He's made a career of playing damaged loners who hide their feelings, but the real Jeff Bridges has no trouble expressing himself.
By Joanna Schneller
Photo Editor Tyler Pappas
He's made a career of playing damaged loners who hide their feelings, but the real Jeff Bridges has no trouble expressing himself.
By Joanna Schneller
Photo Editor Tyler Pappas
The sun shines brighter on Jeff Bridges's rented house than on any other house in Bel Air. The orange trees glow more vibrantly along Jeff Bridges's driveway. The toasted croissants are more mouthwatering when buttered by one of the numerous housekeepers and assistants in Jeff Bridges's kitchen. Bridges's wife, Susan, is a honey-haired sirocco; his three young blonde daughters playing by the backyard pool, Isabelle, Jessica and Hayley, are angels on earth. Jeff Bridges looks like the MGM lion, all golden and shaggy. Even the dog is blonde.
Bridges, 43, is the perfect man. He has the perfect life. What's worse, it's impossible to hate him for it. He is perfectly, supernally normal. When acting, which he does exceptionally well, he is modest. Not for Bridges the pyrotechnics of a De Niro or a Pacino. He disappears inside his characters, which is why we take him for granted. To him, acting is an absorbing job, rather than an excuse to parade his neuroses. If he has any.
He is as open as the sky, as moody as the sea. He can be startlingly flaky. He laughs, he cries, he accompanies his stories with whooping sound effects. He is professionally friendly. He is universally beloved. He is utterly mutable, and he is as constant as the North Star. Bridges is California itself -bright, off-center, rich.
What do Jeff Bridges's thirty-odd film characters have in common? They are all real men, authentically damaged. Often they are bastards, yet he makes them likable. Often they are named Jack, which is the preferred movie moniker for loners who hurt more than they let on. Most actors try hard to show us what they're feeling. Bridges, on the other hand, shows us how people try hard to hide their feelings. It makes him considerably more interesting to watch.
His onscreen success is accomplished in two ways. One is his mania for research. Consider this scene: Bridges stands in the center of his living room in a buffalo-skin coat the size of, well, a buffalo. Dan Moore and Colby Bart, who are doing the wardrobe for Bridges's next movie, Wild Bill, a Walter Hill biography of U.S. Marshal Bill Hickok, have brought a rack of fabric swatches and costumes for him to examine. Bridges pores over the clothes and research books, scribbling notes. "Do you think Bill would have one set of buckskins or a couple of different ones?" he asks. "I read that he carried his guns in a red sash. That's kind of weird, isn't it? I still have to get with the gun guy. What's this, underwear? Now these guys, didn't they ever just wear, like, underpants?"
"Always long bottoms and tops," Moore says.
"Even in the heat, man?" Bridges asks.
"That's probably why they were always shooting one another," Moore says. "They were irritated all the time."
"Cranky," Bridges says. "So. I'm going to Montana (where he owns a ranch) in two weeks to work on the part, and anything I could get on and wear while I'm there -shirts, boots, a hat. Even the underwear, see what that feels like. Do you think he would have, like, a whole closet full of clothes or just a few things? Can you imagine his spirit here: 'Come on, I had ten pairs of satin pants!"'
The man is a confetti storm of enthusiasm. For his new film, Blown Away -in which he and Tommy Lee Jones do a reverse Fugitive, with Bridges playing a munitions expert and Jones a mad bomber from his past- Bridges trained with bomb squads in Boston and Los Angeles. He videotaped them, they videotaped him. He even answered an emergency call with the Boston squad. It turned out to be a crank who bound himself and a fake bomb to the bottom of a car, but Bridges didn't know that when he was snapping photos of the guy from inches away.
He likes to have technical advisers, experts of one kind or another, around during every shoot, guys he can pepper with the questions he scribbles in the margins of his scripts. He calls them angels. For Fearless, it was his pal Gary Busey, who had narrowly survived a motorcycle accident. For The Fisher King, it was Steven Bridgewater, a talk-show deejay who fed him mock calls in the studio and trained him to feel omnipotent. For Texasville, it was Rusty Lindeman, an oilman who appeared at Bridges's trailer on the first day of filming and, to help him find his character, gave Bridges his pants. His pants.
