Act Like a Man is a column examining male screen performers past and present, across nationality and genre. If movie stars reflect the needs and desires of their audience in any particular era, examining their personas, popularity, fandom, and specific appeals has plenty to tell us about the way cinema has constructed—and occasionally deconstructed—manhood on our screens.
Contemplating the lifelong brilliance of the 71-year-old Jeff Bridges, one thing seems certain: he’s not at risk of being forgotten. At the very least, he will likely be forever synonymous with the Dude, a lovable, beardy, schlepping character who espouses stoner philosophy and helped make The Big Lebowski (1998) an all-time cult favorite. The Dude may abide so well that it’s become easy to obscure the fact that Jeff Bridges has been doing strange and fascinating things on screen for nearly every decade of his life—in arguably better and more interesting roles than that of the Dude.
Bridges first appeared onscreen at two years old, uncredited in a 1951 film called The Company She Keeps, alongside his older brother Beau. Both siblings thus embarked on screen careers very early in their lives. This was thanks to a famous father, Lloyd Bridges, who helped orient his sons in the business with knowledge from his own years as a screen star. Jeff would go on to work with a roll-call of remarkable directors: Hal Ashby, Sidney Lumet, Peter Weir, John Carpenter, and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. He has played sinister hustlers, romantic leading men, aliens, cowboys, and down-at-heel jazz musicians. He can be a round-faced innocent, a lilywhite prince charming, sullen and unassuming, or an arrogant con artist with a propensity for womanizing.
In the characterful American movies of the seventies and early eighties, Jeff Bridges proved to be a reliable marker of quality: if he was in it, it was probably worth watching. He seemed to have unerringly good taste in his projects, maybe partly due to being raised in a show-business family. Those instincts saw him nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at 22. In what was only his third screen credit, he starred as Duane in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). A high school quarterback in a dead-end Texan town, Duane is a knockaround blue-collar kid with little future outside his small-town popularity.
Bridges already had proven himself a screen natural, as much in his presence as in his movie star heritage. He has an ease on camera from his earliest roles; a casual, loose gait that makes him seem thoroughly self-assured. Baby-faced and twinkly-eyed, with straw blond hair and a crinkled smile that seemed to radiate “jes’ folks” kindness, Bridges grew up to be handsome in a corn-fed, homespun way. Westerns became an early niche for him.
His golden retriever quality easily could have confined him to “all-American boy” roles and limited him as he aged, but the template he had found in The Last Picture Show would help to give the image more shading than on first glance. In Fat City (1972), John Huston’s malaise-filled portrait of boxing up-and-comers and down-and-outers, Bridges elaborated on his ability to play wasted youth. His promising, romantic looks and wide-set blue eyes gave him the look of a dreamer, and directors seemed to delight in that corruptibility. He became a perfect manifestation of American youth and manhood spoiled before its time, whose dreams had died in the cradle.
This happened again—though differently—in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1975), a buddy film which would also use Bridges as a charming kid doomed by his own optimism. In this case, he seems to be coded as gay, openly infatuated with the older, tougher, and more overtly macho Clint Eastwood. During a decade in which Americans seemed deeply disillusioned with the promise of the future, the fact that this likeable young man rarely seemed to emerge from a film unscathed seems telling.
In the eighties, Bridges bulked up and his stardom became more traditional. He had starred in King Kong (1976) and would go on to be in the successful blockbuster Tron (1982), and continues to flirt with the big-budget movie here and again. But this tragic quality would resurface from time to time throughout Bridges’ career. In 1984, Bridges would star in two downbeat romantic dramas. In Starman, directed by John Carpenter, he was opposite Karen Allen, playing an alien who has taken over the body of her recently-deceased husband. The movie is strange and devastating, half classical Hollywood melodrama and half extraterrestrial fantasy. Bridges, a sort-of blank slate in the body of a dead man, is incredibly moving in the role. In the same year, he was in Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds, the maligned remake of noir classic Out of the Past. Bridges takes on the Robert Mitchum role, playing a well-intentioned ex-football hero sent to Mexico to fetch his friend’s mistress, only to fall for her. Their ill-fated love sees a perma-tanned, hunky Bridges lose out at every turn. The last moments of the film, soundtracked to Phil Collins, are perfect weepie territory. The messaging was clear: who’d want to let a man like that go?
Still, “lovable” is not Bridges’ only mode. Less than ten years before Lebowski, he starred in throwback romantic drama The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), where the Dude’s robe and slippers were traded for slim, monochrome clothes and casually tousled hair: Bridges was as sexy as anyone had ever seen him, and dramatically unlikeable. He’s an asshole, telling Michelle Pfeiffer’s character that she’s “pretty philosophical for a whore,” although she rightfully points out that his own dashed musical ambitions are the reason for his cruelty.
In Cutter’s Way (1981), he is slick and sneering, seeming all the worse for the fact that no one really expects it from him, with that preternaturally kind-looking face. The toothpaste-grin innocence vanishes and a wolfish, unreliable quality takes its place. It would not be the last time Bridges would be cast in a detective story; both Sidnet Lumet and Hal Ashby would cast him as sympathetic, boozy former cops drawn into neo-noir plots. His haplessness is capable of melting into something which feels more coldly calculating underneath.
The Fisher King (1991) might be the pinnacle of his nastier roles, but redemption is never too far away for Bridges. It’s difficult not to want something good for him. In that sense, it’s fitting that Terry Gilliam should direct Bridges in that picture, given Gilliam’s own obsession with the archetypal man who tilts at windmills: Don Quixote. Bridges’ persona, if it were to be boiled down to anything, must be the quixotic dreamer. It’s even in the title of his 1988 film with Coppola, Tucker: A Man and His Dream.
Decades ago, in one of her reviews, film critic Pauline Kael wrote, “No one should ever be asked not to like Paul Newman.” Much the same is true Jeff Bridges. It’s easy to like him, because he seems to like himself—without risk of vanity. His lack of self-consciousness is one of his great appeals but also, perhaps, the reason he’s not talked about in the same vein as the more evidently “actorly” male stars of his generation. Even when he finally won a well-deserved Academy Award for his role as an aging country star in Crazy Heart (2009), you never quite get the sense that you’re watching Jeff Bridges act. You get something much better. You’re watching him dream.