To say “at last” or “finally” in regards to his tour de force performance as washed-up country/western star Bad Blake in Crazy Heart would be to completely disregard how uniformly superb he has been from the very start of his career. There is no “at last” here, at least not to those of us who have been paying attention. He has been turning in detailed, powerful, diverse performances for DECADES. The fact that he is so amazing in Crazy Heart is not a surprise. He is ALWAYS amazing. See my thoughts on this phenomenal actor, the best American actor working today (and on ANY day) here. Hyperbole is too good for this man. To quote Bruce Reid, a commenter at HSD:
You’re right about the inability to avoid hyperbole when it comes to Bridges; given his uniform excellence I thought it’d be easier to pick five bad performances and think about why they didn’t work. Till I scanned his filmography and found, maybe, three.
Indeed. Like Meryl Streep, he has been consistently astonishing for his entire career. He also has rarely repeated himself. And it’s not about tricks, with him. He’s not trying to prove anything to anyone. He doesn’t need to prove he’s a great actor by putting on a limp, or a British accent. If the character limps, he limps so well that you can almost see the X-rays of the disjointed hip bones, it’s that convincing. If he has to have an accent, or a mannerism to go with the character, it becomes so endemic to the performance that it is unthinkable without it. His range is breathtaking. I do not sense much of an ego, with Jeff Bridges, and that’s probably why he’s shamefully flown under the radar for so long (while his reviews are always excellent, he’s more often than not ignored by the Academy). No nomination for Door in the Floor? Sorry, but that’s ridiculous. It was the best performance that year. Some of his best work as well, which means it’s better than anyone else’s good work, because he’s Jeff Bridges. I have a lot of thoughts about Bridges (again, go read my piece about him to see some of them), and also a lot of thoughts about ego and actors, but I’ll save that for another post I’m working on. I’ll touch on it briefly here.
The lack of ego in Jeff Bridges is, in part, why I think he is such an incredible chameleon. But I don’t want to overstate this, because it’s not 100% true that actors who are NOT chameleons are somehow lesser actors. Katharine Hepburn wasn’t a chameleon. Angelina Jolie isn’t a chameleon. John Wayne wasn’t a chameleon. Also, having an EGO is not a bad thing for an actor (but again, I’ll save that for the other post – argh, it keeps creeping in). Ego helps actors do extraordinary things at times, if utilized correctly. It makes movie stars. But Jeff Bridges is that rare thing: a chameleon AND a movie star. A movie star AND a man with no obvious ego. If you put some of his performances up side by side (and I’m just cherry-picking here, you could just go through his career and do this yourself) – it is hard to find the similarities between ANY of them, except for the fact that the same man played them all. The Dude in The Big Lebowski and Starman. Played by the same guy? The racist sweet lonely Turner Kendall in The Morning After and the befuddled macho vaguely dumb Vernon Hightower in the awesomely funny Nadine? Same guy? Jack Kelson in American Heart and Preston Tucker in Tucker? Obadaiah Stane in Iron Man and Jack Lucas in The Fisher King? Throw in there Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way, the leather-pants-clad Lightfoot in the deeply bizarre and (as Mitchell has said) “offensive on so many levels” Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, his sea captain in White Squall, his creep-tastic serial killer in The Vanishing … on and on and on and on. Mix and match as you like, the results will be the same. He is off the charts versatile. But even “versatile” doesn’t quite cover it, because that seems to connote a “skill” (he can cry, he can laugh, he can play the guitar, he’s versatile!) but it goes deeper than that.