The second component of Bridges's success is his ability to swallow all that preparation and be spontaneous. "He seems to channel some force from somewhere that's not even in him," says Stephen Hopkins, the director of Blown Away. "He opens a little door inside himself and stuff comes out. The channel is not clogged with inhibitions."
Director Peter Bogdanovich made Bridges's first big film, The Last Picture Show, and reteamed with him for Texasville. "He's always Jeff, but he's always different," Bogdanovich says. "He gets lost in his work, but at the same time, he's aware that he's lost. On Texasville, I'd look at him and say 'Jeff? Jeff, are you in? I want to talk to you.' One time he answered 'He hears you.'"
"I get in that place, it's almost like a kind of meditation," Bridges says. 'The rest of the world has to take a hike." He smiles. "The way they have crazy people make baskets, you know?"
Jeff Bridges is a bit crazy, in a perfectly charming sort of way. He makes noises. Before a scene, he huffs and puffs and "yah-yah"s. (His dad, actor Lloyd Bridges, made merry fun of this on the set of Blown Away, in which he costars with Jeff.) When Bridges confesses that he used to get jealous when Lloyd would buy all the neighborhood kids ice cream because it cut into his time with Dad, he sings the little ice-cream truck song, "Deede-dee-da-da-da." When he talks about meeting a plane crash survivor while doing research for Fearless, he makes plane-crash and fear noises.
And then he does something unexpected: He cries. Silently, just for a second. Bridges is talking about how the crash survivor said the plane had filled with a rush of love and how he'd talked to his God, saying "Do with me what you want, let me come through this with as much humanity as I can," and Bridges's voice gets thicker and thicker, and finally he has to stop talking. He starts right up again and finishes the story -the survivor saw a woman sitting alone who could have been his mother and vowed to take care of her no matter what. When the plane finally crashed, they were both alive, but she was pinned and he couldn't get her out; the plane filled with toxic fumes and people made him leave, and she died. Bridges finishes the story and wipes his eyes, and he isn't embarrassed at all.
Lloyd and Beau, père and frère, are also perfect. Beau, eight years older, perhaps not as beautiful, perhaps a recipient of less adulation than his brother, adores Jeff without gray areas. (Jeff is the godfather of Beau's fifth baby, Ezekiel Jeffrey Bridges. Jeff and Beau's sister, Lucinda, who lives near both her brothers, also has five kids.)
Beau took over for Lloyd as Jeff's acting teacher and baseball coach when Lloyd was busy saving America in Sea Hunt. When Jeff was a young man and his desire to succeed was so great that it resulted in inertia, Beau recognized this, defended Jeff to their parents and recommended him for parts. In 1989, Jeff found a job for Beau, playing his brother in The Fabulous Baker Boys.
As for Lloyd: If the passing of power from father to son causes gentle rue at other people's houses, it doesn't at the Bridges place. "It's kind of natural and great," Jeff says. "Like a relay race, someone handing you the baton. Doing my dad's work. 'Cause we're all part of the same energy, the same flow."
Jeff’s first roles were guest spots on Sea Hunt. Lloyd got Jeff an agent. Lloyd taught Jeff to say each line as if he were saying it for the first time and to really listen to others in a scene. "It's all habit, Jeff. You can develop good ones or bad ones," Lloyd told him. Jeff, a free spirit, preferred to think of each moment as bursting with new potential. "That's nice, son, but that's bullshit," Lloyd said.
This year, Jeff got Lloyd a job, as his crusty uncle Max in Blown Away. "I think one of the reasons I have chosen to mix it up, not play one persona over and over, is because my father, who is a brilliant actor, got kind of typed," Jeff says. "When he did Sea Hunt, he did it so well that people thought he was a diver they'd taught how to act. Then he does stuff like Airplane! and the Hot Shots! movies, and he's thought of as a comedian, right? So I say 'My dad might be great for this role [in Blown Away].' The producers [John Watson, Richard Lewis and Pen Densham) say 'Well, yeah, but he's mainly a comedian.' I'm, like, 'Fuck you.' Not 'Fuck you'-don't say that, 'cause these guys are great and they love my dad." Jeff read with Lloyd for the part. "And we, as the saying goes, blew them away," Jeff says.
