new york times magazine
Jeff Bridges is terrible at being a movie star, but he is among the greatest film actors and certainly the most underrated.
October 17, 1993

219U-081-002 (Cover)
Jeff Bridges, Hollywood’s most underrated actor.

Amid the charred rubble that litters Copley Square in Boston, Jeff Bridges scrambles to his feet. Playing a bomb-squad officer who has been knocked flat by an explosion, he is rehearsing a scene in which he rises up, horrified, to survey the damage. As he figures out how he will move during the sequence, he also worries about the other matters that usually concern actors: how he will look and how he will sound. His makeup man holds a mirror, and Bridges periodically gives himself an appraising stare.

What interests him about his reflection is dirt. He studies the soot on his face with the utmost interest. Earlier, while the makeup was being applied, Bridges feigned the exact grimace he would use on camera, cowering at the sight of an imaginary fireball. When he relaxes his face now, it is lined with white streaks, places where the grime didn't go. The effect is hardly flattering, but is authentic, so it passes muster.

Then there is his voice. Bridges has been grilling a real bomb-squad officer about what a person's throat would do if he ran toward flaming wreckage. Would he gasp? Would he choke? And what about his accent? In this film, which will be called "Blown Away," Bridges is playing an Irish-born character who has assumed a new identity in Boston. So just how Irish should he sound? Would his native accent be more obvious in a moment of panic? Or would it disappear, leaving just Irish-American inflections? His dialect coach describes trading questions with Bridges as "a Socratic dialogue," and she is only half kidding.

With the cameras about to roll, it is time to see what all these inquiries add up to. And then, at the center of a complicated scene involving many frantic extras, the point becomes clear. Bridges's body language is suddenly so believable, and his face such a mask of anguish and terror, that the film makers' fake explosion is made real. He has become exactly the panic-stricken man he tried to imagine. He repeats this several times in succession, starting from nowhere to reach the same pitch of emotion every time. When the last take is over, Bridges, looking shaken and exhausted, has tears in his eyes.

Afterward, the actor shares a bear hug with his director, Stephen Hopkins, whom he obviously likes a lot. And the shooting ends on a celebratory note. But how sanguine about the day's work should Bridges really be? He doesn't know all that much about Hopkins, a young director whose previous credits mostly have numbers after them ("Predator 2," "A Nightmare on Elm Street 5" and the new "Judgment Night"). And beyond knowing that "Blown Away" is an action film, something he's trying because he hasn't tried one before, he has no idea what to expect. "Never know what it'll be until it pops out," he says amiably about the film, whenever anyone wishes him good luck.

If he felt like behaving in customary leading-man style, he might have made sure that his golden-boy looks were well served and that his character sounded braver, tougher and smarter than anyone else on screen. In fact, Bridges did have one request to make after the first day's shooting ("the time when the actor traditionally asks for a bigger trailer," according to one of the producers.) But what he was concerned about was food for the cast and crew. He wanted to make sure the leftovers were distributed to the homeless.

Nice guy. And a great film actor: one of the best of his generation, and certainly the most underrated. But Jeff Bridges is just terrible at being a movie star.


An actor and a movie star need not be one and the same. An actor becomes the person he is playing; a movie star just is, as in "Daniel Day-Lewis is Hawkeye." (When it comes to actors and movie stars, Day-Lewis has the good fortune to be both, even running bare-chested through "Last of the Mohicans.") A movie star drums up excitement on the way into the theater; an actor leaves audiences excited on the way out. An actor can be a movie star, but a movie star can be Sylvester Stallone. The way an actor becomes a star is to defy the self-eradicating essence of his profession and meld his own nature with the perfect role.

So where is Jeff Bridges's Michael Corleone? Where is his Travis Bickle? Where is his Killer Smile? At 43, Bridges has made 34 films since 1969 without turning himself into anything like a household name. "Jeff has not had the role that defines him to the public in some way that creates a star," says Peter Bogdanovich, whose "Last Picture Show' (1971) first brought Bridges into the limelight, and brought the first of three Oscar nominations as well. (The others were for "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," in 1974, and "Starman," in 1984.)

