The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Jeff Bridges
A few weeks ago, I profiled the movie BLOWN AWAY as part of my new column, “The Best Movie You Never Saw.” Throughout the review, I kept going-on about how good Jeff Bridges was and it occurred to me that somehow, in three years of writing “The Good, The Bad and the Badass”, I had never actually profiled him here – a fact I clearly needed to remedy. With his much buzzed-about Cannes thriller, HELL OR HIGH WATER, due out this week, the time seemed right.
Jeff Bridges has been a star for forty-five years now, with him having made an incredible big-screen debut in the Peter Bogdanovich classic, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. The son of golden age character actor Lloyd Bridges (who became famous to a whole new generation of filmgoers by sending himself-up in AIRPLANE & HOT SHOTS), Bridges, along with his brother Beau (a terrific actor too and his FABULOUS BAKER BOYS co-star) established himself as a major star in the mid-seventies, with him earning an Oscar nomination for PICTURE SHOW, as well as another one a few years later for his scene-stealing turn in Michael Cimino’s offbeat Clint Eastwood heist movie, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.
In the decades that followed, Bridges managed to both establish himself as a leading man in ultra-commercial fare like KING KONG, TRON and JAGGED EDGE, while also taking on tons of offbeat roles, in movies like WINTER KILLS, HEAVEN’S GATE, CUTTER’S WAY, THE FISHER KING and more. Ironically, superstardom only really happened for Bridges as he reached middle-age, coinciding with the amazing cult popularity of THE BIG LEBOWSKI (a flop upon its initial release) and his Oscar-winning turn in CRAZY HEART. After playing Rooster Cogburn in The Coen Bros remake of TRUE GRIT, Bridges finally found himself a bonafide box-office draw, and since then he’s often been called upon to class-up genre films like THE GIVER, SEVENTH SON and the unfortunate RIPD. HELL OR HIGH WATER seems to be more of a TRUE GRIT-style part, and only being sixty-seven (but looking a good ten years younger), Bridges, as always, remains much in-demand, and it helps that he’s universally acknowledged as one of the nicest guys in the biz.
While I’d say THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is maybe Bridges’s best all-around movie, as far as performances go there are two that can’t be overlooked. The first is his Oscar-nominated part in STARMAN. Despite his rugged, everyman appeal Bridges has always demonstrated a kinship with sci-fi, and this atypically sensitive John Carpenter movie gave him one of his best parts. Playing an alien tasked with learning about earth by assuming the form of Karen Allen’s dead husband, STARMAN is a sweet-natured romance tinged with thriller/sci-fi elements. Bridges really disappears into the role, as his child-like alien learns what it means to be human and fall-in love, and struggles with emotions like empathy, joy and sadness. It's often overlooked but movies like Jeff Nichols MIDNIGHT SPECIAL and the recent Netflix show, “Stranger Things” show that it has had a massive impact on a whole new generation of directors, finally giving it the “classic” status it’s always deserved.
However, if we’re talking about Jeff Bridges’s most iconic part, there’s little doubt that “The Dude” from THE BIG LEBOWSKI is going to be how he’s always remembered. At the time, I remember thinking that LEBOWSKI seemed like against-type casting, as having grown up in the eighties I was more used to Bridges as romantic leads in movies like JAGGED EDGE than as the pot-smoking Dude. Little did I know that the part resonated deeply for Bridges, to the point that it’s essentially become his off-screen persona in recent years, with him maintaining a very Dude-like look in his personal life. And, of course, he’s damn funny in the part. It’s crazy that originally this was seen as a flop, as it’s become so wildly seen in recent years that it’s almost impossible to avoid as this point, with tons of The Dude’s dialogue having worked its way into the pop culture.
For some reason, I’ve never warmed to Gary Ross’s SEABISCUIT, I remember being really excited to see it back in 2003, as it marked Tobey Maguire’s return to drama after having broken-out the previous year as Spider-Man. Yet, the movie never really worked for me as it felt too saccharine and artificial, although I should note that of everyone, Bridges probably comes-off the best as the compassionate money-man behind the horse. Oh well, the film grossed over a hundred million, so what do I know?
I think that of all the performers I’ve profiled here, no one’s made as many underrated gems as Jeff Bridges. I was initially going to highlight ARLINGTON ROAD, but instead I’m actually going to save that one for “The Best Movie You Never Saw” as I have quite a bit to say about that little gem. Instead, here are two readers may not really know about. The first is a movie I only saw for myself about a week ago, CUTTER’S WAY. I actually heard Marc Maron mention it on his WTF podcast a while ago, and that’s what made me look it up. A gritty post-Vietnam thriller, Bridges stars as a kind of playboy-gigolo, who wiles away his days seducing rich, bored wives, while pining over the alcoholic wife of his one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed best friend(John Heard – in a dynamic performance) with a penchant for getting his pals in trouble. When Bridges thinks he may have witnessed a murder, his buddy hatches an insane plot that quickly spins-out of control, or does it? A deeply enigmatic film, CUTTER’S WAY kinda blew-my mind, and while Heard (as well as co-star Lisa Eichhorn as the wife) steals the movie, it stands as one of Bridges’s best (and least-seen) films.
Another one is AGAINST ALL ODDS. If CUTTER’S WAY is an enigmatic seventies movie (despite actually having been made in 1981), AGAINST ALL ODDS is defiantly eighties, with it being a glossy, sexy MTV-style remake of the classic noir, OUT OF THE PAST. Bridges plays a washed-up football player sent to Mexico to find the girlfriend (Rachel Ward) of his former coke-dealer (James Woods) who’s become a big-shot wheeler-dealer than can restart his stagnant career. While super dated in a fun eighties way (the fashions are right out of Miami Vice, and the pop-song filled soundtrack is super slick) the premise is actually pretty tight and there are some really cool set pieces. And yes, the famous Phil Collins song, “Against All Odds (Take a Look At Me Now)”, was written for this movie. If you only know Bridges from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, you’ll be shocked to see him here in full-on heartthrob mode.
I briefly considered putting something in here from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but then it occurred to me that I haven’t said all that much about his performance as Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT. Bridges did exceptionally well filling John Wayne’s shoes in the lead, and if his final showdown with Barry Pepper’s Ned Pepper isn’t badass, I don’t know what is.