Oscar Actors: Bridges, Jeff

In “The Door in the Floor”, Jeff Bridges gives the first great male performance of the year, the kind of which Oscars are given for. An Oscar for Bridges is not irrelevant; it’s about time that this gifted four-time nominee win the golden trophy.

In “The Door in the Floor”, adapted from John Irving’s novel, Bridges plays Ted Cole, a grizzled, idiosyncratic children’s book writer and illustrator. He renders an intelligent, multi-nuanced performance as a man forced to deal with the accidental death of his two boys, a depressed wife, and a marriage falling apart. However, despite personal sorrow, marital strain, and awareness of his wife’s affair with his 16-year-old assistant, Ted refuses to wallow in self-pity.

Though playing a self-absorbed, flamboyant artist, Bridges’ performance is startlingly natural. Stripped of vanity, Bridges is unafraid of embracing the character’s flaws, letting himself appear weathered and neglected. It’s a testament to Bridges’ humanizing performance that Ted remains a sympathetic character. Indeed, in the end, despite reckless conduct, Ted proves to be a more capable and loving parent to their daughter Ruth than his wife.

The movie is not particularly good, a result of difficulties in adapting Irving’s sprawling novel and Tod Williams’ lack of subtlety in handling complex material (See Current Reviews). Nonetheless, the uneven film serves as a bravura showcase for Bridges’ skills. Watch the scene in which Ted is fleeing from the woman (Mimi Rogers) he has “drawn” unflatteringly. His audaciously nude portrait ends up on the windshield of the car driven by a mother (accompanied by her young daughter) who’s helping him to escape. Surprised but unfazed, Ted just continues his small talk.

One of the most reliable actors around, Jeff Bridges is always worth watching. His face is masculine yet open and expressive. In his youth, he embodied the classic American outdoor type–the good-looking beach-boy. Though endowed with a ruggedly handsome face and charismatic presence, he has never become a mega star. Instead, he has had to settle for merely being a terrific actor. Always likable, always at ease in front of the camera, Bridges is often the main reason to see his films.

Bridges is an expert of exploring the conflicts of seemingly content American dreamers, of expressing the quiet desperation and buried grace of men who didn’t make it. In “The Fabulous Baker Boys”, he played part of a brotherly team, a mediocre bar lounge pianist who was once a child prodigy.

Bridges’ natural, instinctive charm works best when it is played against darker, shadowy characters, losers or rather idealistic dreamers. In John Huston’s “Fat City,” he played a small time-boxer in the squalor waste of Stockton, California. In “Cutter’s Way” (aka “Cutter and Bone”), he was cast as Bone, a good-hearted beach bum, a stud who sleeps with women to make a buck or two, who becomes the chief suspect in the murder of a cheer leader.

One of Bridges’ quintessential roles is in the small indie, “American Heart” (1991), as Jack Keely, a down-and-out ex-convict who returns to his Seattle home determined to go straight only to be jolted by the surprise appearance of his 14-year-old son, Nick (Edward Furlong). Living in a cheap boardinghouse, Jack resists the temptation of returning to crime, instead finding a job washing windows. But no matter how hard he tries, Jack has trouble assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood. In time, father and son begin to bond, even dream aloud of moving up to Alaska and starting over, but fate deals them a rotten hand: Jack loses his job and Nick is drawn into petty crime.

In a career spanning over three decades, Bridges has shown that he’s one of the most natural and least narcissistic actor of his generation. Like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (whore a bit older), he is capable of complete physical and psychological transformation. But he doesn’t reveal his techniques. Nor does he resort to artifice or tricks: gaining weight, wearing heavy makeup, sporting accents. Unlike De Niro or Pacino, who excel in outrageously explosive and neurotic roles, Bridges is a master of understatement.

It’s the little things, small gestures (a shrug, a casual look), that seem to derive from his characters rather than his method, that enable him to completely inhabit his roles. All of which explains why has been underrated. His acting doesn’t look like work. He slides into a character with no apparent effort, giving each role distinctive flesh, blood, and soul.

Arguably the loosest of American actors, Bridges is unburdened by training and theatrical baggage, unencumbered by the neurotic mannerisms of actors his age. What makes audiences connect with him is his ability to particularize and transform the commonplace, turn seemingly ordinary into extraordinary men. Several of his characters are named Jack (“Kink Kong”, “The Fabulous Baker Boys”), and even when playing a wealthy man, as in “Jagged Edge”, he emphasizes the down-to-earth attributes.

Along with a truly great performance that dominates and elevates “The Door in the Floor”, Bridges should benefit at nomination time from other factors favored by the Academy:

Role ingredients: At the risk of trivializing his rich, complex part in “The Door in the Floor”, it’s noteworthy that he plays an eccentric novelist, a womanizer with foul mouth, a man walking around his house naked in the most unselfconscious manner imaginable.

Hollywood pedigree: Never underestimate the power of kinship in Hollywood. Jeff is the son of Lloyd Bridges and the younger brother of Beau, also a terrific actor. Cast to an advantage, the siblings acted together in the marvelous romantic drama, “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), with Michelle Pfeiffer as the sexy woman in between.

Versatility: Nominated for both lead and supporting Oscars, Bridges has played heroes, anti-heroes, and sheer villains. There’s hardly a genre he has not made, from sci-fi (“Starman”) to biopicture (“Tucker: The Man and His Dream”), from legal thrillers (“Jagged Edge”) to noir (“Against All Odds”, “8 Million Ways to Die”), from Hollywood actioners (“Blown Away”) and adventure fantasies (“King Kong”, the 1976 version) to indie comedies (“The Big Lebowski”).

Previous Oscar nominations: Bridges’ part in “The Door in the Floor” is a comeback performance par excellence, the best he has given in at least a decade. It’s hard to think of many other films in which a performance is so crucial, so fully integral to the film’s overall impact. And it helps that Bridges is a known quantity to the Academy, having been nominated four times before.

“The Last Picture Show” (1971): Bridges’ first, supporting nomination, at the age of 22. In this elegiac adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel, Peter Bogdanovitch helped shape Bridges’ image in the first phase of his career as a brash, none-to-bright but basically good-hearted all-American boy.

“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974): Michael Cimino’s action drama laced with humor, for which Bridges received his second supporting nomination. Bridges plays a young drifter, who joins Clint Eastwood’s prison escapee and his longtime crime partners in recovering loot hidden from an earlier theft, only to realize there’s now a building over the stash.

“Starman” (1984): Bridges third nomination and the first in the lead category. As an alien whose spaceship has crashed in the woods, Bridges falls for Karen Allen, a widow astonished by his resemblance to her husband. With no assistance of special effects, Bridges easily transforms from a geeky outsider to a figure of self-possession, capable of human speech and manners.

“The Contender” (2000): Bridges’ fourth, supporting nomination, as an eccentric American president more interested in food than in politics. Watch the difference between Bridges’ fluently naturalistic performance and Gary Oldman’s mannered turn (with wig, makeup, and accent) as a reactionary politician.

The big Oscar contenders, the historical epics (Oliver Stone’s “Alexander”) and showbiz bios (Scorsese’s “The Aviator”), each of which offers auspicious roles for their actors, have not been released yet. But as of August, Jeff Bridges is a frontrunner for the 2004 Actor Oscar.