One studio head, when asked about this, has a dismissive answer. "No charisma. I don't know anyone who's had more chances to become a leading man, and it just hasn't happened for him." Actually, Bridges has the kind of charisma trouble other actors would kill for. His problem, if you can call it that, is an inability or refusal to let personality take precedence over each new role.

Despite the fact that he gets star billing, Bridges has a nonstellar habit of disappearing into the characters he plays. That's a dangerous way to operate when a new film can be thrown into 2,000 theaters simultaneously, in hopes that audiences will show up on the basis of a famous name, and a familiar image. Bridges could actually have made a film like "The Bodyguard" believable, because he does such a beautiful job of playing passive, watchful roles without being dull. But it's Kevin Costner who brings in the crowds. In Hollywood circles, Bridges is faulted for doing nothing for the bottom line.

Bridges's performances, including his most recent as an architect who survives a plane crash (in Peter Weir's "Fearless"), have had little in common except for the actor's perfect naturalness and his refusal to do anything resembling a star turn. Even when playing romantic leads, he finds ways to fade into the background. In "The Morning After," Jane Fonda, as an aging alcoholic actress, was able to look stunning even when her character hit the skids. Bridges, as the ex-cop who became her white knight, managed to spend his last scene in a hospital bed, looking bruised, bandaged and swollen.

"People take him for granted because Jeff's always good," says Bogdanovich. "Well, let me tell you something: it's not easy to be always good." Certainly not in a spectrum of roles that range from nice-guy idealistic ("The Last American Hero") to villainous ("Jagged Edge") to otherworldly ("Starman") to deeply cynical ("The Fabulous Baker Boys," "The Fisher King") to just plain silly (a Ralph Bellamy turn in "Kiss Me Goodbye," a scientist in "King Kong"). When an American actor has a style this unaffected and a list of credits this crazy, he's liable to obscure his own talents. Bridges's résumé has come to resemble that of Gene Hackman, another self-effacing chameleon among American actors.

Gerard Depardieu has the same willingness to lose himself in people he plays, and the same quirky, unreliable taste in material. But a European actor is apt to have more artistic freedom, at least when he works outside Hollywood, and to be more openly applauded when he takes risks. American actors are more dependent on oversize screen personalities, indelible dialogue ("You talkin' to me?") and characters who call the shots even when they're underdogs. But Bridges's performances are unfashionably free of posturing. His background lacks ethnic flavor. His warmth is evident even when he plays tough guys. From the standpoint of stardom, this simply isn't how it's done.

Bridges gives some inkling of how wholeheartedly he assumes each role when he talks about "Fearless," in which his character is liberated by his near-death experience. The intense, harrowing aspect of the story is something he has forced himself to understand. Explaining how unsettling acting can sometimes be and why he fights so hard to resist the process until he gets hooked by each new role, Bridges says, "Who'd want to be in a plane crash? You push that stuff through your body, your body doesn't know it's fake."

If Bridges thinks like a character actor, he doesn't look the part. When he finally heads for his trailer on this August day, he disappears for a moment to change out of his combat gear. He comes back and flops onto a sofa wearing jeans, Top-Siders and a white T-shirt. His hair, usually sandy blond but dyed reddish brown for this role, is genuinely tousled. He hasn't gone to any trouble; he didn't have to. Movie-star nonchalance doesn't get any better than this.

Despite his obvious potential in the matinee-idol department, Bridges will let himself look awful if that is what the material requires. (He refers to the area beneath his chin as "the goiter," and can make it look either lean or jowly at will.) He also routinely allows himself to be upstaged. Ask him about any of his performances, and he'll grin and tell you how good someone else was in the same film.

In "The Fabulous Baker Boys," the film that has come closest to blowing his cover, Bridges sat at his piano while Michelle Pfeiffer climbed atop it to sing her show-stopping rendition of "Makin' Whoopee." And he did the unthinkable: he just played the piano. No seductive smile. No flattering close-up. His character was meant to be frightened by Pfeiffer's seductiveness, and Bridges behaved like someone who couldn't bear to look at her. As usual, he played the moment for real, not for show.

