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Jeff Dowd on Jeff Bridges: A unique American icon

February 26, 2010 |  5:58 pm
Bridges

Jeff Dowd is an indie film producer and promoter who is known to one and all as the Dude, having served in large part as the inspiration for Jeff Bridges' immortal Dude character in the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowski." Dowd is always brimming with crazy ideas, political rants and is impossible to get off the phone once he gets up a full head of steam. As Roger Ebert once put it, Dowd is "tall, large and shaggy and a boil of enthusiasm."

So when he checked in the other day, asking if he could offer a tribute to the great acting work Bridges has done over the years, I knew better than to say no. After all, pretty much wherever I go, I find Bridges fans of all stripes and sizes. When I was yakking the other day with Long Beach Press-Telegram basketball writer Frank Burlison, who's my guru when it comes to high school basketball, just the mention of Bridges' name sent Frank off on a 20-minute Cicero-style oration on the glories of the actor's work over the year.

Since Bridges has been so refreshingly modest about his own craft, I thought it only fair to turn the microphone over to Mr. Dowd, who has a pretty intriguing take on what make Bridges such an unique acting talent and righteous human being. As Dowd says in his piece, Bridges has become an American icon who "fulfills the sacred function of the artist, saint, jester and the Holy Fool: helping us see through the illusions of the world." In other words, a major dude indeed.

But don't take my word -- read what Dowd has to say for yourself:  

“I used to be somebody, now I’m somebody else” is a self-pitying lament from Bad Blake, the washed-up country singer who struggles to find his heart and soul, exquisitely portrayed by Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart."

For movie-goers, who have been cinematically blessed watching Jeff Bridges for nearly four decades in 65 movies, “I used to be somebody, now I’m somebody else" is a reminder of how Jeff Bridges has fully inhabited such a wide array of characters and authentically captured their essence with a full palette of shades from light to dark. Bridges has taken us through a mosaic of perspectives of the uniquely American experience.

After four Academy Award nominations, it looks like Jeff Bridges may finally be singing late into the night with his new friend Oscar. Critical acclaim has been unanimous. Awards for his outstanding performance like the best actor award from his peers in the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globe have been rolling down Bridges’ lane faster than bowling balls. Yet there’s something about the appeal of Jeff Bridges and the characters he creates which goes deeper than his engaging performances, good looks, charm, humor, heart, brains and acting chops. That was the mystery that I may have stumbled into figuring out with a little help from my friends. Let’s flashback.

I vividly remember the first time I encountered Jeff Bridges in his big screen debut in “The Last Picture Show,” adapted from Larry McMurtry’s small Texas town classic American book by director Peter Bogdanovich. Bridges was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his measured portrayal of Duane Jackson.  It was the first time that Jeff didn’t come home with an Oscar -- it was awarded to fellow cast member Ben Johnson for playing “Sam the Lion,” the mythological local Yoda Texan of his day. "Last Picture Show" was the first of many movies with Bridges that shed cinematic light on forever-changing America. 

A new generation of directors recognized Jeff Bridges could shape-shift into exceptional characters while creating iconic Americans the same way directors Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Preston Sturges did in their time with the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Joel McCrea, Henry Fonda and John Wayne--fellows who you could have a drink with and come away with something.

On Duane’s final night in Anarene, Texas, before he heads off for the Korean War, his buddy Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) takes him to the last picture show at the Royal Theatre, which is going out of business. The next morning, Duane dresses in his Army uniform, hands the car keys to his prized Mercury coupe over to Sonny. “Take care of her until I get back,” he says as he is about to get on the Trailways bus and innocently ship out to war.  Duane’s last line is “See you in a year or two if I don’t get shot.” 

When asked which of the great characters he has played people like most, Bridges exhales a laugh in B flat and exclaims “The Dude of course!” The curious nature of  "Lebowski’s" laid-back Dude becoming so beloved is what gave me a clue to solve the mystery of a deeper connection Jeff was making with people.

Up until 1998 I was moved and entertained by Jeff Bridge’s performances like everyone else. Then I got a phone call. Even though Jeff Bridges and I were both born only two weeks apart in California, it was Joel and Ethan Coen who mischievously crossed our stars while mixing up their "Dude … or His Dudeness ... Duder ... or El Duderino, if, you know, you're not into the whole brevity thing...” creating an unforeseen stellar Dude cocktail which somehow would continue to burn beyond anyone’s imagination fueled by comedy as highly combustible as silver nitrate in film stock.

The Coens were making “The Big Lebowski” with John Goodman and Jeff Bridges.  But I didn’t know who was going to play my persona “The Dude.” Size-wise I’m on the cusp -- it could go either way. If it was John Goodman I feared that Joel and Ethan would be taking fully loaded satirical pot shots at some Hollywood wacko. I’m a big and easy target. But I felt reassured when I learned it was Jeff Bridges who was going to play “The Dude,” because he always gets to the soul of a character -- so figuring in two heaping spoonfuls of Joel and Ethan Coen’s cynicism and two slices of wry humor with Jeff at the wheel I might get lucky and be portrayed sympathetically as a fun, likable fool, not a total fool (I’m on the cusp on that one too).

