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12.12.09

Jeff Bridges' Crazy Oscar Bid

The former Dude's role as a fallen country star in Crazy Heart may finally nab him a statue. Bridges talks to Caryn James about his insecurity—and how acting is like being born again.

Jeff Bridges is not on autopilot when promoting a movie; he is there. In a conversation about his new film Crazy Heart, he acts out a guy catching a football, scrunches up his face like a baby being born, and waves his arms like a carnival barker. His role as Bad Blake, a washed-up, alcoholic country-music singer reduced to gigs in bowling alleys, is expected to win him a fifth Academy Award nomination, and possibly, three decades after his first nomination, a win. He is at the start of a long weekend in New York on the awards campaign trail, his schedule as packed as a presidential candidate’s with interviews and post-screening Q&As. He jumps in, treating an interview as if it were some juicy acting improv.

In person, Bridges looks like a slimmer, cleaned-up version of Bad (he gained a paunch for the role), and has a General Custer-ish goatee that, like his longish hair, is a streaky melange of blond and brown and gray. Between roles, “I generally let my hairs go until I know what I’m doing next,” he said. In a couple of months he’ll start shooting the Coen brothers’ True Grit, but “I don’t know quite what my hair is going to look like. I’m going to let it go until the brothers and I get to figure that out.”

Joel and Ethan Coen directed him in the role that made him a hero of stoners and slackers everywhere, the laid-back Dude in 1998’s The Big Lebowski. Bridges just turned 60, but looks and sounds Dude-ish enough so that it’s jolting to imagine him in John Wayne’s True Grit geezer role. Thankfully, he said the Coens’ version is not a remake of that creaky film, but a fresh adaptation of Charles Portis’ Western novel.

Crazy Heart is more country than Western, and has a backstory of near-disaster. At first, Bridges turned down the role because, he said, “While the script was fine, there was no music attached to it,” and signed on only after his old friend T-Bone Burnett came along as composer. Then Paramount, which produced the film, was about to send it straight to DVD, but instead sold it to Fox Searchlight, the company in the forefront of Oscar campaigns thanks to its Slumdog Millionaire success. Searchlight is rushing Crazy Heart out in time for awards season, realizing that dissolute Bad is an Oscar-bait role if ever there was one: He sings his way through a rocky journey, trying to make a comeback after hooking up with Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mom with a young son.

First-time writer and director Scott Cooper based his film on a novel by Thomas Cobb, and both writers must have slept with a copy of Horton Foote’s screenplay for Tender Mercies under their pillows. Crazy Heart gets no points for originality. It is Bridges’ heartfelt, heartbreaking performance that makes the movie soar. In a role that would have had most actors chewing the nearest scenery, he never overdoes it, is never less than real.

Ask what his toughest scene was and he sounds a recurring note of classic actor’s insecurity. “Every scene, there’s an opportunity to be frightened, whether you’re going to pull it off,” he said. He and Colin Farrell, perfectly cast as Blake’s one-time protégé turned country’s hottest star, filmed a duet live during intermission at a Toby Keith concert, with both actors doing their own singing. “We only had maybe five or 10 minutes to get the movie crew all set up, and we did it once,” Bridges said, “so that causes a certain kind of anxiety.”

A no-second-takes concert seems far from the most wrenching moment: When Bad is taking care of Jean’s little boy, something goes awry, and in one scene Bridges’ face expresses all the anguish of a guy who recognizes how low he has fallen, how irredeemably he has screwed up.

As the son of actor Lloyd Bridges, Jeff grew up observing the film industry even before he was a part of it. His own career is as varied as his Oscar-nominated roles as an alien in Starman and a president in The Contender, and he has seen such wild changes that his ‘70s nominations for The Last Picture Show and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seem to have happened in some archaic era. “First time, with Picture Show, I was a 19, 20-year-old kid, and there was no campaign or anything like that. Just waking up at 6:30 in the morning after partying hard the night before, somebody saying on the phone, ‘Heey, you got nominated!’” He acts out his own youthful voice responding, “‘ What?’ Totally surprised. And I think the next one, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, was kind of like that too. And then the business sort of changed,” as heavy-duty campaigning began to creep in. “There’s always been a side of showbiz that’s the barker at the carousel kind of thing, you’re out there,” he said, waving his arms frantically and turning his voice into a booming barker’s: “‘Come see our movie, it’s really good.’ There’s an aspect to these awards and festivals that’s all about getting people into the seats.”

In a role that would have had most actors chewing the nearest scenery, Bridges never overdoes it, is never less than real.

So how does he survive the seemingly endless march of the season, losing count of how many times he’ll have to say he’s so proud of Crazy Heart? “Work, play—in what I do it’s a very fine line between the two, no line, really. That word play. You say ‘Let’s put on a play,’ Hamlet is a play, play some music, let’s play some Beatles, or somebody might play Beethoven. There’s joy in it. My father is my main teacher and he taught me all the basics, but one of the main things he taught me was something I just observed: that he brought such joy to his work, he loved all aspects of show business. This thing that we’re doing now”—the interview part— “he loved to do, and I find I do, too. It’s not a phony thing because it makes it more enjoyable for me by engaging, rather than saying, ‘Oh, God, one more time.’”

And after the de rigueur answers about how gratifying it is to be validated by your peers, he arrives at what amounts to a philosophical riff. “There’s a kind of double-edged sword about winning. We were talking about—I think we were talking about...” He pauses because suddenly he’s not sure if he had that conversation about fear and anxiety with me or someone else. “One of the problems with this is that you forget,” he laughs. “What was I going to say about that?” Double-edged sword.

“One of the elements of this fear is pressure. For instance, this movie. What a great opportunity, I can do my music, I get to work with my friends, and a wonderful part. Yeah, but you could fail at something you really want to do, you could not catch that long ball”—and here he mimes a football player—“so it’s about pressure, about dropping the ball. Winning something like an Oscar is a little bit more pressure, like, ‘Oh isn’t this great, but now I got to be better.’ And there’s a Dude side to me, I don’t like challenges, I don’t want to be pressurized in all this stuff. But that’s sort of what it’s all about. It’s like birth. Imagine the pressure a baby feels when it’s being born”—he makes a scrunched up baby face and squeals—“‘Oh no!’ And then you’re born into the next thing, it’s wonderful. I know that’s all part of the experience, I do my best to kind of dig what’s happening.”

He mentions the Zen teacher and author Shunryu Suzuki, whose students once asked, “What is your definition of hell?” only to be told, “Giving a speech in English.” Bridges seems inspired by “this enlightened guy,” who still fears “he’s going to blow it somehow.” In his journey, he finds a parallel to Oscar night. “Putting myself in his place, just the fact of getting up there and having to make a speech and you’re going to forget to thank people—all that anxiety stuff kind of bothers me, but in the same sense it would be wonderful if it happened. No chickens being counted.” It would be shocking if the Academy Awards race didn’t come down to Bridges versus George Clooney for Up in the Air. During the long campaign, the Zen of anxiety is not a bad way to go.

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Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.