He achieved a pinnacle of self-abnegation in the recent "American Heart," in which he gave a shockingly believable performance as a bitter ex-convict. When some actors grow their hair, pump up their muscles, cover themselves with tattoos and play sociopaths, they have a way of attracting attention. Especially when, principles notwithstanding, they allow themselves to be featured in beefcake photos for advertising art. But Bridges, who gave an infinitely more fine-tuned performance here than the Oscar-nominated Robert De Niro did in "Cape Fear," saw some fine work vanish with hardly a trace.

And Bridges was one of the producers too. He says he made "American Heart" out of concern for the street people it was about, and he coproduced it because it might never have been made otherwise. (He helped found the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit organization, in 1983.) Warming to the subject of one of the performances he is most proud of, he drops a small bombshell. "You know, we shot two endings to that one," he says casually.

In the ending that was used, Bridges's character is finally reconciled with his son, played by Edward Furlong, the boy who co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Then the father is shot, and he dies. The ending that didn't make the cut was happier. It let him survive the shooting and go on to raise his son.

"There were a lot of fights about this, as you can imagine," says Martin Bell, who directed "American Heart" and also preferred the downbeat finale. "I tried to make that other ending work, but it just didn't," Bridges explains with a shrug. "That movie was so hard-core, it was so much about real life. An ending like that would have spoiled it. You know, a movie gets a life of its own. It starts to tell you what it wants."

Well, yes. But which ending would Arnold Schwarzenegger would have chosen?

Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges in 1993. Their family life was a publicist’s dream.

Bridges's career has been one long triumph of talent over inertia. He got his start the easy way, with the help of a family that gives nepotism a good name. "My acting career has been kind of magical," he explains, "because one of the hardest things is getting your foot in the door. And that was handled, basically." He made his first screen appearance as a 8-month-old baby, in "The Company She Keeps." As a boy he appeared on "Sea Hunt," his father's television show.

"I really decided to become an actor quite late in my career, after I'd done about 10 movies," he says. The turning point was a 1973 version of "The Iceman Cometh" with Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin and Fredric March. Bridges, who has often tried to talk directors out of casting him, decided he was tired and turned the film down, until he was shamed out of his torpor by Lamont Johnson, who had directed him in "The Last American Hero." ("You call yourself an actor," he remembers the director saying.) "So I said to myself, maybe I'll do a little experiment," he remembers. "I hear that if you're a pro you're supposed to do it even if you don't feel like it." Spending eight weeks' rehearsal time among actors of that stature helped to kindle his interest.

Lloyd Bridges encouraged his children without much pressure, which may be why both Jeff and his brother, Beau, moved into acting so naturally. Jeff learned his first real acting lessons from his father. ("Say your lines. Now say them again, but make it seem like it's happening for the first time") The Bridgeses also sent their younger son to military school for a year, which he hated. "It was because I 'wasn't applying myself' - I remember that term," Jeff remembers, obviously amused. "I was applying myself to all the girls."

In "Blown Away," Jeff’s real-life father plays his fictional mentor. He read for the part.

Jeff and Beau graduated from public high school, which may have helped to keep their feet on the ground; Beau was so embarrassed when his father bought a Cadillac that he insisted on being dropped off a few blocks away from school. Both Jeff and Beau also served in the Coast Guard Reserves, thanks to their father's "Sea Hunt" connections.

After that, Jeff had no plans. His mother, Dorothy, suggested he try modeling, but that idea didn't take. Then Beau, eight years older than Jeff (there is also a younger sister, Lucinda, 40), helped Jeff on his first real step toward film work. He had Jeff memorize one of Holden Caulfield's monologues from "The Catcher in the Rye" and he brought Jeff in to see a casting director. Beau instructed his brother to deliver this speech when the agent asked him about his résumé. "Afterward, I turned to the casting director and said: 'This is my brother. He's just auditioned for you,"' Beau recalls. "He got some kind of job from it, too! Watching him do that, I remember that was the first time I realized the guy really had a gift."

