Burning Bridges

By Michele Manelis

Co-star Robert Duvall (right) was instrumental in getting Bridges on board. Photo / Supplied
Co-star Robert Duvall (right) was instrumental in getting Bridges on board. Photo / Supplied

No longer an underdog, last month Jeff Bridges won Best Actor at the Golden Globes for his portrayal of a down-and-out, alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart. He joked backstage, award in hand, "This is really screwing with my under-appreciated status."

Probably one of the most enduring and likeable movie stars, Bridges is known for roles such as The Last Picture Show, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and, most famously, as the Dude in The Big Lebowski.

At a hotel in Los Angeles, a month or so before the announcement of his fifth Academy Award nomination, Bridges says he has been down this road before and has become a seasoned veteran at going home from the Oscars empty handed. "If the nomination happens, it's really great. I know how it feels to be patted on the back by the guys who do what you do, who know what it takes," he says. It seems, for Bridges, the universe does not revolve around him. He doesn't pontificate endlessly about the craft of acting, and quickly shifts the focus to Crazy Heart.

"I had high expectations for this movie, and it's rare that it turns out that the reality exceeds those hopes. And the great thing about Oscar attention is that it waves a flag, 'Come see this movie!"'

The thing is, his portrayal of Bad Blake is so tenderly balanced, and so note-perfect, that it has made him all but a shoo-in to win his first-ever Oscar, after 40 years in the business.

His co-star, Maggie Gyllenhaal, also earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress playing a reporter who falls for his dubious charms, and songwriter T-Bone Burnett earned a nod for Best Original Song.

Not a bad effort for first-time, 30-something director, Scott Cooper, who also wrote the script from a novel by Thomas Cobb. And better still considering the film had a budget of just US$7 million (NZ$10 million) and was shot in a month in New Mexico.

The against-the-odds story of how Crazy Heart made it to the big screen began three years ago. A friend gave Cooper - a lifelong country music fan - an old copy of Cobb's out-of-print 1987 novel which he fell in love with. So for a few hundred dollars he bought an option on its film rights.

In an industry where generations of young wannabes have paid top dollar to get a film-school education, Cooper, who had no formal training, decided to simply bash out a script. "I was just naive enough to think I could do this," he recalls. It took him just under four months.

The key to actually turning the Crazy Heart script into a film, rather than having it sink without trace, like so many would-be Hollywood hits, lay with Robert Duvall, the member of Hollywood royalty with whom he'd worked on four previous films.

"I remembered that Mr Duvall had won an Oscar for Tender Mercies, as best actor, in a role not unlike Bad Blake. So I hesitantly sent it to him. A few days later, he called me back, and said: 'let's make it! What do you need?' I was, shall we say, pleasantly surprised."

Cooper signed Duvall for a supporting role, before asking his advice in making two crucial hires: Burnett, the famed music producer, to write the soundtrack, and Bridges, who is famously tricky to pin down, for the lead role. "Mr Duvall said 'go after them, write them impassioned letters.' So I did."

Bridges repeatedly turned down Cooper's offer to play the faded musician. "I'd been away a lot that year and I didn't want to be gone from my wife, my sweetheart. But eventually, [songwriter and producer] T-Bone [Burnett], a good friend who goes back 30 years (since we did Heaven's Gate), came on board."

Another reason Bridges - an accomplished guitarist who's obsessed with country music - changed his mind was because he thought he might not get another chance to take on a film that would allow him to showcase these talents.

"I'm at this time in life when I have to take the opportunities I have left," he says. "You know, I scattered my mother's ashes this Thanksgiving, where we'd scattered my dad's a few years before. So I'm up next. I'm in the batter's box, you know? Life's picking up speed. It's passing me by, and I have a limited time left to strike."

He speaks candidly about what it was like to grow up in the shadow of his famous dad Lloyd Bridges - and how, like most offspring who venture into the family business, it was with great reluctance that he followed in his father's footsteps all those years ago.

"My father, unlike a lot of actors, really encouraged all his kids to act, to go into showbiz, because he enjoyed it so much. He wanted to turn his kids on to it. And like most kids, you don't want to do what your parents do," he laughs.

"He'd put all of his kids in Sea Hunt, and everything else he could do. But when you're a kid, you don't want to be special. You don't want to stand out, and you really don't want someone to say, 'You think you're so great because your dad is Lloyd Bridges.'

"So when my girls were growing up, I didn't want to put that trip on them, so I didn't. But now I'm kind of sorry about how I handled it because I'm glad I took my dad's advice and went into showbiz because I love it too."

Without any apparent air of defensiveness, he says, "The hardest thing for an actor is get to get their foot in the door. Of course, the reason my foot was able to get in the door was completely because of my dad. It's as simple as that. And when my kids were in their early 20s not knowing what to do with their life, I said to them, 'You can always try acting. You've got it in your blood, and I'll certainly help you."' He laughs. "All of them said, 'No. I don't think I'll do that."' He pauses. "A lot of humiliation goes into acting, getting parts, not getting parts. It's harder for women."

His favourite woman is clearly wife Susan Geston - his "sweetheart" - who he met while shooting the movie Rancho Deluxe in 1975, where she worked as a maid on the set. Happily married since 1977, they have three daughters: Isabelle, born in 1981, Jessica, 1983, and Hayley, 1985.

He regales the story of how he met her and, surprisingly, produces a photograph. "Look at this," he says, proudly, taking it out of his jacket pocket. "The makeup man on that set of Rancho Deluxe sent this to me recently after he was going through some old files. He said 'I found this photo of you with a young local girl and you were asking her out.' So, I have this photograph of the first words that my future wife ever, ever uttered to me, which was, 'No."'

Remarkably fit and youthful, in order to take on the role of an overindulgent, out-of-shape musician required Bridges to pack on the pounds.

"It's a double-sided thing. Of course it's fun to eat as much ice cream as you want, or drink alcohol. But the downside of that is your health. You don't feel as good. Being hungover doesn't feel great, but it worked for the part. I didn't want to act drunk. I don't like doing that, I've done that before and learned that lesson. That's not the way to go for me."

The humour in "getting drunk for his art," isn't lost on him.

"It was funny. I'd be hungover from drinking the night before because I'd go out after a night's work, and on most movies I say, 'No, I'm not drinking, I'm on a movie.' Otherwise, you wake up and you're kind of puffy and you don't feel good or look good. But with this movie I said, 'No, that's okay' because I could be puffy. You know, in preparation for the next day's work. It was odd."

His first passion, music, also presented some unexpected problems. "The downside of singing and playing music was the anxiety.

"There's a certain nervousness you get when you want to do something really bad and you just hope to hell you can do it. Because, maybe you can't," he says. "I've learned over the years that fear is not going away. It's always going to be there, but it's how you dance with it that makes the difference."

Bridges makes the distinction between fear and suffering, dispelling the notion of the "tortured artist": that in order to be creative, you must suffer for your art.

"There's this mythology that artists tell themselves that creativity comes out of suffering and struggling. So, therefore, if I don't suffer, I can't be an artist? That's ridiculous.

"Suffering is inevitable in life. We all hit our hands and feel pain. But the problem with this other kind of misery is that we pile it on as something extra. It took me a while to understand that it doesn't have to be there."

- additional reporting The Independent

Lowdown

Who: Jeff Bridges
What: Crazy Heart, opens February 25. Oscar nominations for best actor (Jeff Bridges) and best actress in supporting role (Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Key roles: The Last Picture Show (1971), The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Contender (2000), and Seabiscuit.

- NZ Herald

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