Jeff Bridges is my favourite actor of all time. I would gladly watch greats like True Grit alongside duds such as R.I.P.D. purely out of love for The Dude. Therefore, choosing an essentials list for Jeff Bridges is akin to choosing a favourite child for me. However, needs must, and to celebrate the release of The Giver, here are some of Bridges’ finest films.
Jeff Bridges is The Dude. The Big Lebowski could essentially be considered a documentary of his life, with lines and moments of the film even going on to inspire zen thinkers (Bridges himself follows Buddhist practices) as illustrated in his book The Dude and the Zen Master. Through the characteristically quirky lens of the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski is ostensibly The Big Sleep, but funnier, and with a lot more swearing. From The Dude finding justice for his peed-on rug, to nobody fucking with the Jesus, to John Goodman’s powerhouse of hilarity with the character of Walter, by way of a brilliantly choreographed bowling dream sequence, The Big Lebowski is a comedy masterpiece. And to this day, in the words of Sam Elliot, “The Dude abides.”
Reunited with the Coen Brothers for the first time since The Big Lebowski, True Grit sees Bridges take on the role of Rooster Cogburn, the very same part that earned John Wayne his Oscar. Rather than being a remake of that original film, this True Grit is a separate, and more faithful, adaptation of Charles Pontis’ fantastic novel. Following Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a young girl seeking justice for her father’s murder alongside the marshall Rooster Cogburn and the Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), True Grit brings the Western roaring back from its long hibernation, with a unique blend of action, humour, and wonderfully crafted dialogue. Bridges is on top form as the drunken, bitter but ultimately noble Cogburn, his amusing rivalry with LaBoeuf as entertaining as his show-stopping final confrontation with Ned Pepper’s gang. Crazy Heart may have finally won Jeff Bridges his Oscar, but it was for this film a year later that he most deserved it (with Colin Firth swapping years for his role in A Single Man.)
From director John Carpenter comes a trope well explored in the 80s, that of an alien coming to Earth and befriending a human. But Starman is a very different beast to E.T. and the like. Bridges’ alien takes the form of Jenny’s (Karen Allen) dead husband Scott after latching on to DNA from a lock of his hair. This adds a poignancy and tension to the film, as Jenny has to teach “Scott” how to survive on Earth and try to get him home, all the while looking at the face of the man she loved and lost. Bridges performance here is brilliant, approaching “Scott” like a child first discovering the world, full of wonder, but with stilted conversation and inappropriate social interaction. At times funny, elsewhere emotional, Starman is a unique slice of 80s sci-fi. As we will discover with this list, it also formed another of Bridges’ many Oscar nominations.
The film for which Bridges won his Oscar is rooted in the world of country music, and provides Bridges the opportunity to showcase his musical talents alongside his acting prowess (Bridges also released his second album around the same time.) As Bad Blake, Bridges plays an old, alcoholic musician who is long out of the limelight on the country music scene, making his way by playing small bars in the southwest. After meeting and beginning a relationship with journalist Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and reuniting with his mentee Tommy (Colin Farrell), Blake finally starts to get his life on track, but the demon of his alcoholism is always on his back. The story of the washed up star may have been told many times before, but what makes Crazy Heart special is winning performances, a heartfelt script, and absolutely stunning music.
The phrase “game-changer” is overused in the film industry, but can easily be applied to Tron. From Walt Disney Studios, Tron was an exploration of the early video game boom in the 1980s, and was unlike anything else ever seen before, earning an Oscar for Technical Achievements. While receiving mixed reviews in terms of the storyline, the visuals and acting were highly praised. Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, an engineer who enters into the world of video games, having to survive the threat of light cycle matches and simulations. The film is a visual delight, despite a fairly basic storyline, and Bridges is a winning lead. In fact, the reason why the long-awaited sequel, Tron Legacy was such a disappointment (Daft Punk soundtrack aside) was how underutilised Bridges’ Kevin Flynn was in the narrative.
Bridges’ first Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) came with his performance in this 50s set coming-of-age drama. About two best friends in a declining Texas town, The Last Picture Show looks at sex, friendship, and growing up in the era of the conservative South, with the spectre of the Korean war a huge factor in the journey of Bridges’ character, Duane. Reportedly, Bridges secured the role of Duane because of his unlikable nature in the book, while Bridges’ natural humour and warm personality would have (and did) make the character more agreeable to audiences.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Another Oscar nominated turn from Bridges comes in this crime film co-starring Clint Eastwood. As the Lightfoot of the title, Bridges plays a small-time car thief, getting more involved in the serious side of crime when he accidentally rescues bank robber Thunderbolt (Eastwood) from an assassination attempt. Eccentric and colourful, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is an excellent blend of melodrama and comedy, and despite the presence of a big-hitter like Clint Eastwood, the young (at the time) Bridges steals the show.
The Fisher King was covered in depth in our Week of Williams celebration of Robin Williams’ life and work, but Jeff Bridges’ contribution to the film cannot be forgotten, and therefore it warrants a place on this list. You can read our review of The Fisher King here.
Honourable Mention: Iron Man, for while it’s a great film and Bridges is a fantastic Obadiah Stane, it’s pretty much Robert Downey Jr’s show.