TF Issue 200: Is It Just Me? Jeff Bridges...
On page 161 of TF issue 200, Tom Dawson asks:
"Is it just me... or was Jeff Bridges the finest actor of the 1970s?"
Let’s face it, American cinema in the 1970s wasn’t exactly short of indelible male performances: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, Al Pacino in the The Godfather, Gene Hackman in The Conversation, Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now… My contender, however, for the finest American actor of this cinematic golden age is the man New Yorker critic Pauline Kael raved about as the “most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived”; the man whom David Thomson (The Biographical Dictionary Of Film) suggested was a modern-day Robert Mitchum, on account of his “hangdog, wounded grace”. Take a bow, Jeff Bridges.
Bridges may not have starred in the best-known films of the ’70s – but take a look at the quality, versatility and diversity of his performances from that era. He played a callow, small-town Texan teenager called up for the Korean War in the elegiac The Last Picture Show; a Civil War draft-dodger in revisionist western Bad Company; and a Californian boxing hopeful in the sublime Fat City. He was also a dragged-up bank robber opposite Clint Eastwood in the freewheeling Thunderbolt And Lightfoot; a rebellious Alabama gent transformed by a friendship with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gentle body-builder in the ********** Stay Hungry; and a beach-bum-cum-gigolo in the sunshine noir Cutter’s Way, where his character gets tangled up with his Vietnam-veteran buddy in both a love triangle and a murder mystery. (Admittedly, Cutter’s Way wasn’t released until 1981, yet the sad-eyed spirit of the ’70s seems hardwired into its DNA .)
A quick flick through the index of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls shows few entries for Bridges. It’s perhaps a reflection of the fact that he’s always been someone who’s kept a low profile outside of acting. But it’s also in keeping with many of his performances: not for Bridges the grandstanding, look-at-me antics of several of his more celebrated contemporaries.
You never sense in these films that Bridges feels the need to upstage his fellow actors. Look at the seemingly effortless way he brings out the best in co-stars Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrell and Candy Clark in Fat City, or Stay Hungry’s Sally Field and Arnie (who won a Golden Globe!). In Cutter’s Way, meanwhile, he’s content to let John Heard tear up a storm as the raging, crippled Cutter. Bridges delivers a much ‘quieter’ performance, yet eloquently conveys a man drifting through life on his looks and charm, afraid of any meaningful emotional commitment.
As the years pass, these films seem more poignant than ever in the way they explore the complexities of human relationships. What’s more, Bridges’ naturalistic performances are every bit as deserving of the appreciation and acclaim lavished on his peers. Or is it just me?
Issue 200 of Total Film is on sale 26 October 2012.
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