Jeff conquers very un‑Bridges‑like fears in the new air‑wreck psychodrama "Fearless."
By Margy Rochlin
"What is it that Lloyd Bridges feeds his sons?" film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, in a review of one of Jeff Bridges' fine performances from the '70s. It's many years later but the question still comes to mind. Particularly when the actor, wearing a rumpled blue shirt and faded blue jeans, his hair messily combed into the ducktail he wore in The Last Picture Show, grabs a handful of my hair the moment he walks into the interview. "Ohh ... my hair used to be that long," he moans, referring to the snarly, waist‑length mane he sported in American Heart. He then throws himself on an easy chair and slumps down into it.
That graceful leaping out‑of‑bounds, and boyish retreat to "respectable" behavior, is not merely an effective disarming tactic. Breaking down walls, or at least lowering them a bit, is a Bridges thing, even when mapping out his career. Like the time director Ivan Passer and his producer, Paul Gurian, came to Bridges' house to woo him to star in the low‑budget feature Cutter's Way. It was 1980, and the actor had just completed a string of no‑shows (Heaven's Gate, The American Success Company, and Winter Kills) and was leery of committing to another risky project. But then the family dog bit Gurian on the cheek. "It was like in a dream, all in slow motion." Bridges tells the story, suddenly animated, leaning close to me as he stretches out his words in an approximation of slow motion. "I'm going, 'Dooonnn'tttt toouccchhh theeee dooooogggg.' And then" ‑Bridges reaches out his hand and grabs a handful of my face‑ "the dog just removed his cheek." The story culminates in Bridges agreeing to do the movie as he escorts Gurian to the emergency room. "Thank God it was something that I wanted to do anyway," he concludes. Meanwhile, journalistic objectivity be damned, I could still feel the impression of his fingers on my face.
Children of Hollywood, from Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to Heidi Fleiss, often seem to carry a kind of corruption that turns them into self‑destructive oddities. The Bridges boys, however, are a different breed, radiating something beyond mere professionalism: Perhaps it's plain gladness, or the gladness of being smart enough to know how fortunate they are to be good and not tortured. Jeff made his feature‑film debut at four months, as a squalling kiddie in the 1950 classic The Company She Keeps. He followed that with a few appearances in Sea Hunt, Lloyd Bridges' undersea TV series. If his dad was his acting coach, his mother, former actress Dorothy Simpson, taught him "not to take things too seriously, to lighten up." Bridges still loves to hunt up projects that allow him to work alongside his blood relations, as he and older brother Beau did as two lounge pianists in The Fabulous Baker Boys, and as he and his dad will do in the upcoming action flick Blown Away (Beau and Lloyd are appearing, sans Jeff, in a TV series called Harts of the West). Of Bridges' family, Peter Weir, director of Fearless, says, "It's not hard to imagine them as a group of traveling players in the late 19th century, putting on a show in a small town."
Bridges works on a new film as if on a quest to reconstruct this familial support group. Big‑time actors often like to talk about how much smarter they are than those behind the camera. But Bridges was raised to have faith in the process: In the earliest stages of a new movie, he seeks emotional ballast and creative advice not just from the director and screenwriter but from the grips and the gofers. "I'm looking for some love, confidence, and excitement," he says. "A surrogate father."
Over the past two decades we've come to expect two types of great performances from Bridges. The first are his warm-blooded turns (The Last American Hero, The Fabulous Baker Boys, American Heart), the kind that inspired Kael to say, "He may be the most natural and least self‑conscious screen actor who ever lived." As for the second kind, usually in more labored efforts (The Fisher King, The Vanishing),