The Bridgeses still work together in various configurations. Working with his relatives, Jeff says, "is like power steering on a car." "There's so much to draw on, you don't even have to work so hard." So 80-year-old Lloyd Bridges - white-bearded and nearly as tall as his 6-foot-2 younger son, with the same piercing blue eyes - happens to be playing Jeff's friend and mentor in "Blown Away." "And he came in and read for it, too," says one of the producers in amazement.

On this particular evening, several weeks after the debris has been cleared from Copley Square, father and son take a break perched on folding chairs on a Cambridge sidewalk. When passersby approach them, it's Lloyd who creates the stir. One young woman gushes at length about "Sea Hunt." Lloyd stands up, smiles a courtly smile and finally asks: "Do you dive?"

Lloyd reminisces about his boys and his television show. "Beau went down a manhole and Mike Nelson" - the character Lloyd played - "had to save him," he recalls. "Then there was a bicycle that fell off a pier - that one was for Jeff." He and Jeff recall that the Bridges men once appeared on "Saturday Night Live," with Lloyd pretending to goad his sons into more sibling rivalry they apparently feel.

Across town, in a hotel room, is the woman responsible for the Bridgeses' deep keel. Dorothy Bridges, nicknamed the General by her children, has given them the kind of family life that Hollywood's publicity departments used to make up, and that nowadays is practically a liability. "Don't you think so much in life is luck?" she asks the next morning, describing how she has raised her family. "Don't you know people who are wonderful people, and the kids are rotten?"

Dorothy Simpson met Lloyd Bridges nearly 60 years ago, when both were U.C.L.A. students interested in acting. They still live near the sorority house where they met. Dorothy has kept a diary during the length of their marriage, and one of her remarkable undertakings was to write a biography of each child up to age 21. By hand.

Another of Dorothy's projects was to try giving each child an hour of her time every day. "See, I liked doing it," she says. "But you have to do whatever the child wants - you can't say 'You and mommy are going to watch the soap opera.' I always hoped they'd say they wanted to color."

Jeffrey Leon Bridges was horn on Dec. 4, 1949; the Leon was for the obstetrician who delivered him. Two years earlier, the Bridgeses lost a 3-month-old son, Garrett, and Dorothy was too distraught for another pregnancy. But her doctor urged her to persevere. When Jeff came along, she found herself fiercely overprotective. "I expected him to be deeply involved with a psychiatrist by this time in his life," she says now, "because after having a child die, finding him dead in the crib, for the first six months of Jeff's life I slept on a cot next to his crib, holding on to his foot or his arm constantly, holding up his eyelids if he didn't look like he was breathing. All that hovering. He should have hated his mother."

But he doesn't. Jeff remains phenomenally close to Dorothy, to the point where they send a special notebook back and forth, using it for drawings, poems, jokes, confessional thoughts, whatever. If this seems strangely intense in theory, in practice it looks like a lovely thing. Dorothy has brought the book to Boston, even though Jeff is living in a hotel room only a few blocks away. She also has with her the Daily Word, the pamphlet of inspirational thoughts (the Bridgeses like to read it, though they are not formally religious), and an album of family photos.

"This is Jeff with his harem," she says, pointing to a picture of Jeff, his wife, Susan, to whom he has been married for 16 years, and their daughters Isabelle (12), Jessica (10) and Hayley (8). Susan Bridges and the girls are at home in Santa Monica, Calif. They also spend time in Montana living in a house built from part of a set from "Heaven's Gate," another of Jeff's weirdly uncategorizable credits. "I understand him, I love him, I support him and I admire him," Susan Bridges says, when reached by telephone. "And I know the best thing I can do for him is take care of everything while he's working, and stay out of his way."

For authenticity's sake: Bridges isn't afraid to get his hands - or the rest of him - dirty on the job. In his new film, "Blown Away," he plays a bomb-squad officer.

Dorothy opens the notebook. "This is a book for me and my mother to fill out," Jeff has written on the opening page, amending that with a note asking "Mom, should this be 'I'? " "He gets so embarrassed about his grammar," Dorothy says. Jeff is a talented artist (some of his paintings can be seen in "Fearless"), and he also loves to write music and take wide-angle photographs. The book is full of his whimsical drawings, including one that he has described earlier as a favorite.

