04/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2013

Jeff Bridges, and the Grizzling of the All-American Boy

Watching the grizzled Jeff Bridges in the immensely satisfying Crazy Heart (2009), a film shot in just twenty-four days, you witness a seasoned actor come into a role he was born to play, a role he inhabits as naturally as a favorite old sweater. (Bridges, a talented amateur musician, even gets to sing.)

And beyond the enormous satisfaction and pleasure you get from it, you're reminded once again just how good Jeff Bridges really is.

He started out as the All-American boy, the younger, WASP- handsome son of a famous Hollywood family. Committed to the family business by the early seventies, he may have felt himself a bit of a misfit in the new ethnic cinema of the time, dominated by names like Hoffman, Pacino, and DeNiro.

You could be forgiven then for mixing him up with Kurt Russell. Let's see...was Jeff the one who started in Disney pictures? No -- that was Kurt. Jeff appeared on his dad Lloyd's show Sea Hunt in the fifties. Yeah, and his older brother Beau got on-screen first.

Bridges enjoyed a solid career in quirky leading man roles through the seventies and eighties, but it was only in 1998, on the eve of reaching fifty, that he transformed his career playing a character called "The Dude" in the Coen Brothers' comic masterpiece, The Big Lebowski (1998).

Defiantly unshaven, slovenly and pot-bellied, Bridges left his classic leading man looks at the door to become the movies' iconic stoner.

From that point on, I always looked with a bit more interest when I saw his name attached to a movie, because in my own mind it was now official: more than just a star, Jeff Bridges had become a superb screen actor.

Then I decided to watch some of his earlier work again, and realized, to my own embarrassment, that in fact he's always been outstanding. Perhaps his clean-cut, boyish image obscured my ability to recognize the astonishing talent he possessed from the start. Regardless, I could see it now: Jeff Bridges has always been a lot more than a pretty face.

Nominated for an Oscar five times over the past thirty years, he has never won. This year, he deserves to, not just for his pitch-perfect work in Crazy Heart, but also for thirty years of bringing an unusual degree of nuance and intelligence to a whole range of movie portrayals, with my own favorites listed below.

Jeff Bridges, I want you to win this year, and I think you will. Still -- whichever way it goes, congratulations. You are still the best we have.

The Last Picture Show (1971) -- Two close friends, the sensitive Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and athletic Duane (Bridges) live in the small dying town of Anarene, Texas, circa 1951. With more of its residents moving to where the opportunity is -- the big city -- now Anarene exudes a stifling remoteness and decay. To cope with this oppressive atmosphere and stave off some tough decisions awaiting them on graduation from high school, Sonny takes up with his coach's neglected wife (Cloris Leachman), while Duane chases after vain, wealthy town beauty Jacy (Cybill Shepherd). Still, neither relationship seems to bring much fulfillment. In fact, only Sam the Lion (Ben Johnson), who owns Anarene's last remaining movie theatre, provides a measure of dignity in the life of the town, recalling a happier, healthier past. Along with Paper Moon, this film endures as director Peter Bogdanovich's crowning achievement, a poignant film about people and places that life has passed by. Masterfully shot in black and white, Bogdanovich creates just the right mood of slow, dusty suffocation, as the town's various sad residents go through the motions of their various bankrupt lives. The film received four Oscar nominations for acting (Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, and Ellen Burstyn, who plays Jacy's mom) and additional nods for Direction, Cinematography, and Screenplay (adapted by Bogadanovich and Larry McMurty, from Mc Murtry's book). Leachman and Johnson ultimately won. Don't miss this brilliant, haunting drama, which hasn't aged a bit.

Fat City (1972) -- In Stockton, California, Tully (Stacy Keach), a once-promising fighter past his prime, is torn between subsisting as a migrant worker and giving the ring one last shot. As he works through this, he befriends Ernie (Jeff Bridges), a younger fighter who reminds him of his former hopeful self, and Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a sloppy drunk in whom Tully finds a kindred lost soul. In City, a return to form for John Huston, the director presents a spare, bleak portrait of humanity on the skids in the world of small-town boxing. Not easy or pleasant to watch, the film's impact sneaks up on you, as Huston's spot-on evocation of this down-and-out world eventually creeps under your skin. The acting bar is set high, with Keach believably tragic in the central role, Bridges solid as the hot-shot who might achieve what Tully couldn't, and Tyrrell stealing the picture (and nabbing an Oscar nod) as the bitter, broken down Oma. Though by Hollywood standards a "small picture," Fat City still scores a knock-out.

