Aug. 5 (Bloomberg) -- Jeff Bridges won his first Oscar this year for his soulful performance as a washed-up country singer in “Crazy Heart.” As good as he is in that film, he’s been even better.
Bridges has given more first-rate performances than any other actor of his generation, and he started right out of the gate. As Duane, the small-town Texan in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Bridges had an effortless amiability. A lesser actor would have emphasized Duane’s cocky swagger; Bridges brought out the fearfulness behind it and earned his first Oscar nomination.
A year later, in John Huston’s “Fat City,” he played Ernie, a young boxer whose reach literally exceeds his grasp. His performance demonstrated once again his naturalistic gifts.
He never seems to be acting, which is the most difficult kind of acting there is. Even in something as stage-bound as John Frankenheimer’s movie of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” (1973), Bridges makes you forget the proscenium arch. He holds his own with legendary actors Fredric March and Robert Ryan.
As moonshine runner and race-car driver Junior Johnson in “The Last American Hero” that same year, Bridges played a swaggerer who, unlike Duane and Ernie, earns his swagger. He portrayed a drifter-thief in Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974), stealing the movie with a celebrated scene in drag and copping his second Oscar nod.
Playing a cynical gigolo in “Cutter’s Way” (1981), Bridges proved he could be as sexy as any leading man. His scenes with the leonine Nina Van Pallandt, who looks as if she’s been dipped in gold, are sultry marvels. It’s the kind of role the young Paul Newman could have brought off, and Bridges’s performance invites comparison with him.
“Starman” (1985) isn’t one of his best, even though it earned him another Oscar nomination. His man-from-outer-space intonations sound like they were modeled on pigeon coos. Much better was his work in Francis Coppola’s uneven “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) as the visionary auto-maker Preston Tucker.
Bridges played opposite his brother Beau the following year in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” a fabulous film in which they team up as a minor-league nightclub duo that hires Michelle Pfeiffer to spice up their act. Bridges is one of the few American actors who can play opposite strong women without appearing threatened or neutered. He’s a supremely generous performer. I can’t remember him ever trying to upstage anybody.
He’s also supremely versatile. His powerful performance as an ex-con in “American Heart” (1992) is miles apart from his opium-smoking Wild Bill Hickock in Walter Hill’s “Wild Bill” (1995), or his hilarious slacker in “The Big Lebowski” (1998). He could segue from Lebowski to the U.S. president in “The Contender” (which garnered his fourth Oscar nomination) without the slightest drop in credibility.
Bridges will be seen later this year in “Tron: Legacy,” the sequel to “Tron” (1982), where he played a video-game designer who ends up trapped inside a computer. If any actor can breathe life into a graphic-gizmo extravaganza, it’s Bridges.
(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).
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