“You’re really screwing up my underappreciated status,” Jeff Bridges told the crowd giving him a standing ovation at the Golden Globes last year when he picked up a Best Actor award for his work in Crazy Heart. I’m not sure he’s right, however. Bridges seems destined to be perennially underappreciated. That isn’t the same as being unrecognized, disliked, or unrewarded: Bridges racked up two Oscar nominations early in his career, and he’s never wanted for work or praise. But no matter how much recognition he receives, he seems destined not to command the same awe as flashier or more conspicuously intense actors. He’s cemented his reputation as one of the best actors of his generation, but he’s done so quietly.
That might be partly because Bridges remains enigmatic. Not in the sense that he has secrets to hide: He’s simply never been much for living his life in public. He’s been married—by all appearances happily—for 34 years, fathering three children along the way. Even in his youth, he seems to have been low-key about any recklessness. The best dirt a 1977 Rolling Stone article could dig up was an unexpected friendship with veteran character actor Burgess Meredith. Most contemporary profiles tend to focus on Bridges’ resemblance to The Dude—the hero of the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski. But the resemblance ultimately feels a little superficial. Both like to smoke pot, enjoy their downtime, and carry themselves with a Zen detachment. But for The Dude, it’s always downtime, and he’s perfectly content just to be Lebowski. Bridges is always moving on, always slipping into somebody else’s skin.
The Dude aside, some of Bridges’ most remarkable performances come from playing characters in flux, like Max Klein, the shaken crash survivor of Fearless, an underappreciated performance in an underappreciated film. That was especially true toward the beginning of his career, when he played a lot of half-formed young men whose unmolded good looks suggested all the possibilities of youth, even though his character’s trajectories showed how quickly those possibilities can close down.
Case in point: Duane Jackson, Bridges’ character in The Last Picture Show. Bridges couldn’t ask for a better character for his first significant film role. Like many of his later characters, including The Dude, Jackson’s passion outstrips his introspection. As the film opens, he’s a high-school senior in a dusty post-war Texas town where Hank Williams is always on the radio. Duane seems as content as a teenager can be. He’s a football player—sure, the team’s lousy, but it’s still the only game in town—and he’s dating Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd) the prettiest girl around. They only neck, but that seems to suit him just fine. He’s got an easy grin and a loping gait to match. Then the ground starts to shift beneath his feet.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Peter Bogdanovich’s still-striking 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurty’s novel—apart from the way it now doubles as a collection of baby pictures of its stars—is the way it conveys how dramatically life can change in a short stretch of time. Duane has it all until he doesn’t. Prompted by her mother (Ellen Burstyn), Jacy starts to look for more. When she lets Duane sleep with her—at a motel, with seemingly half their class keeping watch outside—he’s unable to meet the demands of the occasion. When they finally do have sex, he’s happy to have finished the job, and blind to the obvious: She’s done with him. Though Robert Surtees’ black-and-white photography is one of The Last Picture Show’s most distinctive elements, Bridges almost visibly loses his golden hue as the film progresses. By its end, he’s drinking beer for breakfast and shipping off for Korea. His life, once an exclamation point, has turned into a question mark. (Well, McMurty did pen several sequels, and Bogdanovich shot one of them, Texasville, in 1990. But I’ve always been fine with leaving those characters where Picture Show leaves them: Trying to find meaning in all that dust and decline.)
Bridges first appears in Bad Company, a little-seen Western from 1972, leaning on the side of a building. But he isn’t slouching: He’s coiled. Co-written by David Newman and Robert Benton—the team behind Bonnie And Clyde—and directed by Benton (who was making his directorial debut), the film unfolds in the shadow of the Civil War. Barry Brown co-stars as Drew Dixon, a young man from Greenville, Ohio who flees conscription into the Union army and heads West to make his fortune as a silver miner. In spite of his duty-shirking, he considers himself pure of heart and remains determined to live an honest life. But honesty and survival quickly prove incompatible.
He’s first robbed by Bridges, but then quickly falls in with Bridges’ band of young thieves, most of them similarly avoiding military service. (Or, in the case of a member too young to shave, in want of any other options.) The film at first plays their crimes for laughs, accompanying them with a Harvey Schmidt piano score that could just as easily have soundtracked a silent comedy. But it’s only fun until it’s not: The film’s tone slowly dims as they move further west and grow more desperate. Food and resources grow thin, and the gang repeatedly runs into a group of hardened criminals who leave them defenseless and humiliated in the middle of the Great Plains. (The great character actor David Huddleston plays their rotund leader; years later, he’d plague another Bridges character as the eponymous Big Lebowski of The Big Lebowski.)
Though Brown’s character undergoes the most profound change, transforming from a fancy-pantsed schoolboy into a man capable of holding his own on the frontier, Bridges puts his character through a subtle transformation of his own. (A quick word about Brown: He’s as promising a performer in his own way as Bridges here, but his career—which also included work as a playwright and film scholar—sadly ended a few years later when he committed suicide.) Bridges begins as a ne’er-do-well, willing to take advantage of others, but never particularly interested in doing them harm. He ends the film a changed man, and not for the better. Where Bonnie And Clyde maintained an unlikely innocence, Bad Company is fundamentally about how harsh surroundings leech human kindness, how one bad deed leads to the next, corroding the soul in the process. Bridges never loses his rapscallion grin, but with typical understatement, he conveys how much has changed beneath that grin’s surface.
Bad Company ends on an irresolute note, though it’s not hard to see what happens next. Huddleston’s gang provides a grim image of the price exacted by the outlaw life, for those skilled enough to survive into adulthood. Bridges’ other 1972 film, the John Huston-directed Fat City, does much the same with its depiction of boxers in the hardscrabble corners of Stockton, California. The film opens with Tully (Stacy Keach), a former pro who fell on hard times and became overly familiar with harder liquor. Deciding to get into shape again, Tully heads to the Y, where he meets Ernie (Bridges), who’s shown up to train on a lark. They spar; spotting a natural talent, Tully encourages the kid to get some proper training from a local manager named Ruben (future Cheers barkeep Nicholas Colasanto).
There’s an obvious All About Eve arc for this setup to follow, but Huston’s film, an adaptation of a Leonard Gardner novel, avoids the obvious. Keach falls in with local barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) and takes some backbreaking jobs as a day laborer on local farms. He thinks about making a comeback and eventually does, but it proves short-lived. Ernie trains, experiences some wins and losses, gets his girlfriend (Candy Clark) pregnant, leaves the ring, returns to the ring, and starts winning again. The two stories intersect but seldom overlap, and the film ends with Ernie and Tully sharing coffee in silence. The older man is, once again, down and out. The younger one is on the rise. But by the final scene, it’s become clear that the lines won’t run straight. On top now, Ernie could just as easily—and likely will—wind up like Tully, who once had momentum on his side and a nice wife to come home to.
Keach, a truly underappreciated actor, has the showier part here, but Bridges’ work contains everything that makes him great. He leans back as scenes demand it, even disappearing into the skid-row Stockton scenery Huston captures so well. Like many of his early roles, Ernie is defined by remaining undefined. He’s a work in progress, and Bridges wisely doesn’t fill in too many blanks. He says little, but he doesn’t have to in a fatalistic movie in which victories prove fleeting, success is short-lived, and everyone on the bottom plays a game controlled by those on the top. The end of Ernie’s story writes itself, but if he knows that, and if he sees Tully’s fate as a vision of his own, Bridges doesn’t telegraph it. That sort of holding back is one of Bridges’ best tricks. Maybe he’s paid the price by being a bit unappreciated, but even early on, he seemed content to let the work speak for itself.
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