I keep quoting myself in that other piece, and it’s so obnoxious, but I can’t help it. Shirley Maclaine spoke of working with Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge and her observation was that Streep “completely abdicates her own personality for that of the character’s”. This goes beyond SKILL as an actor. This is channeling. It is truly magic. Meryl Streep came and spoke at my school and she was quite inarticulate about acting, the greatest evidence (besides her work) that she is a genius. She got skittish about talking about the actual “hows” of it. Maybe talking about it would make it go away. Jeff Bridges obviously is a man out in the world who is things other than an actor. He is a husband, a father, a brother, an uncle … he’s a real guy with a real life, and he obviously has friends and family members who can say, “Oh, I know Jeff. Jeff is the type of guy who ….” But for us, out here in the movie darkness, we do not know who that is. He doesn’t let us see that. He’s in acting for another reason altogether. Maybe it’s a personal catharsis for him, to inhabit other people. Maybe it’s a way to satiate some curiosity, or some enduring questions about “what would it be like to …” I suppose he is revealed, as good acting always reveals something – but the channeling mechanism, the strength of the character he is playing – is always the filter through which we SEE him. If you only saw him as The Dude, you’d probably think he was always like that, it seemed so natural, so real. But then if you only saw The Door in the Floor, or Bad Company, or The Fisher King – if those were your only “meetings” with Bridges, then you’d think he was like THAT. It’s when you put them all together that you can see how truly extraordinary this man’s talent is.
We all have many sides, many selves. Bridges knows how to “conduct” himself, as in – pointing to the oboe when he needs it, gesturing to the string section when that is what is called for – and he knows how to let all else subside. The humor that was in The Dude is totally submerged when he plays Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Or Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys, one of the sour-est crankiest leading men in film history (second only to Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter in Only Angels Have Wings). And so, with this give and take with his own innate qualities, Bridges is a maestro of his own talent. So many actors – very fine actors – can’t even come close to doing that. He’s on another level. I love how mysterious it is, and also how uninterested he appears to be in it. He does what he does. But again, he has nothing to prove.
I think one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actor is by Jeff Bridges in American Heart, and while it was a critical success, it obviously wasn’t a commercial success. But there he was, giving his best work, blowing away every other actor on the playing field, in this tiny movie that played in art-houses, mainly. That’s what I mean by lack of ego. However, the man does not lack ambition. He has been working by stealth. This again touches on my thoughts about ego, which I want to save, but here’s a taste of it.
He has not “campaigned” for Oscars, not openly, he doesn’t appear in movies where it’s a done deal that he will be nominated. And when he does work that is so spectacular, like he does in The Door in the Floor, and it’s not even nominated – he doesn’t seem to crawl back to the trenches and start to scheme and plot that “next year will be the year”. You can sense that kind of ambition in certain actors, and I don’t fault them for it. Who doesn’t want to be in good projects and try to get some respect from your peers? But when you can sense an “Oscar grab” in a performance, it’s a turnoff for me. Bridges is always better than anyone else – like I said, hyperbole is too gentle for his talent – but he seems to do his thing, awesomely, every time, and then go back to Malibu, to have a Scotch on his deck, and hang out with his wife, and play guitar, and then, the next project comes along – whatever it is – and he goes back to work. There’s not a visible campaign ANYWHERE. It is so rare as to be almost unthinkable. I am trying to think of an equivalent and am coming up empty. At least in terms of true movie stars of his particular wattage. He is not an indie favorite, he is not a best-kept secret, nothing like that. He is a giant motherfucking movie star. I can think of many actors on other tiers of the industry who are also consistently fantastic – Samantha Morton immediately comes to mind – but while she is certainly wildly successful, you can’t really call her a “movie star”. She’s an actress, a successful and in-demand film actress, who, I think, puts many other movie stars to shame. She is amazing. But Jeff Bridges is a movie star with a capital M and a capital S. To be at his level, at his age, after the length of his career, and to not sense a “campaign” there (“I gotta have a comeback now”, “THIS role I’ll get my Oscar”) is truly amazing. Unheard of. It takes an enormous lack of ego to be at his level and to not plan.
I don’t want to simplify this, because he obviously picks his roles very very carefully. As Bruce Reid mentioned above, there are very few missteps in his career – and I don’t believe that’s an accident or coincidence. He PICKS. He CHOOSES. He is extremely smart. But his concerns in the choosing appear to be with the project itself, not what it can do for him, or how it can position himself. He appears (again, I have no idea) to be beyond those careerist concerns.
