Jeff Bridges and his blissfully unending quest for answers
LEBOWSKI & THE ANTI-LEBOWSKI
The everybody-loves–Jeff Bridges home base is, of course, The Big Lebowski. For the two of you who haven’t seen it, Bridges’s Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. the Dude, is a bowler stoner. He has a big heart, no job, and an omnipresent White Russian. He is hapless and well-intentioned, much like Bridges would be without his wife, daughters, sidemen, and manager. “The Coen brothers told me they were writing a script for me,” recalls Bridges. “I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ Then I read the script and I was like, ‘Have you been following me around to parties?’ It’s a lot like a younger version of me.”
I vowed to be the first magazine writer not to write about Bridges’s Dude-like qualities. Such a cliché, I thought. And then you meet him and he is, well, the goddamned Dude in all his fuzzy-headed, non sequitur goodness. If anything, Bridges’s cinematic Dude understates things.
Here’s a taste. In 1984, Bridges was cast as an alien fallen to Earth in Starman. This was his research: “I started going through my phone book thinking, Which of my friends would I not be surprised to find out was an alien? Then I just followed the dude around. He was a dancer and had dyed his hair platinum blond — white almost. He definitely could have been from another planet. He was far out.”
The power of Lebowski works for Bridges even when he is the anti-Lebowski. He has built so much good will that when he goes against type you can’t look away, whether it’s the sullen piano player in The Fabulous Baker Boys, the choleric and alcoholic Blake in Crazy Heart, or his upcoming portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal on an altruistic killing spree, in True Grit. Mind you, this isn’t a remake of John Wayne’s cranky but lovable Cogburn. This is trademark Coen brothers darkness — just in time for Christmas! — hewing closely to Charles Portis’s novel. “I had some concern about, ‘Why are you doing a remake?’” says Bridges. “But once I read the novel, I understood.” He dodges further questions about the film, slipping back into Dudespeak.
“I don’t like to ruin the discovery of seeing it in the theaters by talking about my characters too much. You know, I didn’t see the Star Wars films until much later. I was so grateful my friends didn’t spoil the whole ‘Luke, I am your father’ thing. That was cool of them.”
NECTARINES AND HEAD
It’s two weeks later and on the other side of the land. Late summer in the Berkshires. If you’ve hit the mill/vegan bookstore, you’ve gone too far. Back up a mile or so. Take a left up the dirt road that leads to a converted farmhouse that is full of good vibes, peasant skirts, and a palpable lack of deodorant. In a back room, Jeff Bridges strums a guitar at a conference table. Next to him is a beautiful young woman and a man who looks rode hard and put up wet.
“Hey, man. This is Johnny Goodwin. And this is my daughter Isabella. She’s an expert on kids yoga — any questions, ask her. This is… Aw, man. I forgot your name. Stephen! Yes!”
Techies enter and begin throwing dark blankets over the window. They are from the PBS show American Masters, which is filming an episode on Bridges, and they will give the next 24 hours an extra layer of refracted refraction. An old guy with shaggy eyebrows, suspenders, and a cigar in his shirt pocket walks into the room. He looks like a retired prop comic. The old man and Bridges embrace like lefties reuniting on the site of an ROTC protest.
Bernie Glassman is his name, and he’s the reason we’re here. He founded Zen Peacemakers. The ZP are Buddhist activists. This is a bit like being Mennonite snipers. Bernie holds a yearly conference where writers, philosophers, activists, and Jeff Bridges (if he’s not shooting a film) come. They talk about the application of Buddhist teachings to solving issues like violence and hunger. When things get too stressed or the conversation grows angsty, Bernie puts on a red clown’s nose and everyone chills.
Bernie takes Bridges by the arm and leads him into the center’s main room. Tonight, Jeff and John are going to play songs for the folks, but first there’s a panel on artistry and activism. Bridges ambles onstage and everyone claps. He sits down and puts a small briefcase on the table next to him. Bernie introduces him, then the room goes quiet.
“Thanks for having me,” says Bridges. He speaks sleepily. “As an appetizer, I would like to offer someone in the audience a little head. I like to do that from time to time for my friends. Give them a little. It establishes a bond.”
