Film

The Searcher: On the Enduring Appeal of Jeff Bridges, All-American Loser

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In 1971, a 21-year-old Jeff Bridges starred in a TV movie called In Search of America, about a young man from a well-to-do suburban family who decides to skip college and go off across the country to find himself. When his family protests, he decides to bring them along, too, converting a school bus into a mobile home. The film is…well, it’s not good. But as a fresh-faced youth whose comfort and happiness are tempered by a sense that there’s more to the world, the then-unknown actor cuts a compelling figure. That same year, he was even more charismatic in The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich’s beloved adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel about a small, dying Texas town in the 1950s. As Duane Jackson, a strapping, handsome high school football player, the young actor is effortlessly charming. This time, it’s not curiosity that drives him away. His family is dirt-poor, and he gets a job working in the oil fields. A journey of liberation is not in the cards for Duane.

If you look strictly at where he started, and where he is now, you might see very little overlap between those early films and Bridges’s latest, the ridiculously entertaining crime drama Hell or High Water, in which he plays a drawling, cantankerous, soon-to-be-retired Texas Ranger who has to chase down two brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) robbing a string of small-town banks. Working with his Mexican-Indian-American partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), Bridges’s Ranger Marcus Hamilton peppers the conversation with politically incorrect ribbing, hauling out every dumb Mexican and Native American joke in the book on the ever-patient Alberto, who in turn gives as good as he gets. (“You know I’m also part Mexican?” Alberto retorts after Hamilton makes a wisecrack about Indians and pemmican. “I’m gonna get to that when I’m through with the Indian insults,” Hamilton replies. “It’s gonna take a while.”)

Hamilton could easily have become a Yosemite Sam–like caricature, a bit of cowpoke comic relief to break up the film’s heavy air of economic desperation. But Bridges brings a tenderness to the part. Hamilton is a man who recognizes that the world is changing and knows he can’t keep up. So he jokes about it, sometimes crassly, though at heart he’s basically OK with it all. And nobody — nobody in the story, and probably nobody in the audience — is genuinely offended by anything he says. Because he’s played by Jeff Bridges.

I’m pretty sure the first time I saw Bridges on screen was in King Kong, the bloated 1976 Dino De Laurentiis remake in which even his easygoing energy couldn’t save his primatologist character’s awesomely stupid dialogue. But over the years I’ve seen him in every kind of picture, from sci-fi extravaganza to western to action thriller to romantic comedy. Somewhere along the way, he became one of my favorite actors — and I’m guessing maybe one of yours, too. That’s just how it goes with Bridges. He’s always been likable. With his wide, lopsided smile and upturned eyebrows, he has a face that could be described as “simpatico”: handsome, relaxed, accessible, never intimidating.

Just a couple of years into Bridges’s career as a lead, Pauline Kael wrote her famous line about him, in a review of The Last American Hero (1973): “[He] may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived.” She continued: “He’s the most American — the loosest — of all the young actors, unencumbered by stage diction and the stiff, emasculated poses of most juveniles.” Kael contrasted Bridges with fellow newcomer Robert De Niro, whose wiry intensity had just been on full display in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). She could have just as easily invoked Al Pacino, or Dustin Hoffman, or any of the other prized leading men of the era. And Seventies American cinema fed on intensity — even ostensibly relaxed, charming romantic leads like Warren Beatty and Robert Redford conveyed a kind of focus and determination beneath their dreamboat veneers. But Jeff Bridges? How would one define him? “If he has a profile,” said Kael, “we’re not aware of it.”

In subsequent years, that absence became Bridges’s profile. There is, quite consciously, almost no intensity to his persona. His best-known role, as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), has become iconic thanks to his reefer-positive attitude, with immortal lines that speak to both an acceptance of the world (“That’s just, like, your opinion, man”) and the futility of posturing or certitude (“This aggression will not stand, man.”) This laid-back aura has even become his personal brand: Bridges has spoken of the benefits of meditation for years, and in 2013 he co-authored The Dude and the Zen Master — a rambling, book-length conversation about life, acting, and Buddhism — with his friend, the Zen teacher Bernie Glassman. In 2015, he released The Sleeping Tapes, an LP of spoken word, ambient sound, and field recordings designed to help listeners fall asleep. (It works.)

But watching and re-watching Bridges’s work in recent months, taking in the full breadth of his career, I sense something more. As an actor, he is comfortable in his own skin. But that languid manner masks an innate restlessness — a questioning, unmoored quality that speaks to a postwar generation that never quite found its place.

Bridges came of age in the Sixties, and he was appearing in movies and television as early as 1951, as a toddler, but he became a regular, working actor in the Seventies, as the counterculture was giving way to the Me Decade. At the time, he didn’t even know if he wanted to continue as a performer; it was just the family business (his father was the actor Lloyd Bridges). He has said that it wasn’t until his appearance in the 1973 American Film Theater production of The Iceman Cometh, opposite Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin, that he committed fully to acting. Amazingly, this was after he’d already been nominated for an Oscar, for The Last Picture Show.

