Jeff Bridges Is Still Searching … But For What?
The always restless Oscar incumbent — who owns the box office with ‘True Grit’ and ‘Tron: Legacy’ pushing a combined $400 million — on Zen, what marriage is like as a commitment-phobe and the burden of being The Dude.
Deep at the bottom of Jeff Bridges’ vast, Meditteranean-style Santa Barbara estate — the estate where he’s lived since his Los Angeles house was destroyed in the 1994 earthquake — is a labyrinth he has mowed out of grass. It’s not a maze, he emphasizes: It’s a labyrinth.
A labyrinth gives you the freedom to wander far and wide and yet always reach your goal, he says eagerly. “In a maze it’s, ‘Which way do I go?’ You want to get lost. But with a labyrinth, there’s a pattern.” He grabs my notepad and starts drawing dots and lines, showing how they all connect and lead to the same place. “You think you’re constantly getting close, then going farther away. But you know you’re going to get there in the end.”
Bridges has gotten there in the end. After four decades of stardom, with an Oscar behind him and back-to-back hits in Tron: Legacy and True Grit, he has finally emerged as an American master, recognized as such in a PBS American Masters documentary that airs this week. Which you’d think would be enough for almost anyone. But instead, Bridges is searching, searching for something deeper.
Sitting in a friend’s Zen-inflected home in Venice, Calif., dressed in old clothes, with a straggly beard and yet still strikingly handsome at 61, he ponders: “Who am I? The answer comes back, ‘Who wants to know?’ ” He grins. “Well, I want to know: Who am I?”
If you think this sounds like the Tao of the Dude — the most laid-back man in America, the ultimate couch potato, the pothead Bridges made famous in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski — think again. Scratch the surface and you’ll find a far more complicated man than his 1998 character.
It’s evident in his restless experiments with painting and sculpture. It’s equally evident in his remarkable black-and-white photos, taken with a Widelux camera whose lens revolves a full 180 degrees, somehow capturing both stillness and motion — a duality that reflects Bridges himself.
And, of course, it’s most evident in the way he challenges himself repeatedly with roles as varied as the slick DJ Jack in The Fisher King, the alcoholic crooner Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, the U.S. president in The Contender and, most recently, the over-the-hill marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
When Grit opened wide Dec. 22, following the critically panned Tron, it wasn’t initially perceived as a frontrunner in terms of the awards race. Indeed, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association ignored the film when it announced its Golden Globe nominations Dec. 14.
And then something miraculous happened: Grit rode strong reviews to soar at the box office (it topped $110 million during the Jan. 7-9 weekend, making it the highest-grossing Western ever), and insiders started taking note. Now it’s become this year’s Blind Side, as The Hollywood Reporter’s Pamela McClintock has noted, broadening out to young people and appealing across the country, and coming in No. 1 for the first time in its third weekend.
Bridges — Oscar’s reigning best actor for Crazy Heart — joined Colin Firth from The King’s Speech and Jesse Eisenberg from The Social Network as the lead contenders this year. Suddenly, he’s the man everyone is talking about.
He seems unfazed. Completely at ease, happy with his home life, at the peak of his profession, he projects a sense of well-being that’s hard to resist. But he’s also a mass of contradictions.
A “sloth” in his older brother Beau’s affectionate description, he’s nonetheless exceptionally single-minded about work. “Selfish” by his own definition, he has still spent years fighting child hunger through his End Hunger Network. Strikingly open about his personal life, he is at the same time largely a closed box when it comes to that ultimate mystery: his work.
If this weren’t enough, he’s also a commitment-phobe who has remained faithful to his wife of 33 years, Susan Geston — the woman he repeatedly calls his “sweetheart,” whom he so lovingly singled out during last year’s Oscars.
Friends describe the one-time waitress who now looks after his home and kids as “brilliant” and the steadying influence who allows Bridges to roam, mentally and physically, always returning to this stable place. He takes pleasure describing how he met her while filming 1975’s Rancho Deluxe, only she turned him down. He’s palpably, indelibly in love with her and has been since the moment they met — and yet, for years, he couldn’t bring himself to commit.
“We lived together for three years, and after that time, she said, ‘Shit or get off the pot!’ ” he recalls. “And this theory started to materialize for me, about death: If death is how it all works out at the end, marriage is a giant step in that direction. If this is the woman, there are no more women. So I resisted, resisted, resisted.”
Finally, while sitting inside a giant head carved out of rock near his then-home in Malibu: “All of a sudden, I hear this shouting coming from my asshole up my spine, through my heart, saying, ‘You’ll now ask this woman to marry you.’ And tears ejaculated from my eyes. ‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘What’s wrong?’ And I go, ‘Nothing, nothing.’ She says, ‘Tell me.’ And I say, ‘I had this terrible feeling I was supposed to ask you to marry me. I’m just so f---ing scared!’”
