” jape — it’s as canonical, in its way, as Paul Newman’s Oscar run-up performance was in The Verdict (1982).

But there’s another element at work. For years, through most of the ’70s and ’80s, in fact, the key question about Jeff Bridges, meditated on by journalists, movie buffs, and Hollywood folk alike, was this: He’s such a great, appealing actor — why isn’t he a bigger star? To me, the answer was always that Bridges is an actor who doesn’t quite pop on screen. The thing is, that’s not a criticism; it’s just who he is. (It’s part of what we love about him.) In The Big Lebowski, Bridges really did pop. And maybe that’s part of the reason why tonight, one of the things the Oscars will celebrate is that Jeff Bridges abides.

So what’s your all-time favorite Jeff Bridges performance?

* * * *

Why I think Avatar will win. It’s not because of last week’s self-righteous yet tacky anti-Hurt Locker campaign — a tossed-together propaganda blitzkrieg that will probably have little or no effect. What’s more, it’s implicit in my prediction that I don’t think the members of the Screen Actors Guild will overwhelmingly reject James Cameron’s film, all because they’re scared that its success could threaten the future of their profession. Yet the real reason I think Avatar will win Best Picture is that a Hollywood that voted for a praised-to-the-skies, $14 million-grossing Iraq war film over an alien-jungle 3-D box-office supernova that promises, in its eyeball-tickling techno splendor, to guarantee that movies have a future would be a Hollywood that has changed its spots. And changing its spots is something that Hollywood almost never does.