Jeff Bridges and his blissfully unending quest for answers
Don’t buy Bridges’s possibly weed-influenced smoke screen. He actually does a lot of things. He is an almost practicing Buddhist. He throws pots. He sells Hyundais and Duracells on the idiot box. He speaks out for ending child hunger in America. He paints. Did I say he throws pots? But amid the jumble of meditation, Sonatas, and crockery, there’s one thing Bridges does almost as well as acting: photography. He’s had a darkroom since he was a kid and has shot portraits on his movie sets for decades. Taking photos helps him relax on difficult shoots like Iron Man, where the script was still in flux as shooting began. “I was freaking out,” recalls Bridges. “But then I told myself, ‘Hey, we’re just making a $200 million student film. It’ll be ——————————————————————————— OK, or it won’t.’ ”
This being Jeff, his method is eccentric. No retro Polaroids or quick-snap digital equipment. He shoots with a Widelux camera, which has a lens with a superlong exposure time — about 15 seconds for a single picture. That’s perfect for him. You can move people around during the exposure, committing to nothing until the last second. Jon Favreau frowns on the right side of the frame; Jon Favreau grins on the left. The juxtapositions are very Jeff — not too dark, not too fluffy, and easy on the eyes.
Looking at the pictures after spending time with Bridges, I was struck by the only constant in all of Bridges’s endeavors: He is always trying to entertain someone. Banal revelation? Maybe, but think about it. Is Daniel Day-Lewis actually trying to entertain you? Eddie Vedder? How about that Bright Eyes dude? Bridges readily cops to it. “I come from a family of entertainers,” he says. “That’s what I do — I’m a performer. I entertain people. I’m not ashamed of that; it’s a good thing.”
There’s circus in his blood. When Bridges was 14, Jeff and his older brother, Beau, would drive a flatbed truck into the parking lots of L.A. grocery stores. They would jump out of the truck and begin fighting. A crowd would gather. Once they had achieved critical mass, Beau and Jeff would cease hostilities and jump into the back of their truck, and they would then do dramatic readings from The Catcher in the Rye. Invariably, the Bridgeses would try to incorporate the late-arriving cops into their performances. This usually ended badly, with the Bridgeses hightailing it for the next grocery store. The activity seemed completely normal to Jeff: “We were raised with the idea all the time of putting on a show. It was the most natural thing to me.”
Bridges’s naturalism as an actor is repeatedly cited by everyone from legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael to director Peter Bogdanovich, who gave Bridges his first big break with The Last Picture Show in 1971. Bridges plays Duane Jackson, a handsome, small-town Texas teenager. As written in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Jackson comes across as a coarse, womanizing jackass. In the film, Bridges provides him with a vulnerable warmth that makes him less an asshole and more a lost soul.
Bridges scored an Oscar nomination for the role and then another three years later in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, in which Bridges plays a flamboyant, impossibly sunny bank robber alongside an already crusty Clint Eastwood. Bridges’s giddy innocence leavens Eastwood’s poker-face performance — Clint spends the whole film suppressing grins opposite the exuberant Bridges — and the result is a buddy-film classic equal to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. “I couldn’t find the character,” remembers Bridges. “And Michael told me, ‘You are that character. You be yourself, your choices can’t be wrong.’ ”