Sue let him off the hook — for a while. “And I said: ‘Good! Let’s get the f--- out of here!’ ”
He laughs in his contagious way. His complexes entertain him rather than trouble him. But Bridges’ indecisiveness has become the stuff of legend.
“My mom calls it abulia,” he says, speaking of her in the present tense, though she died in 2009. “Isn’t that a good word, abulia? They say it’s a mental illness for people who can’t make up their mind.”
Given his powerful presence, this is difficult to believe, just as it’s difficult to believe such an enormously likable man has a darker side.
But he does.
Back in the ’70s, one interviewer described him as so inebriated, he threw up on the writer’s shoes. Bridges doesn’t remember. “I do recall having drunk too much the night before and having to do the interview and being hung over. In those days, it was more of a problem. Fortunately, I’m better at that lesson — although I still seem to learn it occasionally. There was always a relationship, you know, between booze and pot and drugs and all those things. It’s an element in my life. I’m not in AA or anything now, but I do drink occasionally.”
He admits to indulging after a movie. “I have a cycle that is not particularly cool, but it’s a cycle: trash myself to reward myself,” he says. “When I’ve done a good job, I’ve worked my ass off in a movie and been very disciplined, then to reward myself I’ll take that governor off and say: ‘Go ahead and do what you want, man. You want to get drunk? You do whatever you want.’”
One wonders how this impacts his wife and three daughters — all grown now, one about to give birth to his first grandchild in April.
He pauses. Puts his hands squarely on his knees. Looks up at the heavens for a long time. Then says his wife has had her own battles.
“She’s been sober, I think, for 15 years. No pot, no booze, nothing. It was a concern for me because I knew that I didn’t want to stop drinking and having an occasional smoke or whatever. And I was concerned about how that was going to affect her sobriety and also how it was going to affect her relationship with me. And she dealt with this all so gracefully. She said, ‘My own sobriety has nothing to do with anybody else.’ ”
Touchingly, right afterward, he calls her to make sure she approves of including this in the article.
The Coen brothers, who reteamed with Bridges on True Grit for the first time since Lebowski, admit he’s not averse to having a good time on set. But more impressive is his absolute professionalism.
“He’s meticulous; he’s always asking questions,” says Ethan, who wrote and directed True Grit with brother Joel. “I saw a copy of his script, which was heavily marked up and annotated. So was the book,” he says, referring to the Charles Portis novel on which True Grit is based.
At first, Bridges hesitated about making the film — though far less than he had with Lebowski. He was already immersed in shooting Tron: Legacy and hadn’t read Portis’ tale. When he did, he signed on, then began the task of creating his character.
“The ideas, they just come all the time,” he says. A case in point: Being shown photos of men from the time when the film is set. “I see somebody’s face looking at the camera. I go, ‘Whoa!’ That face would talk to me. I jot it down. I’ll see little clues and little tips that will trigger things. You prep, you prep, you prep. And on the day that you film, you let all of that go. I try to achieve emptiness as much as possible — the Zen thing — to let the deal come out of that nothing.”
With a difficult shoot limited by a $38 million budget and crammed into 60 days — much of it in freezing or boiling temperatures and with Bridges almost always on a horse — the Coens say he never made demands, never asked for any rewrites and was always prepared.
Like most of his experiences filming, he remained apart from his family, immersed in his job. A close friend scoffs at those who overlook this. “He’s an absolute perfectionist in everything he does,” she says. “You can see it in the way he works and in what he expects of the people who work with him.”
All of them adore him. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t — not even Peter Bogdanovich, the director who gave him his first big break in 1971’s The Last Picture Show and watched Bridges have a fling with Cybill Shepherd while Bogdanovich himself was falling in love with her.
Bridges is less thrilled about a comment Bogdanovich makes in the American Masters documentary, The Dude Abides, which screened Jan. 8 at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills — that he was unwilling to become a megastar because it meant superseding his father, the late actor Lloyd Bridges.
“That kind of rubbed my fur,” he says. “Our parents were so loving and wanted us all to be so connected. I would hope to be the same.”
He is. There are few children who speak of their parents as devotedly — and as frequently — as Bridges, an anomaly for the son of a Hollywood celebrity. Twelve years after Lloyd’s death, and almost two years after his mother Dorothy’s, their memory haunts him.
Growing up in West Los Angeles during the 1950s and ’60s, he, Beau and their sister, Lucinda, saw their father become famous with Sea Hunt, the TV series that ran from 1958-61. But its success gave Jeff mixed feelings about emulating his father and older brother, who also had become an actor.
A pudgy child who was teased at school for his dad’s onscreen role, Jeff battled any hint of nepotism. Instead, he thought of music or painting — two passions that still consume him — before drifting into acting.