It shows a tiny figure on a boat navigating a raging river, with huge whirlpools on every side. Each whirlpool is meant to be a movie project he's not sure he wants to go near until, drawn close by curiosity, he finds himself being sucked in. The image crystallizes Bridges's stubbornly intuitive way of making career choices: a good role is somehow novel or challenging, a bad one is an itchy sweater. He calls the picture "Jeff Makes a Decision."

Dorothy rises maternally to the subject of Jeff's career and the decisions he has made. "Do you know what he turned down?" she asks in disbelief, naming one Christmas hit that was as solidly commercial as a Hollywood movie can be. It was a sure thing for somebody, but Jeff just didn't feel right about it. And that was that.

Bridges has been a movie actor for so long that Christian Slater, Drew Barrymore and Macaulay Culkin have all played his children. His intense, meticulous approach to his work has apparently not changed much over 20-odd years. Back in 1972, in "Bad Company," in which he played the leader of a band of young Civil War draft dodgers, there was a scene that called for him to skin a rabbit below camera range. He insisted on skinning a real rabbit anyway. "He knows the difference between acting and behavior," says Robert Benton, who directed that film. "He knew that you couldn't fake the speed or the rhythm or the repulsiveness of the real thing."

Without making a fetish of staying in character off-screen, Bridges continues to pay this kind of attention to revealing little touches. In "Fearless," he slurs his words at times because he dried out his mouth, thinking that a cotton-mouthed sensation would be a symptom of stress. He develops the details instinctively, but he also draws on real models for each role. When he played a witheringly cruel radio star in "The Fisher King," he was helped by a man who once had a call-in radio show. The radio host put Bridges in a studio and arranged for him to field calls until the actor experienced the power and egotism that went with the job.

Bridges once used his own director for a model in playing an aloof, unpleasant character. This was on one of the rare occasions when a director has shut him out of the film-making process, thwarting his avid interest in watching dailies, making suggestions about props and costumes and makeup, helping other actors and otherwise avoiding any down time in his trailer.

Most of the time, Bridges's directors have welcomed such helpfulness, in part because Bridges never insists that his ideas take precedence. He waxes slightly cosmic when he talks about filmmaking as psychic collaboration, but the bottom line is that he behaves like a director's dream. "I respect the director," he says matter-of-factly. "His opinion is more important than mine."

That kind of professionalism has been both a help and a hindrance. He has sustained it through hazier times, like the druggy phase of his career, when he smoked a Thai stick while telling Rolling Stone about his inner demons. ("Good," he says, flatly when told that it is now hard to detect any evidence of this on screen.) But it also keeps him from fighting to protect his own point of view, which is certainly one of the basic tenets of movie stardom. Perhaps having "very strong roots," as he describes his background, has kept his modus operandi so modest. But in Hollywood, that attitude is no help at all.

Or is it? It is late one evening in the candlelit dining room of Bridges's hotel, and the place is empty. He is making a point about fame, which is not a subject he himself would bring up. "I feel like I've had a lot of great parts, and that I've worked with great directors and great actors," he says. "I get a lot of good money for what I do. What the hell do I want? Do I want to be like the Beatles, or something? Walk outside and get mobbed? Listen, less fame would be better than more fame. Can you imagine if we were talking here and out there" - he gestures toward the doorway, where no one stands - "there was a rope and people watching? For anyone to want that, you don't think that's weird?"

So he continues to take chances, like "Fearless. And he continues to work mostly with maverick directors, whether they have the standing of Francis Ford Coppola ("Tucker") or are unknown quantities, as Steve Kloves was when he approached Bridges about "The Fabulous Baker Boys." "The town looks at someone like Jeff and he scares them," Kloves says. "He's not predictable, and he tends to be attracted to movies and characters that Hollywood thinks are difficult. Jeff has a certain prejudice against him. For "Baker Boys," there were some guys who were considered hotter than Jeff even though they'd never had a hit in their lives.

"Somehow, it just doesn't accrue for him," Kloves adds. "But his body of work is going to outdistance most of his contemporaries' People will look back someday and see something extraordinary."