Starman (1984) -- In John Carpenter's sci-fi charmer, a non-hostile alien force lands on earth, enters the house of young widow Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen), and scans the likeness of her dead husband (Bridges) to take human form. Jenny and the alien end up on an unlikely road trip, racing to a rendezvous spot with the spaceship which will take him home. Meanwhile government forces (led by Richard Jaeckel) are on their trail. As Jenny spends more time with her unlikely new companion, feelings of sympathy and affection develop, not surprising since this extra-terrestrial so closely resembles her departed spouse. Made just two years after Steven Spielberg's ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Starman invites comparison, but there's a "lo-tech" charm and simplicity to this film that makes it unique. Bridges was singled out for his disarming portrayal of the visitor with Best Actor nominations from both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, and it's easy to see why. Rather than opt for make-up to enhance his otherworldliness, Bridges achieves the desired effect with expression, inflection, and locomotion. Primarily due to his inspired turn, this Starman continues to dazzle.

Fearless (1993) -- After surviving a devastating airplane crash, San Francisco architect Max Klein (Bridges) returns home to his wife Laura (Isabella Rossellini) and son with a palpable sense of his own almost mystical invulnerability. Introduced by airline psychiatrist Bill Pearlman (John Turturro), Max soon forms an intense bond with fellow crash survivor Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez), who is traumatized and guilt-ridden over the loss of her infant son. Together, they forge a path to acceptance and self-renewal through unlikely means. Peter Weir's sadly overlooked 1993 drama is a probing, beautifully acted psychological character study dressed up in transcendent garb. Max's newfound power -- an unnerving "fearlessness" -- initially enables him to assist his fellow passengers, and is the basis on which he counsels Carla, but the sea change in his personality has also alienated him from his wife and family. The Oscar-nominated Perez really delivers here in the demanding role of a distraught, grief-stricken mother, and her scenes with Bridges are especially intense and convincing. Weir handles all the catharsis -- and even the plane crash, glimpsed in flashback -- with uncommon restraint. Board Fearless for a heart-wrenching story about finding grace amid the fear of death.

The Big Lebowski (1998) -- Super laid-back '60s dropout Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Bridges) enjoys hanging loose and getting high with his two bowling pals, cranky Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and easygoing ex-surfer Donny (Steve Buscemi). But his groovy-loser L.A. lifestyle is about to undergo a massive makeover when some thugs looking for a millionaire named "Jeff Lebowski" bust into his Venice bungalow and drag him into a tangled kidnapping scheme. Ace filmmaking team Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo) took more than a few pages from Raymond Chandler's seedy L.A. noir novels to create this absurdly comic caper masterpiece. Bridges is riotous as the unflappable aging hippie who finds himself embroiled in double and triple extortion plots- think Phillip Marlowe on a bag of weed-while superb sidekicks Goodman and Buscemi get to sling around a lot of ripe witticisms. Also great is John Turturro, playing a vulgar-mouthed champion bowler named Jesus, and Julianne Moore, fetching as an "erotic artist." In typical Coen fashion, the camerawork is wildly offbeat, the dialogue sharp, and the performances goofy and intriguing. Don't miss this kooky homage to the weird world of noir.

The Contender (2000) -- When Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) is unexpectedly chosen by the President (Bridges) to fill the spot left by his late vice president, veteran Beltway insider Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman), who loathes Hanson for defecting from the Republican side of the aisle, heads up the confirmation committee. Hunting for dirt, Runyon uncovers a scandalous sex-capade from Senator Hanson's college years, throwing her nomination into jeopardy. A gripping political drama that appeared in the aftermath of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Rod Lurie's The Contender sheds serious light on the presidency and our political process. A star-making vehicle for the prodigiously talented Allen and a strong platform for the Oscar-nominated Bridges (who delivers a knockout Presidential speech), the film portrays the intense personal scrutiny imposed on those in line for national office--particularly if the candidate is a woman. Contender stands as a resonant morality play about honor and political ambition.

The Door In The Floor (2004) -- Ted and Marion Cole (Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger) seemed to have everything, with Ted a successful children's book author, Marion a still beautiful mother of three. But when their two older sons are killed, Ted and Marion retreat within themselves. The fault lines widen when Ted recruits a summer intern named Eddie (Jon Foster), who's largely oblivious to all the upheaval, but irresistibly drawn to the alluring Marion. This penetrating study of human melancholy, adapted from John Irving's novel, is most notable for Bridges' Oscar-worthy turn as Ted, who conveys egotism and wisdom, regret and vulnerability, without us ever hearing the gears shift. Ted is an aging poster boy for the pitfalls of brilliance and success, exacerbated by a permanent sadness which slowly eats away at his insides. The Door in the Floor delivers a powerful, unflinching portrait of two people dealing in their own way with the consequences of inconsolable grief.

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