Maybe he’s a bigger genius than I ever realized, than any of us realized, and this whole THING has been a plan. Maybe after Last Picture Show, when he was a pudgy-faced teenager, he thought to himself, “Let me just be good … in every single thing I do … and maybe when I’m in my late 50s … it will suddenly be my time.” It’s strange to say that for me because I think that it’s basically ALWAYS Jeff Bridges’ time. He’s my favorite living actor. I do not consider an Oscar statue to be the measure of an actor’s worth. Cary Grant didn’t win an Oscar. At least not for a particular role he played. Marisa Tomei has an Oscar for a role she could have played in her sleep. So that goes to show you how much MEANING it really has. Of course it has meaning, in terms of career, and opportunity, and being “in the history books forever”, but besides that: who gives a shit? Those actors who appear NOT to give a shit are the ones who often are the last men standing. Jeff Bridges will be the last man standing. In many ways, he IS the last man standing. He is of the same generation as DeNiro, Pacino who dominated in the 70s and 80s, while Bridges? Not so much. Although, please, if I could NOT dominate in the 70s and 80s and have the level of success Bridges had? I would die a happy woman. But look at what has happened. The best work of DeNiro and Pacino is long in the past (so far. I live in hope). I will get into that in my ego/actor post. Bridges gives the sense, he always gives the sense, that his best work very well may be ahead of him.
He’s a star. Yes. But before that, he is an actor. He approaches his career the way my friends do who are actors on a regional-theatre level, awesome actors all of them, none of them famous on a wide scale, although very well-known in their own communities. They get cast as Puck, or Nora in A Doll’s House, or the Red Queen, or Eliza Doolittle – and they work their asses off, in a very specific and focused way, to do that particular play in that particular time. If the play calls for singing, they work like hell on the songs. If the play calls for an accent, they get a coach and work on the accent. These are the actors, true passionate and committed, that make up the industry. To find that same level of workmanship and selflessness in a movie star is amazing. People who are giant stars tend to get cautious. It makes sense. They have way more to lose than when they were young and hungry and eager to make their name. That much attention can make people clamp down, and try to just hold on to what they already have. Jeff Bridges, who never reached a kind of critical mass, never had an “iconic” part, that tapped into the zeitgeist, or was culturally explosive, avoided those issues. So he is hugely successful, yet he STILL doesn’t have that much to lose. You can feel it in his work. He is not protective. He is not clamped-down. He is fearless. Even more so now. What happened to other actors is in reverse with him. The more successful and visible he has become, the more risks he has taken.
Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, as far as I’m concerned, is just in the continuum of his excellence. It is certainly one of his most memorable parts. Jeff Bridges is, it need not be said really, a stunningly handsome man. He is a born leading man. So to see him here, overweight, perpetually sweaty, with a strange gait that suggests serious health problems NOT being handled, is thrilling. There’s one point when he leans in to kiss Maggie Gylennhall, and although she is drawn to him emotionally, she instinctively backs up, because, you know, of his breath. Cigarettes and booze. The man REEKS. Jeff Bridges creates this. I can smell his breath through the screen. He is sexy, but that’s just because he still has the faded glow around him of success. Bad Blake was once a big country/western star. He drives around the Southwest in a beat-up truck, being holed up in ratty motels, playing one-night-only gigs at bowling alleys and ratty piano bars. It is a fall from grace. But America, this land of “no second acts”, remembers its heroes, and Bad Blake is remembered. He will not be allowed a second act, but his first act will be extended, ad nauseum, until the man passes out anonymously in some alley in Durango. Bad Blake stands up on the tiny stages, hemmed in by his rent-a-bands, singing songs that are 30 years old, but you can see, by the beaming faces of the lovely people in attendance, that they remember. Hm, sound familiar? But Bad Blake is so far gone in his alcoholism that the love of the people that remains cannot touch him.