Maybe Bridges absorbed some aspect of this uncertainty, let it grow inside him into a kind of stance against his times. He made a startling number of westerns and neo-westerns in the Seventies, a decade when the western was supposed to be dead — from Robert Benton’s Bad Company (1972), about young, draft-dodging thieves during the Civil War, to Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), about an impressionable Depression-era youth who sets off to find the frontier and instead becomes a cowboy movie stuntman, to Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe (1975), about a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers. (Even when the films aren’t westerns, they borrow from the idiom: The Last Picture Show lives in the shadow of the genre and the myth of a dying frontier. So does Hell or High Water. Ranger Hamilton is a throwback, but he’s a throwback to something that never really existed. Near the end, we see him come home, and we notice that he doesn’t live in a tent, nor in a room above a saloon, nor on a ranch. Instead, he has a nice, modern house in town, filled with modern conveniences and a big-screen TV.)

Yet Bridges was never really a typical western actor. For most of his career, he had none of the gruffness or stoic, wounded terseness of an archetypal cowboy hero. In fact, he was the opposite. He was chummy, light on his feet, even naïve — part surfer, part tenderfoot. In those early roles, he’s something of a foil for western heroes: In Hearts of the West, he plays opposite Andy Griffith; in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), he co-stars with Clint Eastwood, who is everything Jeff Bridges is not. His presence is an almost modernizing one, as a bright-eyed but self-aware kid who can see that the world around him is disappearing. A lot of these films end with his character defeated but spiritually intact. Even death passes over Jeff Bridges gently.

The intensity of the 1970s would transform into a larger-than-life machismo in the Reagan years — which is just about the least Jeff Bridges–like posture that I can imagine. Still, he managed to continue being himself — sort of. In the 1980s, he appeared in his share of thrillers (Jagged Edge, The Morning After, Against All Odds) and sci-fi fantasies (Tron, Starman). And while he’s pretty good in most of these — he deserved his Best Actor nomination for Starman — there’s also a certain anonymity to the parts. His best work from this period can probably be found in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) and Steve Kloves’s The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). In Tucker, he plays automotive pioneer Preston Tucker, a dreamer and inventor whose postwar optimism drives him to take on the big car companies, only to find himself crushed by the forces of runaway capitalism. In Baker Boys he’s one half of a lounge piano act (opposite his brother Beau) stuck playing the same jazz standards for thirty years. Here, Bridges is impossibly romantic — I’m not sure he’s ever been sexier — but there’s a pronounced melancholy to him, too. I don’t think he cracks a genuine smile once in the whole film, or at least not until his very final scene with Michelle Pfeiffer.

That sense of keeping the world at bay was something new for Bridges. He explored it further in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), giving what I still think is the greatest performance of his career, as a smug New York shock-jock whose universe collapses when he accidentally inspires one of his avid listeners to shoot up a restaurant. Throughout the rollercoaster ride of the character’s journey, the actor’s face remains a tight mask. You can see in the early scenes how that very same easygoing, chummy veneer that defined his earlier roles can turn toxic when mixed with ego and entitlement. A similar tension haunts his expression through much of Peter Weir’s Fearless (1993), in which he plays a man who survives a horrifying plane crash only to wind up in existential despair over his newfound lease on life.

In recent years, of course, Bridges has found the tough, grizzled demeanor that once so eluded him. Maybe all he needed was for age to weather that handsome face and strapping figure, to break him a little. Whether it’s his Oscar-winning turn as Bad Blake, the alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart (2009), or Rooster Cogburn, the noble but ornery Texas Ranger in the Coens’ True Grit (2010), or Roycephus Pulsipher, the supernatural ghost-cowboy in the (disastrous) sci-fi action flick R.I.P.D. (2013), Bridges has finally eased into the part of the western hero. But he’s still, somehow, that same questioning, restless kid. And it’s that quality that lends these roles a kind of otherworldly complexity — that takes them out of the realm of cliché or caricature. He’s still playing a man whom the times have passed by — a survivor who recognizes that there’s no place for him in this world.

Which is, after all, the animating spirit of the western. Come to think of it, even The Big Lebowski, for all its surreal, stoner-noir stylings, has a western framework: The film is narrated by Sam Elliott as The Stranger, a cowboy telling a tall tale, and opens with a tumbleweed blowing across the prairie, making its way to the ocean. It’s a playful touch, but a poignant one. By the end, it’s hard not to feel that The Stranger’s fondness for The Dude comes from the fact that they are both specimens from a bygone era. The cowboy and the boomer, the rustler and the revolutionary — they’ve both earned their place in America’s pantheon of lost souls.