"Black-Eyed Sue," as they called her then, was a waitress at Chico Hot Springs in Paradise Valley, Montana, when Jeff Bridges rolled into town in 1974, to film a comedy Western called Rancho Deluxe.
Even with two black eyes and a broken nose from a recent car wreck, she was stunning—sweet, smart, funny, free. She read Vonnegut novels and had a dog named Reefer. Bridges fell in love at first sight.
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Thirty-five years and three children later, Susan Geston Bridges sat in the audience at Hollywood's Kodak Theater on Sunday night, beaming through ruby-red lips as her husband accepted his Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. She was still stunning, with big turquoise earrings and teary eyes and enough grooves in her skin to stand out from the crowd: a real human beauty, capable of projecting real emotion, in an audience of taut foreheads and lineless lids. It was easy to see why Sue and Jeff have made it this long.
During the awards season flurry following his breathtaking performance as Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, Bridges gave many stirring tributes to "my gorgeous wife," "my main teacher," the girl from Fargo with whom he's shared his life. "I'm looking at you, sweetheart," he said from the podium at the Golden Globes. "My wife. My beautiful wife. Get a shot of her," he said, as if there were no audience apart from the woman down front. And when the cameraman did get a shot of her, Bridges shook his head side to side in admiration, like a teenager checking out a calendar girl. "Ohhh, man," he said.
“Jeff was smitten by her,” Greenwalt says. “He knew on that trip that he was going to marry that girl. He told me so.”
Bridges has always talked about his wife in adoring terms, as his partner and ideal woman. "In the 28 years we've been married, we've done 50 movies together," he wrote in a 2006 article for Reader's Digest about his idyllic marriage. "I say 'we' because she deserves a credit, too."
"I'm so in love with her," he told The Sun this week. "The relationship just keeps getting better and more intimate and sexier and all that stuff. You don't want to mess around with that." He would never cheat, he said, never even think of leaving. "If you change partners every time it gets tough or you get a little dissatisfied, then you don't get the richness that's available in a long-term relationship. My wife supports me and it makes me love her more."
On Sunday night, 41 million home viewers got a tiny glimpse of their Hollywood love story—the tears welling up in her eyes as he spoke from the podium, the reference to their "three beautiful tow-headed girls." In a happy haze, in their mansion in Montecito and on their ranch in Montana, Sue and The Dude are clearly living the dream. They are Paul and Joanne, Kurt and Goldie, Tom and Rita, Barack and Michelle.
On the day they met, it wasn't quite so. Jeff, son of Hollywood royals Lloyd and Dorothy Bridges and brother of Beau, hid behind a magazine that first afternoon in Chico Hot Springs, stealing glances of "Black-Eyed Sue" and working up the courage to ask her out. When he finally did, she turned him down. They danced at the Rancho Deluxe wrap party, but nothing came of it. He returned to California alone.
(A makeup artist from the crew took a picture of Bridges flirting with Geston and sent it to him many years later, not knowing they'd gotten married. He keeps it in his wallet now, once flashing it for film director Michael Almereyda, who did an interview with him for The New York Times.)
"He was enamored of her, and she was entirely uninterested in him," says David Greenwalt, a television writer and producer and Jeff Bridges' longtime best friend. "Some actor from Hollywood? She wasn't impressed."
Greenwalt, who went on to produce Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, hadn't found teen drama riches yet and was living in a trailer on Bridges' property in Malibu at the time. They'd been pals since University High School in Los Angeles, and Greenwalt was hung up on Bridges' sister, "heartsick," in his word. Bridges suggested they take a trip. "You'll forget your blues," he promised. What he didn't say was his real plan: to "kidnap" the pretty girl from Paradise Valley and make her his bride.
The two drove a "trashed-out motor home to Montana and had a grand old time," says Greenwalt. His first impression of Geston was that she was sharp, well-educated, "a country girl who could drink and smoke us under the table, which was embarrassing." Also, "she was beautiful, even with black eyes."
Bridges and Greenwalt somehow convinced Geston to drive with them to Glacier Park. She brought Reefer. Bridges had his own dog, too. Greenwalt drove most of the way. "The funny, bittersweet thing for me was that I had this broken heart, and here were these two people falling madly in love with each other," he says. "I'd be driving the motor home; they'd be kissing in the back."
"Jeff was smitten by her," Greenwalt says. "He knew on that trip that he was going to marry that girl. He told me so."
By that point, Geston was smitten, too. She moved into the Malibu house with Bridges, and Greenwalt continued living in his trailer on the property. It was the 1970s. There was a hot tub and a sauna and lots of good food and fun people passing through the house. Bridges painted and threw pots. Geston, a gifted photographer, took pictures. They wrote songs and played music every night. On June 5, 1977, a week after Greenwalt's wedding, they got married. Greenwalt missed the ceremony because he was on his honeymoon.
Children and new homes and more Oscar nominations followed. The Bridges bought Kenny Loggins' nine-bedroom house in Santa Barbara in 1994, for just under $7 million. They also own a giant ranch in Chico Hot Springs, the setting for the "whorehouse" in the 1980 movie Heaven's Gate.
Once the girls—Isabelle, Jessica, and Haley—were grown, Geston focused more on charity work and her interest in photography, traveling to Cuba and elsewhere to take pictures. Bridges, too, is a photographer, compiling books of behind-the-scenes shots he takes on every movie set. Together they have managed to live a relatively normal-seeming life.
"I think the thing that happens in a good relationship—and clearly it's a good relationship, since it lasted so long—is that she was never that impressed by him," Greenwalt says. "She certainly came to love him a tremendous deal, but it wasn't like, 'You're some big deal.' It was more like, 'You're just a guy.'"
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.