Oscar 2009: Jeff Bridges' Amazing Career

One of the most reliable and versatile actors around, Jeff Bridges is always worth watching, even in bad and mediocre movies.
 
This season, Bridges is getting the best reviews of his 40-year-career career for his excellence as the boozy, down-on-his-luck country singer In "Crazy Heart." For this performance, Bridges has received more critics award than any other actor around, including the L.A. Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics, and last night, the Golden Globe. In this essay, I'd like to look at the amazing career of this amazing actor. 
 
Bridges' face is masculine yet open and expressive in a natural way. 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, and equipped with both dramatic and comedic skills, he has never become a mega-star, not like De Niro or Pacino. Instead, he has settled 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. 
 
It certainly is the case of "Crazy Heart," which tells a very similar story to that of "Tender Mercies," for which Robert Duvall (a producer of the new film) won the 1983 Best Actor Oscar.
 
Bridges is an expert of exploring the conflicts of seemingly content and adjusted American dreamers. He has expressed effortlessly 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.
 
American Heart
 
One of Bridges' quintessential roles was 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 four 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 (who are 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 "Crazy Heart, it's noteworthy that he plays an eccentric singer, an alcoholic, a womanizer with a foul mouth, a man walking around his house half-naked in the most unselfconscious manner imaginable.
 
Hollywood pedigree:
 
Never underestimate the power of kinship in Hollywood. Jeff is the son of Lloyd Bridges, a good handsome actor who had never been Oscar-nominated, 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 is a known quantity to the Academy voters, 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 Bogdanovich 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 more actorish turn (with wig, makeup, and accent) as a reactionary politician.
And now comes "Crazy Heart," for which Bridges will receive (and probably win) the Best Actor Oscar at his fifth nomination.