Bridges has an innate strain of cruelty in him that is in all of his parts (except, notably, Starman, where I imagine he, in his talent, “conducted” that strong strain in him to be silent), and if I could say that there was something he always does, in all parts, it would be that cruel streak. He expects a lot from people. He punishes them, emotionally, when they let him down. Think of Max in Fearless and how coldly he treats his wife because she didn’t have the great gift of being in the plane crash with him. This is not affectation. This is true. This is vintage Bridges. Sorry, I know it’s bad form to continually reference MYSELF, but I cover that in detail in the piece on HSD. Jeff Bridges never plays joiners. He plays solitary men. Sometimes the solitary nature of their character means they are visionaries: Seabiscuit, Tucker – and, to some degree, The Door in the Floor, although that has more of a tormented subtext to it. But more often than not, the solitary quality of his characters, leaves them in isolation – even when they find themselves in a romance. The Fisher King, The Fabulous Baker Boys. It’s rare to find Jeff Bridges in a community-driven character. He’s not a political organizer (funny, to think of his portrayal of The President in The Contender – think about how isolated that guy is, basically spending his time as President calling down bizarre food requests to the White House kitchen to see how they come up with it – he doesn’t play the President as a passionate involved politician. He plays him as a weirdo loner.) He often plays weirdo loners. To be so convincing as a weirdo loner, and to look like he does, is again, almost historical in its rarity. Many people with the kind of beauty Bridges has often want to play against their beauty, in order to prove their acting chops. I get it. I do. Even though I’m not beautiful like that, I can understand the impulse. But Bridges, a magician of acting, a true channeler, is beyond all of that. He couldn’t care less about any of that.
His performance in Crazy Heart is one of the most palpable portrayals I can think of what addiction is. I thought of Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas as I watched Bridges handle the need, the NEED, for a drink, and I also thought of Gena Rowlands in Opening Night, and how, at all moments when she is not drinking, she vibrates with need for a fix. It is never discussed or lingered over, but it is the OTHER character in that film. Unnamed, yet present. Bridges has moments that are breathtakingly sad, where you can feel his body kick in … He may be having a lovely day, taking his new girlfriend and her son for a hot-air balloon ride, a beautiful day, right? But he can’t be present. He can’t. Because all he is present to is how much he can’t wait to be alone and pour a drink. It’s terrible. It makes you sick to watch. It takes great compassion and empathy to portray such a need. He does it without condescension or self-importance. It is a physical sensation, outside of any actor-ish needs, such as “Look at me having DTs.” I myself felt sick watching Bridges maneuver through his life in Crazy Heart. In the middle of scenes, I would think, “Jesus, he’s about due for a drink now, isn’t he?” The addiction is so palpable, so present, that I couldn’t forget about it, not for a second. Late in Crazy Heart, the alcoholism takes center stage, but the film isn’t about that, not really. It’s not a “clean up and watch how wonderful life is” kind of story. Bad Blake is too far gone for that. As he says to another character at one point, “I been drunk most of my life.” There’s a lot of wreckage. It can’t be fixed. His life cannot be repaired.
Compared to last year’s The Wrestler, Crazy Heart is not as bleak. There is more hope for humanity, and for the lost souls among us, in Crazy Heart. The Wrestler is ruthless, in typical Darron Aronofsky style. If there is hope anywhere, it will be crushed by Aronofsky! In some ways, my sensibility is more like Aronofsky’s. I don’t like easy endings. I don’t relate at all to NEATness, which is why I love John Cassavetes’ movies so much (speaking of Opening Night). I find neatness alienating, and I find a desire for neatness in plot and story to be even more alienating. So I relate to the bleakness of The Wreslter, because that seems pretty true to life to me. You don’t always get what you want, and that’s final. Crazy Heart‘s path is not the path of The Wrestler, and I haven’t decided yet if the movie is stronger or weaker for that. I’m still pondering it. I can’t tell what is MY need (“I wish the movie went like THIS”) and what might be an actual flaw in the film.
Regardless. There is a giant bear of a performance going on by Bridges in Crazy Heart, and he is as good as he has ever been.
With him, that’s saying a hell of a lot, but it’s also just stating the obvious. As far as I’m concerned, Jeff Bridges has ALWAYS been as good as he’s ever been. Which is the best.
My House Next Door piece on Bridges here.