The pacifists and poets titter.
“Matter of fact, I gave Bernie a little head for his 70th birthday. He seemed to enjoy it.”
Now everyone is paying attention, particularly the PBS folks.
Bridges opens the briefcase. He pulls out a little head he has made of clay. “When I make pots, there’s always a little clay left over,” he explains. “I make little heads out of them, hundreds of heads. Some look angry, some look sad. This isn’t Bernie’s head. This is the head I’m offering today. It’s not free head. I’m going to charge for it. All the proceeds will go to the Zen Peacemakers.”
Everyone is a little disappointed. You don’t even get the head; you lease it, Elantra-like, for a year. Any questions about Bridges’s persuasive skills are answered when folks fork over $12,000 for a head.
Backstage, Johnny Goodwin strums a guitar. He is the molecular opposite of Bridges — short, slightly overweight, with dark circles under his orbs that are sometimes mistaken for black eyes. He is beyond world-weary but kindhearted.
“Jeff lived two doors down when we were kids,” says Goodwin. “We both had great imaginations, and we just made up whole worlds while we played.”
Goodwin’s life has been as turbulent as Bridges’s has been smooth. There have been lost decades in L.A. writing songs before heading out for Nashville 15 years ago. He’s had moments of success — a song on a Brad Paisley album — but he’s just scraping by. When Bridges was approached by producer-musician T Bone Burnett about Crazy Heart, he suggested Johnny write a song, and the end result was “Hold On to You,” the tune that opens the film.
“T Bone really liked it,” says Goodwin with pride. “He helped with the second verse. He could have buried it, but he put it first. Me and Jeff have been trying to find a place for our music, and we found it.”
Goodwin hasn’t played live for decades, except for a cameo at a Montana bar near where Bridges has a ranch. (He played one song and, according to Bridges, “was just ejaculating sweat.”)
“I just stopped,” says Goodwin. “L.A. and Nashville audiences are so intimidating.” He twists the knobs on his guitar. “I don’t know, this whole crowd is so easygoing. It’s going to be like playing for a bunch of nectarines.”
Bridges returns. “You doing OK, Johnny?”
It’s now about 20 minutes before showtime. The room is getting claustrophobic with well-wishers. Someone suggests we clear out so Johnny and Jeff can have a quiet moment. Instead, the door opens. A man leads a blind girl into the room. She has long, beautiful black hair and a beatific smile.
“Jeff, she’s a huge fan — just wanted to meet you for a minute.”
“Hey, sweetheart, why don’t you sit here. I’ve got to run through a few of my songs.”
The girl sits down, her walking cane across her lap.
Jeff starts strumming. He plays “What I Didn’t Want,” one of Johnny’s songs. It’s a sweet song. Maybe Goodwin had his best friend in mind, maybe he didn’t, but the words mirror Jeff’s reluctance-as a-way-of-life vibe.
I didn’t want to be bound
I didn’t want any ties
I didn’t want to give an inch or make any sacrifice
I didn’t want more
Thought I had what I needed
But the love we made made a better man of me
I used to dream of being free but now I don’t
And I bless the day I got what I didn’t want
Bridges plays quietly and sings in a voice that is his own. The blind girl smiles endlessly. She bobs her head, metronome-like. When the song ends, the room goes silent.
“Bravissima,” says the girl. “Bravissima.”
I know it sounds made up, but it happened.
A few minutes later, Goodwin and Bridges are seated on a small stage in front of maybe 400 people. Bridges is all smiles, but Johnny looks gray: A shimmer of his flop sweat is reflected in the overhead lights. Then Jeff reaches over, touches him lightly on the shoulder, and whispers something to his friend. Johnny exhales.
Everyone sits down and the PBS cameras roll. Bridges sings a song. Johnny sings a song. It’s perfectly enjoyable. Then Bridges decides to liven things up. He stands and puts on Bernie’s red clown nose. “I’ll do some physical movement to your song,” Bridges says to Johnny. He turns to the cameraman. “Now, Alan, would it be better if I did it over here so we both stayed in the frame?”
A few in the audience snicker. Bridges smirks and thrusts his palms outward.
“Hey, what can I say? I respond to cameras, man.”