So when Lloyd forgot his lines while they were making Blown Away, Jeff filled him in. When one of them had trouble with a scene, the other improvised with him. "They're always hugging or standing with their arms around each other," says Loyd Catlett, a close friend who has been Jeff's stand-in on almost thirty films. "Sometimes it almost makes me feel uncomfortable, to tell you the truth."
In their biggest moment together, Jeff's character, Jimmy Dove, has to rescue Max from a trap set by the mad bomber. As he crept down an alley, Jeff was supposed to whisper "Max, Max." Off-camera, he always said "Dad, Dad."
All in the family: Bridges and his father, Lloyd, on the set of Blown Away.
A conversation with Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges:
DOROTHY: You go first, Daddy.
LLOYD: No, you go ahead.
DOROTHY: Well, it's boring to hear, but a mother couldn't ask for a more wonderful, loving, attentive son. I've had some health problems recently; I have to be hooked up to an IV for two hours every morning and night. Now every morning, Jeff will call and say "Should I come by?" I say "Where are you?" He says "In the driveway." Well, he's calling from the car phone!
LLOYD: All the kids are loving and sensitive. Because they had a wonderful mother.
DOROTHY: It's been my calling. If that sounds too wonderful, I have to say we do argue. We don't harbor anything. We let it all hang out. But we all know that fame, money, outside adulation -it doesn't mean anything unless you have a basis of love in your home.
LLOYD: Dorothy called the shots most of the time.
DOROTHY: My husband and I get mad at Jeff. He's offered these really big movies, we beg him to take them. But he says no. Then he takes these weird ones we don't like. I won't mention those names either. We say "You could be making more money, you could be the biggest star." But he says "What do you want
from me? I make a good living, I support my wife and family, I pay my taxes. The last thing in the world I want to be is a movie star."
JS: What do you wish for him?
LLOYD: We always wish happiness for our kids. Or anyone else we're fond of. Or anyone at all, in fact. I think he should just pursue the path he's been pursuing. I think he's doing all right. We're kind of dull copy, aren't we? We're just fortunate to have a family where we all love one another. It makes the world go round a lot better if you start with that little unit.
DOROTHY: What I wish for Jeff… I wish he'd find peace between jobs and just have fun. He admits it himself, he gets cranky. He's lucky to have an understanding wife. Actors are the worst husbands -actors and doctors, I understand.
LLOYD: But look at all the good things we've had.
DOROTHY: Yes, it's fun; you have wonderful trips and indulgences. But you pay by having your husband away. And then, watching him make love to all those beautiful actresses!
LLOYD: You don't have to worry about that with me anymore -I'm a grandfather.
DOROTHY: Well, maybe you'll find a beautiful grandmother.
These people are Jeff Bridges's parents. That explains everything.
The perfect man is, of course, married. For sixteen years, faithful and true. "Jeff took me out to dinner at the beginning of Fearless so we could be more comfortable," his costar Rosie Perez says. "All my girlfriends were, like, 'Oh, my gawd, he's so dope, you're going to dinner with him?' I'm, like, 'You're disgusting.' They said 'Yeah, right, give us all the details anyway.' So we go out to this beautiful vegetarian restaurant right on the water. He says 'Tell me about yourself.' I go 'You first,' so he says 'When I met my wife… 'and we did the whole dinner talking about his wife! The whole fucking dinner. I cracked up. So afterward, my girlfriends, we're on a three-way call, they say 'What happened?' I tell them, and they all go [sighing dreamily] 'Awwwww.'"
Here's the story. (It's brimming with noise.) Jeff was in Montana shooting Rancho Deluxe in 1975. Susan was a maid at a dude ranch. A recent accident had left her with two black eyes and a broken nose. "I couldn't take my eyes off that disfigurement and beauty," Bridges says. "My favorite photograph of all time is one a makeup man sent me ten years ago; he happened to take it of me asking my wife out for our first date and her turning me down. And you can see my face, this stupid expression, I'm totally coldcocked. She said 'Maybe I'll see you around.'"
