” He may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived” – Pauline Kael.
When did my embarrassing love affair with Jeff Bridges begin? It seemed to happen slowly, almost imperceptibly over a number of years, decades even. It wasn’t an instant like or dislike. He just always seemed to be there. Taken for granted if you will. Tron would show up on TV every now and again but I or someone else usually switched it off, my parents rented Jagged Edge on video but I was too young to watch it due to it’s racy content and indeed as kids we heard second hand stories about the sexual and violent content of this adult thriller penned by Basic Instinct scribe Joe Ezterhas.
Was I aware that Jeff Bridges was starring in these films? Kind of. I knew him from the 1976 remake of King Kong, a school holiday staple on one of the English stations, amiable and shaggy bearded trying to protect a man in a monkey suit. I recognised him from various coming attraction trailers such as Eight Million Ways to Die, Against All Odds and Tucker.
This is all well and good, sifting through the flotsam of my childhood movie memories but when did I notice what a great fucking film actor this guy was? I think it was his de-glamorized, oddly mannered portrayal of a killer in The Vanishing, George Sluizer’s much reviled 1992 Hollywood remake of his own Dutch hit Spoorloos. My parents rented it out, the trailer seemed to suggest a creepy, grown up thriller and it had Kiefer Sutherland then coming to the end of his first flush with stardom.
Then one Christmas in my teens, the house to myself I caught Starman one late evening and I was moved and overwhelmed by this touching, birdlike portrayal of an alien being. What seemed like an impossible role on paper, he made it fly with his customary grace, affability and honesty, qualities that he seems to bring to every role he tackle.
What makes him such an interesting performer? Well, hopefully this selection of clips from his key performances or at least what I perceive to be the key performances from a fourty year career that will shed some light on the durability, subtlety and versatility of one of America’s greatest screen actors- a long, winding journey from under-rated leading man to cult icon right through to his present stature as a late blooming mainstream star.
Heaven’s Gate director Cimino debut is a visually distinguished buddy comedy/heist picture teaming Clint Eastwood’s taciturn bank robber with Bridges impish, fresh faced conman/misfit and it’s the youthful Bridges who runs away with the film, upstaging the leading man and a colourful, supporting cast including stalwarts George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis. His charismatic, reckless drifter is impossible to take your eyes off. In this opening scene, Cimino uses sound, image and the bare minimum of dialogue with economic, artful precision to set up a fateful meeting between our two anti-heroes.
An under-seen, under-rated classic, already covered somewhat by myself here that contains one of Bridges most conflicted, ambivalent characters, again a drifter of sorts- a boat salesman moonlighting as a gigolo or a gigolo moonlighting as a boat salesman. This early scene in Ivan Passer’s neo-noir captures Bridges at his most natural, perfectly capturing the characters casual mix of narcissism, fecklessness and cynicism.
Starman (1984) Director: John Carpenter
Halloween director Carpenter’s charming, touching science fiction drama was a welcome change of pace for the director, helped in no small part by Bridges birdlike performance as an alien visitor from another galaxy reborn in a human body, the deceased husband of Karen Allen’s Jenny Hayden. Decent clips were difficult to track down but in this scene, Bridges charms us with the characters unique lack of guile and social grace.
Tucker: The Man & His Dream (1988) Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Coppola’s impassioned, gee whiz valentine to the spirit of American individualism is like most of his films is a technical tour de force, filled with eye popping 1940’s Art Deco period detail and an excellent cast anchored by Bridges spirited performance as Preston Tucker, automobile pioneer. The film lacks any real insight into Tucker inner workings but that was probably Coppola’s intention and his leading man compliments his glossy, vibrant almost comic book style with an out sized, sympathetic performance emphasizing his characters, optimistic, indomitable qualities.
Bridges seems to be permanently attracted to outsiders, dreamers and plain disillusioned, fucked up misfits like Jack Baker, one half of a brotherly piano playing duo coasting along with their hackneyed lounge act. Then Michelle Pfeiffer’s Susie Diamond comes into their lives causing professional and emotional friction.Jack, handsome, stoic and inscrutable attracts the attention of Susie and after ending up in bed together, he and in this scene backs off emotionally. Here, he is confronted by Susie and she forces him to reveal the bitterness and self loathing that is holding him back from pursuing his real dream. Bridges underplays throughout,demonstrating one of his true strengths as an actor- his absolute fearlessness. He never shirks from portraying the more unpleasant sides of his characters. Jack seems cool, indifferent but we see it’s just a self protective facade masking a fear of commitment to both art and love.
The Fisher King (1991) Director: Terry Gilliamhttp://movieclips.com/e/RncE/
Fearless (1993) Director: Peter Weir
Fearless, like a lot of Jeff Bridges movies flopped on it’s initial release back in 1993 despite mostly positive reviews at the time and even with the awards pedigree of it’s director Peter Weir behind it. It did gain an Oscar nomination for Rosie Perez which was much deserved and this is evident in the scene I’ve chosen. Perez and Bridges play wonderfully off of each other, creating a truly touching adult relationship borne out of a horrible tragedy. Bridges’ Max Klein is an aloof, arrogant presence throughout the film except for when he interacts with Carla. He keeps his family at an emotional distance and develops a genuine love for Carla, who lost a child in the accident and is the only one who can understand what it is like to come out on the other side transformed.
The Contender (2000) Director: Rod Lurie
And last but not least…the one that finally got Bridges the recognition he deserves. Bad Blake, a washed up, alcoholic country singer could have been a cliche if played by anybody but Bridges, bar Robert Duvall who produced and co-starred in Crazy Heart and also won an Oscar for Tender Mercies in 1983 playing a similar character. He strips away any sentimentality and he along with first time director shows Blake at his best and his worst without resorting to broad melodramatic strokes. This is just a typical night in action.