Oscar 2009: Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart

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In "Crazy Heart," as the aging, boozy country singer Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges gives one of the great performances of the year, and one of the great performances in a four-decade career marked by numerous good appearances. 
 
For his new role, Bridges has already received several important critics awards, including the L.A. Film Critics Association, and last week he was nominated by his peer for a SAG Award. There is no doubt that Bridges will earn his fifth Oscar nod. But will he win the Oscar itself?
 
Bridges' part in "Crazy Heart" is heralded as a comeback performance, and one of the best he has given in a decade or so. 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. As I pointed out in my review, the tale of "Crazy Heart" is very similar to "Tender Mercies," for which the great Robert Duvall received a 1983 Best Actor Oscar; Duvall plays a small part in the film and he is one of the exec-producers. 
 
An Oscar for Bridges is not irrelevant; it's about time that this gifted four-time nominee win the golden trophy.   One of the most reliable actors around, 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-budget 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 and least pretentious 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 performance that at once dominates and elevates "Crazy Heart," Bridges should benefit at nomination time from other factors favored by the Academy.
 
Role ingredients:
 
At the risk of trivializing his densely rich, multi-nuanced part in "Crazy Heart," it's noteworthy that he plays the kind of role that Oscar voters like: a drunk, eccentric, singer-song-writer, who has lost his self-worth and is now seeking salvation and redemption through the love of a good woman (nicely played by Maggie Gyllenhaal).
 
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:
 
It does help that Bridges is a known quantity to the Academy, with four nominations to his credit.
 
"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.
 
Mark your ballots: Jeff Bridges is a frontrunner for the 2009 Best Actor Oscar.