Even though he finally won his Academy Award a few years ago for his role in Crazy Heart, playing Bad Blake, a down-and-out country singer-songwriter trying to make a comeback in his career, Jeff Bridges keeps rolling on.
Following his starring role in the summer’s boxoffice disappointment R.I.P.D., comes a fantasy called Seventh Son, co-starring Julianne Moore; voiceover work for an animated film version of The Little Prince; and the title role as The Giver, the mentor in a futuristic society where only select people can have emotions and memories.
Bridges has never been a real box-office force, whether it be in films for which he was nominated for Oscars (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Last Picture Show, The Contender, Starman and True Grit, which actually did very well in theaters), or in more high-profile roles, particularly as Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski in The Big Lebowski, Jack Forrester in Jagged Edge, Jack Baker in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Kevin Flynn (aka Clu) in the original Tron, and the evil Obadiah Stane in Iron Man.
Mention the name “Jeff Bridges,” however, and four decades of memorable performances in films that may be all but be forgotten spring to mind. He has been so good for so long, even though he has received lots of critical recognition over the years, many of his past efforts have remained obscured by the fact their followings have often been relegated to “cult status.”
Still, with a list of sharp performances in offbeat films. Bridges remains an iconoclastic performer always willing to take a risk.
We’ve settled on some of “The Lost Films of Jeff Bridges,” hoping you may take a risk:
Fat City (1972): One of the gems John Huston made in the latter part of his career is a boxing story that’s poignant and hard-hitting at the same time, while being exceptionally well acted as well. Adapted by Leonard Gardner from his own novel, the film features Stacy Keach as a Stockton, CA boxer on the skids who persuades young sparring partner Bridges to work with his trainer and make a mark in the ring. At the same time, Keach is inspired to get back into the fight game himself. The Oscar-nominated Susan Tyrell is the barfly drawn to Keach, and Candy Clark as Bridges’ demanding girlfriend, also score in support, but it’s the rapport between Keach and Bridges that really makes this movie special.
The Last American Hero (1973): Although its theme song is more famous than the film itself (“I Got a Name” by Jim Croce), this is a fine biopic with Bridges as Elroy “Junior” Jackson, who rises from family moonshine runner with his brother (Gary Busey) to stock car driver to NASCAR legend. Bridges’ good ol’ boy demeanor has you rooting for him, whether he’s dodging the cops on a whisky run, revving up for a big competition or battling rival racer William Smith for the affections of track groupie Valerie Perrine. Based on articles in Esquire by Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and directed by award-winning TV veteran Lamont Johnson (That Certain Summer, The Execution of Private Slovik), the film is an upbeat winner that will appeal to fans and non-fans of the sport.
Hearts of the West (1975): Bridges’ good-natured Everyman persona is put to great use in another underrated project, this one directed by Howard Zieff (Slither). Bridges is an optimistic Iowa farmboy who accidentally lands in 1930s Hollywood with hopes of making it in the movies. He quickly moves from cafeteria dishwasher to stuntman to “B” western hero under the tutelage of manic director Alan Arkin. All this as he encounters crooks, romances script girl Blythe Danner and pens a Zane Grey-like novel. Andy Griffith, Donald Pleasance, Alex Rocco and Frank Cady chip in with fine supporting work, while Bridges’ likability shines in all facets of his busy character, no doubt informed by father Lloyd Bridges early career as a “B” movie actor.
Stay Hungry (1976): Bob Rafelson, one of the leading directing lights of 1960s/1970s New American Cinema with Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens under his belt, focuses on themes such as alienation, the generation gap and youthful restlessness in this extremely off-kilter dark comedy. Bridges excels as a lazy, orphaned young man who inherits an Alabama mansion. Enlisted in a shady real estate deal involving the purchase of a gym, Bridges begins hanging out at the place, befriending a muscleman (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and getting attached to the receptionist (Sally Field). When time starts running out on the deal and the gym becomes the target for thugs, Bridges has to figure out how to swing his allegiance. Adapted by Charles Gaines (Pumping Iron) from his own novel, the film showcased two sides of Bridges, as spoiled son of privilege and man of the common people. Oddly enough, Bridges’ character could be the younger version of President Jackson Evans from The Contender, for which the actor received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Winter Kills (1979): Director William Richert’s loopy translation of the darkly comic satire of the JFK assassination penned by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate) is a cult film that never happened. Bridges plays Nick Kegan, the Bobby Kennedy-like half-brother of a U.S. who was assassinated in Philadelphia (!?) 19 years prior. After hearing the dying confession from the supposed “second gun” in the killing, Nick takes a wild journey on a conspiracy-filled ride to find out who the real culprit (s) are/were. The film offers a wacky, paranoid-laced trip that uses many of the Kennedy assassination theories as mountains Bridges must climb to the discovery of the truth. Rumors abound that a kibosh triggered by the Kennedy family and the military industrial complex led to the quick box-office demise of this financially troubled production, despite Bridges’ sinewy performance and a genuinely bizarre amalgam of supporting players that included John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Eli Wallach, Richard Boone, Toshiro Mifune, an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor and whatever-happened-to beauty Belinda Bauer.
