Jeff Bridges: 10 essential films

From Starman to The Big Lebowski – is Jeff Bridges ‘the most natural screen actor that has ever lived’?

David Parkinson

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Son of Lloyd, brother of Beau, Jeff Bridges has been in films since he was a baby. Over the years, he has based his screen persona on degrees of tousled, laid-back and gruff charm. Yet, while he has totted up his share of clunkers, he has rarely given a bad performance, whether he’s been a boxer (Fat City) or a stock-car racer (The Last American Hero), a video game character (Tron) or a comic-book villain (Iron Man), a car inventor (Tucker: The Man and His Dream) or a ship’s captain (White Squall), a decent dad (American Heart) or an un-PC Texas Ranger (Hell or High Water), the US president (The Contender) or his brother (Winter Kills).

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Director Peter Bogdanovich

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Both Jeff Bridges and Duane Jackson came of age in Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s hymn to small-town America in the early 1950s. Cast for the sunny disposition that would disguise the fact that Duane “always had meanness in him”, Bridges received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the high-school football star who fails to rise to the occasion with socially ambitious girlfriend, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd). The contrasting scenes of Duane at the drive-in being fed French fries with his head in Jacy’s lap, as well as his shrugging bus departure for Korean war boot camp, made Bridges a star.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Director Michael Cimino

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Having decided against quitting acting after teaming with Robert Ryan in John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh (1973), Bridges landed his second Oscar nomination in Michael Cimino’s bracingly brutal updating of Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). Bridges blends guileless naiveté with reckless impetuosity as the free-spirited drifter who takes crook Clint Eastwood’s side against thuggish pursuers George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis. The ensemble playing is excellent throughout this road-cum-heist movie, but the buddy byplay between Eastwood and Bridges stands out, especially after the latter disguises himself as a woman during a Montana bank raid. 

Against All Odds (1984)

Director Taylor Hackford

Against All Odds (1984)

Forming part of a noirish triptych with Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981) and Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die (1986), Taylor Hackford’s loose reworking of the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) allowed Bridges to temper his trademark charisma with some steel. He might initially be the patsy, as an injured American footballer accepting gambler James Woods’ commission to find team owner Jane Greer’s headstrong daughter (Rachel Ward). But, as the double-crosses pile up, Bridges draws on his sporting instincts to survive the endgame. Everyone remembers the daredevil car chase and the exotic Mexican scenery, but the real sparks fly during Bridges’ exchanges with Woods and Ward. 

Starman (1984)

Director John Carpenter

Starman (1984)

Infamous for being the film Columbia opted to make instead of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), this is a delightful but deceptively sharp sci-fi spin on the kind of cross-country jaunt depicted in It Happened One Night (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). The sixth director linked with the project, John Carpenter toned down the science to concentrate on the burgeoning relationship between Bridges’ crash-landed alien and grieving widow Karen Allen. Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise had been considered for the title role, but this is quintessential Bridges, as he combines curiosity, empathy and ingenuity in creating a hybrid clone whose quirky physicality was inspired by a study of ornithology.

Jagged Edge (1985)

Director Richard Marquand

Jagged Edge (1985)

For all his disarming charm, Bridges always comes across as someone to be trusted; hence, his chivalrous support for the imperilled heroines in Somebody Killed Her Husband (1978), The Morning After (1986) and Nadine (1987). But what writer Joe Eszterhas and director Richard Marquand do so brilliantly in this simmering thriller is to make us question whether the geniality is too good to be true and whether Bridges really could have killed his heiress wife. The courtroom exchanges between DA Peter Coyote and defence counsel Glenn Close crackle. However, the fascination lies in trying to read the inscrutable Bridges in a role rejected by Kevin Costner and Michael Douglas.

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Director Steve Kloves

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989)

Bill Murray & Chevy Chase and Dennis & Randy Quaid were in the running to play Jack and Frank Baker before Bridges was paired with older sibling Beau for the first time. Inevitably, the odd autobiographical detail slipped into first-timer Steve Kloves’ slick updating of the chestnut storyline about two Seattle lounge pianists who take markedly different approaches to music, life and their new chanteuse.

Joan Collins tells her husband, Percy Gibson, about developing a crush on Jeff Bridges

Jodie Foster, Madonna, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Debra Winger were among those to nix the role of Susie Diamond, but it’s impossible now to think of anyone but Michelle Pfeiffer reclining in a red dress on Bridges’ grand piano to croon ‘Makin’ Whoopee’. 

The Fisher King (1991)

Director Terry Gilliam

The Fisher King (1991)

There had always been an element of cynicism in Bridges’ on-screen cordiality, but it took the darker turn that has informed his later career in Terry Gilliam’s New York fairytale about “the bungled and the botched”. In an early draft, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese had envisaged Jack Lucas as a world-weary cabby who inherits a fortune. But, after listening to Howard Stern, he turned him into a drunkenly misanthropic shock jock, whose inflammatory remarks provoke the restaurant massacre that traumatises college professor Robin Williams. Picking up a role once promised to Billy Crystal, Bridges trained to be a DJ and even did a few trial shows to hone his technique.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Director Joel Coen

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Following his remarkable display as a plane crash survivor with a post-traumatic sense of invulnerability in Fearless (1993), Pauline Kael suggested that Bridges “may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived”. He more than proves her point in Joel and Ethan Coen’s delirious homage to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In an early draft, Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (who was based on producer Jeff Dowd) was the heir to the Rubik’s Cube fortune. But he remains a glorious enigma, as he swigs White Russians, frets about the rug that tied his room together and spouts the trippy maxims that spawned the Dudeist religion.

Crazy Heart (2009)

Director Scott Cooper

Crazy Heart (2009)

“You’re really screwing up my underappreciated status here,” Bridges joked while collecting his Golden Globe for his performance as washed-up country icon Bad Blake, which would also earn him an Oscar. Thomas Cobb based his source novel on Hank Thompson, but Bad has seemingly modelled his character and lifestyle on self-loathing ballads about drink, despair and decline. Consequently, he’s suspicious of second chances, whether they’re offered by Santa Fe music journalist Maggie Gyllenhaal or protégé Colin Farrell, who has betrayed his roots for success. Having played music since his teens, Bridges brings an achingly Kristoffersonian melancholy to his songs, as a somebody getting used to being somebody else. 

True Grit (2010)

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen

True Grit (2004)

Bridges is no stranger to westerns. He rode to the manor born in Bad Company (1972), Rancho Deluxe (1975), Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Wild Bill (1995), and spoofed generic convention to a tee in Hearts of the West (1975). However, in this Coens adaptation of a Charles Portis novel that was previously filmed in 1969, he actively opted to avoid direct comparison to John Wayne’s Oscar-winning portrayal of ageing US marshal Rooster Cogburn. Indeed, there’s more Dude than Duke about the way in which Bridges revels in the ornate dialogue while trying to assert the soused lawman’s long-lost authority. His climactic act of redemptive heroism after his horse dies is indelibly heartbreaking. 

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