The Dude in "The Big Lebowski" is not my story, it is Joel and Ethan taking a lot of of liberty with Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain's Los Angeles crime dramas, which they fashioned into a buddies movie where most everything goes wrong while pumping the film full of laughing gas and an occasional acid trip. What remains of me that even my  friends were impressed and amused by was how Jeff Bridges’ Dude captured my body language, camaraderie, rebellious spirit, hang-loose style, mumbled ironic opinions and even my recurring flying dream. Joel and Ethan, who enjoy stacking the deck against their characters, chose to pan past my active real life and have more fun making the Dude an ill-prepared burnt-out slacker: “Quite possibly the laziest [man] in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide.” How and why did this laid-back Dude become so admired and respected?

Even though Bridges had been doing it on screen for decades, when spending time on the set of "The Big Lebowski" I saw how Jeff was always as much of a supporting actor as a supported actor. Bridges’ down-home professionalism and desire and ability to connect with other great character actors like John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman are what make so many scenes in "The Big Lebowski" enjoyable to watch again and again even if you don’t watch the whole movie -- you can watch a scene or sequence and get all the laughs you need for the day. That’s one reason it has become the default pop in and out movie of choice on many team and band buses and planes and a fun and familiar rest stop for weary channel surfers.

While doing shows, speaking and hanging out I have met a very diverse group of people who have shared with me a multitude of reasons why they like "The Big Lebowski." But what I couldn’t figure out for a long time is all the folks who say to me “Dude. You are an inspiration. You changed my life,” of course by “You” they mean Jeff Bridges’ doppelganger Dude in the movie. But I wondered what it was in the Dude, a former activist who has become a pot smoking bowling slacker -- not exactly an inspiring role model -- that appeals to not only college students but professionals of all ages, soldiers and families. 

Much of that can be attributed to Bridges' performance. Yet when I inquire, the answer goes beyond that and they lionize the Dude: “The Dude isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. He’s his own man.”   In a world where so many of us are muzzled at home, school or work -- we appreciate the Dude “looking out for all us sinners,” as Sam Elliott’s cowboy says in the film.

It probably all starts with the mystery of Jeff Bridges and his deeper appeal. He has often played an everyman up against all odds “helping us see through the illusions of our world” -- holy fools, who enlighten us frequently while tickling our funny bones. For decades Bridges has been an ever-changing mythological all-American Holy Fool fulfilling the role for us that every culture in history has created because we need those folks around to make sense of our world and our brief time upon it.

If we give the body of Jeff Bridges' work the old Martian or "E.T." test -- what would a space alien’s impression be of America and its people be if they only watched Jeff Bridges movies? --  I think it would be a helluva a portrait: emotionally deep, textured, complex and ironic, often burning a mythological flame beneath. The body of Jeff Bridges' America is broad and diverse as well as wonderfully specific in the characters he has played and the world they live in. We may not be at all like most of the characters but what they need, how they discover and attain it has universal appeal.

Bridges captured the transitional spirit of the '70s in films like John Huston’s "Fat City," the whimsical "Rancho Deluxe" and "Hearts of the West," "Stay Hungry" and the conspiratorial "Winter Kills" with John Huston playing Bridges’ all big business father in a cautionary tale about the danger of healthcare conglomerates made three decades ago. In 1980s Bridges broad range went from dark in "Cutter’s Way" to light in his lovable "Starman." Jeff, his brother Beau and Michelle Pfeiffer were intimate, delightful  and delicious in "The Fabulous Baker Boys."

In the last decade of the 20th century, Bridges contends with Robin Williams' Holy Fool in Terry Gilliam’s wild and extraordinary "The Fisher King," does some of the best acting of his career in Peter Weir’s "Fearless" and gets a lot of laughs in "The Big Lebowski" while telling it like it is. In the new millennium he has played a president in "The Contender," Kevin Spacey’s shrink in "K-Pax" and "Seabiscuit’s" dedicated owner, who helps the equine hero restore hope to America during the Great Depression. "Crazy Heart" ties the room together with Jeff’s nuanced and powerful performance, which Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan calls “the capstone role of his career.” Even if you are turned off by hard-drinking country musicians, don’t miss Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart," which will fire up your heart and soul.

I believe that what goes around comes around, and after supporting so many others I think Oscar may be coming back around your way, Dude! I can’t help but wonder how much Jeff’s stable relations, starting with his parents and brother and continuing with his wife Susan, have to do with his friendly nature, success and, dare I say, happiness. I can reflect on Bob Dylan’s lyrics from “The Man in Me” that the extraordinary songwriter, singer, producer and music supervisor T Bone Burnett chose to put in "The Big Lebowski":

 “Take a woman like you, to find the man in me. But, oh, what a wonderful feeling “

Jeff Bridges has become an American icon who has played unique characters in film after film which probe deep into the American psyche and condition. He fulfills the sacred function of the artist, saint, jester and the Holy Fool: helping us see through the illusions of the world. Jeff Bridges has helped us remember and realize that all the great things about life and its cast of characters and his films empower us with enough emotional fuel to take on yet another challenging day.

Here's Bridges himself, singing "The Weary Kind":


 

Photo of Jeff Bridges by Lorey Sebastian / Fox Searchlight

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