Cutter’s Way (aka Cutter and Bone) (1981): Although it came out in the early 1980s, Czech director Ivan Passer delivers what is a quintessentially 1970s effort in terms of style and outlook, a dark drama boasting, rich, flawed characters who attempt to buck the system as the shadows of the Vietnam War and Watergate loom over them. John Heard is Cutter, a volatile disabled veteran whose support system comes from his alcoholic wife (Lisa Eichhorn) and his best pal, part-time gigolo Bone (Bridges). When Cutter discovers that a prominent businessman from their Santa Barbara home base is involved in the murder of a teenage girl, he conspires with the victim’s sister (Ann Dusenberry) in an attempted shakedown of the culprit. When Heard and Bridges share screen time together, Heard got the showier role as the angry, eye-patched double amputee, but Bridges matched up to him with his subtle characterization.
8 Million Ways to Die (1986): When it comes to the term “fascinating mess,” they don’t come any more fascinating—or messier—than this noir, taken out of ailing director Hal Ashby’s hands and edited like a butcher guillotining a cow for chopped sirloin. The storyline, which was dramatically reconfigured from Lawrence Block’s novel by no less than four writers (including Oliver Stone and an uncredited Robert Towne), centers on detective Jack Scudder (Bridges), an alcoholic Los Angeles detective in search of the killer of a prostitute (Alexandra Paul). The investigation eventually leads to a flashy Latino drug dealer (Andy Garcia in an attention-getting early performance), and Scudder uses another call girl (Rosanna Arquette) to get to him, while she’s getting to Scudder in another way. Amidst the messy continuity and oddball plotting, Bridges elicits genuine empathy for his down-and-out character. Both he and Garcia have opined about what a terrific film this could have been if others didn’t meddle in Ashby’s intended personal and experimental take on a genre film.
Arlington Road (1999): As a college professor distraught by the death of his late wife and suspicious that the new neighbors on his street (Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack) are up to no good, Bridges turns in a mesmerizing performance in a film that still haunts years after its release. The actor’s good-natured demeanor take a back seat to the edgy intensity of a character emotionally throwing in the towel, as he discovers more and more about the creepy new family on the block and their full intentions, unrevealed until a nifty surprise ending.
Simpatico (1999): With horseracing as its background, this mystery/drama adapted by a play by Sam Shepard was completely overlooked. It’s worth checking out for a number of reasons, like Bridges’ multi-faceted portrayal of the wealthy owner of successful racing horses, who lives on a sprawling Kentucky farm with his alcoholic wife (a miscast Sharon Stone). Meanwhile, a destitute, emotionally distraught old pal (Nick Nolte) comes back into his life, years after they were involved in fixing a race and ruining the career of California horse racing commissioner Albert Finney. Now, Nolte has plans to change his luck, and they involve Bridges’ wife, the Kentucky Derby and Nolte’s unpredictable girlfriend (Catherine Keener). The uncomfortable atmosphere of the scenes of Bridges and Nolte together, old friends whose relationship has gone sour, add a layer of intensity, while flashbacks to the principals’ younger days signal how the future will be affected by the past. The film also presented a tuneup for Bridges in another, more high-profile racetrack tale, 2003’s Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit.
The Door in the Floor (2004): Bridges seems to have always been willing to work with young filmmakers, and here under the guidance of Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole, the forthcoming Paranormal Activity 2), he excels in a sadly overlooked film. Author John Irving personally thought his novel A Widow for One Year unfilmable, and Williams shrewdly elected to solely tackle the book’s opening third for his screenplay. Bridges plays an eccentric novelist with a fondness for alcohol, painting nudes, and seducing his models, whose marriage to Kim Basinger has been in pieces since their twins were killed in a tragic accident. When a teenager (Jon Foster) with aspirations of writing takes a job as Bridges’ assistant, Basinger turns on the Mrs. Robinson allure, something that the writer will eventually try to exploit. Bridges channels the shagginess seen in both The Big Lewboski’s Dude and the yet-to-be created Bad Blake of Crazy Heart for his darkly funny, pathos-spiked performance.
Bonus Pick: King Kong (1976): This movie has a bad rap, and most of it is deserved, from its inane dialogue to goofy special effects with Rick Baker in an ape costume part-time to…well, you get the point. In retrospect, though, this version of Kong is plenty of dumb fun, and a whole lot easier to sit through than Peter Jackson’s lumbering 2005 remake. Consider that Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (the Batman TV series, Flash Gordon) did the script, and you get the feeling that this is more of a spoof than a serious reboot of the 1933 classic. Coming off well here is Bridges’ Jack Prescott (taking the original Bruce Cabot role) as the now-hippie anthropologist in search of the big monkey. He looks a little like the Cowardly Lion, but in his own small way, adds some much-needed gravitas to the proceedings, even when spouting lines like “There is a girl out there who might be running for her life from some gigantic turned-on ape.”