He saw her around. "We danced." He pauses. "I'm not real proud of it, 'cause her boyfriend was playing in the band." He laughs helplessly. "And we just fell in love."
They lived together for three years. She wanted to get married. He couldn't make the decision. One day they hiked across a canyon to a cave they could see from their house. "We sat in it, we were all out of breath, whoa, huh, and I was looking at our little house. And I was moved by a feeling of grace, how this little house was allowed to be on this hill on this planet being hurled through space, my God, what is going on?" Bridges says. "And all of a sudden I hear this voice shouting up my spine, aaAAHHH!, and the tears kind of, POW, start popping out of my eyes. Sue said 'What's wrong?' I said 'I have this terrible feeling I'm supposed to ask you to marry me, and I'm so frightened.' She goes 'Well, you don't have to.' I said 'Good, let's get out of here!' and I ran from the cave." His huge laugh, HAHAHAHAHA, almost sweeps me off the couch.
A few days later he bought a ring, got down on his knee and did it. The whole first year of marriage was hard. "I was a moping son of a bitch," he says. "It took me a year to realize that this was what I wanted. Sue has always played me the same way, giving me as much room as I need, and I never want to leave that. Whenever the hard times come up in our marriage, or the temptations, I hear the echoes of that voice, and I know it's a powerful relationship."
"How do you handle the temptations?" I ask.
"Whew. Ugh. I weigh it out. And it never moves the scales. I could never give up my family for some unknown quantity."
"Would you have to give it up?" I ask.
"What do you mean?" he says.
"Well, people have affairs."
"You mean not tell and live a lie?" he says. "I guess if I was built differently."
"Or tell and be forgiven," I say.
"I wouldn't want to hurt the person I love that much. It's kind of a tricky dance, because my job calls for opening your heart often. And feeling love for the people of the opposite sex you're working with, who are gorgeous people. You discover how accessible love is. And if two people are doing that at the same time -which if you have a good actress, that's what you're doing- you can get some stuff going. You just don't have sex. That's where you draw the line.
"I can say I 'love' all the women I've ever worked with," he continues. "But I don't hang out with them outside the work -not that I would do anything, but it would be hard, it would be a kind of torture. It would be confusing for me. I'd rather just keep things separate."
Everyone agrees: Jeff Bridges is happy. He is a contented, well-adjusted, thoughtful, bighearted guy. But, he says, he is still full of fear. Fear of losing his happiness.
He's had a year that would tax the most determinedly sunny soul. The house in Malibu, where he'd proposed to Susan, burned in last year's wildfires. Then the house in Santa Monica, where he'd raised his "three sweet girls," as he always calls them, was wrecked by the January earthquake.
"It's strange," he says. "I haven't entirely processed it, you know? You feel you've been thrown up in the air and you don't know how you're going to land." Months have passed, but when he calls home, he still dials the Santa Monica number. He still thinks, I'll go out to Malibu and… but then he thinks, No, I won't.
And he wonders: When is the world's imperfection and pain going to catch up with him? "I'm afraid of getting so happy and then having it pop, you know?" he says. "Like, good news, good news, good news, aaaaaahhh, BOOM! Let's say you're having a relationship with somebody kind of new. And you're really happy about it. Why don't you just go over and say 'I love you so much. I want to marry you.' Are you going to do that? Huh? You're going to be a little guarded, right? But you want to say that. You feel it's too great, it's too much to lose. You kind of go 'I don't deserve it.' Those are all things I feel."
It's what he does with those feelings that makes him Jeff Bridges. "What happens to me, I get happy, then I get scared -but I do it anyway," he says. "And then great things happen. So the only assignment is to keep opening up. And it gets scarier and scarier. The air gets thinner and thinner and more wild and wonderful as you open like that. But it's the only assignment in town."
Bridges's manager, a mere mortal, arrives. Jeff has a meeting at MGM in half an hour, he says. And Jeff has a conference call in five minutes. Others need to bask in Jeff's bright light. "I'll walk you to your car," he says.
He stands in the driveway while I ease my dented Toyota out of his life. I think to myself, The perfect gentleman. Bridges pushes a button, and the driveway gate to paradise swings slowly shut.