It wasn’t until he made The Iceman Cometh, John Frankenheimer’s 1973 adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play, that he realized this might be his future. “I decided to be an actor kind of late in my career,” he admits.
In some ways, acting chose him. Way before Iceman, the husky kid had disappeared, replaced by a man of godlike looks. But he resisted stardom — or more particularly the “persona” associated with it.
“It gives me more breadth as an actor and as an artist to not be pigeonholed,” he says. “With my dad being ‘Mike Nelson,’ I was really concerned about not creating a strong persona.”
Is that why he hesitated? Or was it the conflict within him — the endless collision over which path to follow that sometimes suffuses his conversation and makes it seem like billiard balls scattering in a dozen directions?
“Words fall short sometimes,” he shrugs.
His friend T Bone Burnett warns not to take Bridges at any surface level. “He never comes at things from a rationalist point of view,” he says. “He is always looking for the thing under or behind, looking for the fire and not the smoke.”
It was a lot of smoke, alas, and no fire that almost brought his career to a halt in one of the biggest flops of the 1970s, Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. The movie tanked but was equally distinguished by Bridges’ lackluster performance.
“I did Kong not because this could really be good for my career but because I used to ditch school, pretend I was sick, so I could watch the original on TV,” he explains. “It was like a child thing, very similar to why I’m doing Tron. There’s a kid in me that’s still alive, and it bubbles up that way. And when it comes out and fails, I’m on to other things.”
After Kong, Bridges registered a few modest hits, several flops and one spectacular disaster: Heaven’s Gate (1980), on which he first met Burnett. But then he returned with 1984’s Starman, the romance in which he plays an alien who lands on Earth and assumes the identity of a man who’s just died.
The combination of humor and quirkiness put Bridges back on the map and earned him an Oscar nomination — his third, following Picture Show and 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, in which he starred with Clint Eastwood.
“A lot of people think the Dude is Jeff,” Burnett says, “but the character in Starman is closest, because he seems to look at everything from outer space. Everything is marvelous to him.”
It still is, and has been throughout a progression of characters, most of which he initially resisted, like Lebowski.
“I was concerned about taking that part because it was sort of romancing a stoner, a pothead,” Bridges says of the film, which fizzled when it opened but has since become a cult classic. “My daughters at the time were a little bit more vulnerable. So I asked what they thought, and Jessie, my little girl, said, ‘You’re an actor, you’re pretending.’ ” Bridges took the role.
On set, he even taught the Coens a few tricks. “Up until Lebowski, we never had a video monitor,” Joel says. “I was convinced it would be misused, but it gave him this ability to check his work and, after two or three takes, make subtle adjustments that we couldn’t see.”
This subtlety has often fooled critics who perceive Bridges’ role simply as an extension of himself.
“That character took thought and concentration,” brother Beau insists. “He put a lot of time into trying to figure out exactly how he looked, what he wore — everything about him. And at the end, you look at him, and he’s just that relaxed dude.”
Lebowski, with perhaps Bridges’ best known character, failed to earn him an Oscar nomination. A fourth nom came for 2000’s The Contender, but the statuette eluded him until a small movie plucked the prize.
Crazy Heart (2009) was another of those pictures Bridges at first turned down, even though helmer Scott Cooper had written the role for him. In this case, his rationale was simple: Without any music in place, who knew if the film would be good?
And then Bridges ran into Burnett. “If you do it, I’ll do it,” Bridges told him — and the film was a go.
It’s one of the striking oddities of Hollywood that Crazy almost didn’t make it to the screen. Viacom, which owned it, had closed down its specialty division, Paramount Vantage, and didn’t have the mechanism to release the picture. Cooper’s agent, Jeffrey Berg, intervened, persuading the company to sell it to Fox Searchlight, which, sniffing possible prizes, shrewdly opened the film just in time for the Academy Awards.
On March 7, 2010, Bridges finally won his Oscar.
Now he’s back in the game.
The acclaim he’s gotten for Grit has reminded Hollywood that he is, indeed, a master. The film’s producer, Scott Rudin, calls him “one of the greatest actors we have,” just one of many tributes that have flooded in during the past year.
All this amuses Bridges, but it’s hardly what drives him.
Just what does is trickier to define. Not money. Not possessions. “It might surprise you how careless he is about the things of the earth, about fame and wealth and all that stuff,” Burnett says. “He is very detached from that. He’s created his own world.”
It’s a world that involves work, family, music, painting and Buddhism (he jokingly refers to the Coens as “the Koan brothers,” referencing the Zen technique of posing questions that have no logical answer). But it’s also a world as mysterious as that labyrinth in Santa Barbara.
He comes back to it one more time. “With a labyrinth, you make a choice to go in — and once you’ve chosen, around and around you go,” he says. “But you always find your way to the center.”