The Best of Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges won an Oscar and now has two could-be hits this winter in Tron: Legacy and the increasingly anticipated True Grit. Long considered one of our most underrated actors, the ol' man looks like he's finally getting the attention he's deserved. I'd say it's time to take a look back at some of his best work. Regrettably, I must begin with a cliche: This was really tough. Bridges is such a reliably good actor, I really had a hard time narrowing it down to just five, fearing a mistake I'd never forgive myself for later. But as I became more Dudelike I was able to see it through. Here goes:

The Big Lebowski
It's a crying shame The Dude did not get his due. When I think of The Big Lebowski I will always think of it as yet another sterling example of the Academy peeing all over the comedic carpet. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman -- in any sane universe -- should have been nominated. But this world we live in, folks, it is a nutty one. And that's OK. Because their work is bigger than the Academy could ever hope to be. The Dude is bigger than all of us. Walter is really bigger than all of us. We are but small ashes, blowing in The Dude's face, escaping from a Folgers Crystals can.

The Contender
The shark sandwich-eating Jackson Evans is one of my favorite big screen U.S. Presidents. Evans has charm, fortitude, ambition, and slyness by the barrel. If you cross him he will do-si-do you into a corner, stab you in the face with a bowie knife, and smile at you with preposterous earnestness. And then he'll try to change the world for the better. The Contender is a political thriller that -- perhaps all too conveniently -- becomes a sort of Capra-esque tale. Great men like Jackson Evans may not exist in today's politics (most Capra archetypes don't). But it's nice to think they can.

Crazy Heart
There's those jokes you hear about actors playing alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally-handicapped, or doing something Holocaust-related to win an Oscar (just ask Kate Winslet, literally). It's refreshing, then, to see a performance that doesn't pander or feel like it's manipulated in that way. Yes, Bad Blake is an alcoholic. Yes, there are some dark moments. But you don't have that big breakdown scene. You don't have that big "Oscar moment." This is par for the course when it comes to Bridges's career and one of the real reasons he's been such an underrated actor for so long. He doesn't need that. What makes him so good are the series of small moments that make the whole work sing. Like the phone call to his son. Or his hat-in-hand apology in the last act. These small, perfect moments add up to a mighty sum. And oh, this guy can sing. Kudos to him and Colin Farrell for playing dead-on country stars. And to T Bone Burnett for granting them the music.

The Fisher King
Bridges has a knack for playing broken men and here he's on double-duty as a fallen shock-jock who feels responsible for the broken life of another. There's a perverse joy in watching Robin Williams run the grounded Bridges ragged. He looks desperate to keep up -- or even understand -- the comedian, which is, of course, exactly how he needed to play it. And Williams really is such a terrific whirlwind of crazy in this movie it's easy to overlook how good Jeff Bridges is here, or even that the movie is really about him.

Starman
The first time I ever saw Jeff Brides was in 1984 and he was an alien. I remember my mother took my sister and I to see this in a double feature. Couldn't tell you what the other movie was. The only movie worth remembering was this, one of John Carpenter's best. After The Big Lebowski this is my favorite performance the actor's handed us. If I ever met an alien, this is how I'd want them to be: funny, sweetly innocent, and having no desire to incinerate or probe me. It's the little things I appreciate. After we saw this movie, whenever my mother asked me if I wanted to see another Jeff Bridges movie, she would always reference this role. "You don't want to see Nadine with me? You sure? It has Starman in it..." Quite the saleswoman, Mom.

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Dre writes for Film.com weekly.