Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Dude abides!

Surfacing in my DVR queue last night was PBS' season premiere of their American Masters series -- "Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides."

We'll get to Jeff in a second, but I first have to say that this series does an amazing job. With this specific film directed by Gail Levin, the use of photography, behind-the-scenes material, clips from past movies, interviews with family, friends and colleagues and the way it is all seamlessly woven together with Jeff's own words makes for a highly enthralling 90 minutes.

Now, to Mr. Bridges ...

If ever there was someone who embodies the word "eclectic," it's Bridges. We can obviously see this in his body of filmwork -- the fact that he played the President of the United States in "The Contender" two years after playing The Dude in "The Big Lebowski" is all that needs to be said about this. And on that topic, one of the "grooviest" parts of this film, for me, is when he makes a surprise visit to a Big Lebowski tribute shop in Greenwich Village.

But the film also showcases his considerable talents off-screen, as a musician, photographer and painter. A few examples:
  • Bridges thought he would take the music route as a kid -- not wanting to go into his father's business right away -- and even wrote a song for the soundtrack of one of his brother Beau's early movies. Lately, Jeff said his role in "Crazy Heart" whetted his musical appetite, so he got a band together, had his agent set up some gigs, and he played at Niagara Falls for a couple of nights, thoroughly enjoying it.
  • He takes behind-the-scenes photos of virtually every movie he works on with a vintage Widelux camera, and makes albums as gifts for the people he works with on the movie. I happened to watch "Seabiscuit" a few nights ago, and there's a very poignant DVD extra featuring Bridges' camera shots that artistically illustrate the collaborative aspect of movie-making.
  • Bridges' talents as a painter and potter are also examined, as he's filmed intensively going to work with paints -- at one point spontaneously representing his family rising from white on a glass background -- and clay -- making a variety of pots and quirky resemblances of heads and faces -- all yet another outlet for his all-encompassing creativity.
Jeff Bridges and his vintage Widelux camera (PBS)
The film also examines Bridges' tendency to be hesitant or reticent in accepting virtually every movie or project that comes his way. He's one "who has to be dragged to the party," and confesses to having a bit of The Dude in him, an admitted laziness at times -- but once he's in, he's all in. It also brushes on his individual relationships with his family, which I found to be quite compelling and moving.

For me, when faced with immensely gifted people like this, who seem to be able to cram so much positive and beneficial work in their lives, it's incredibly inspiring to see all these gifts being used to their maximum potential. It also serves as a pretty jarring wakeup call -- an example of the way we should all get off our asses and live, to get as much as we can out of life by giving as much as we can.

One other thing I realized is how shameful it is that so many of his older films have escaped me. Not "King Kong," though! That flop earns the distinction of likely being the first Jeff Bridges movie I ever saw (and saw again and again for that matter), and -- more importantly -- very well could have led to his ability to explore more offbeat roles as his star appeal was briefly tarnished. Perhaps it is precisely his unassuming nature and propensity for unconventional roles that took me so long to get into his stuff, even though he was nominated for an Academy Award four times before winning with "Crazy Heart."

Consider a line spoken in this film by director Taylor Hackford: "We grew up thinking 'The Actors Studio.' You've got DeNiro, Pacino, Dustin, Brando ... you have all the method people in New York, and they really have the tap on great acting. Here's this guy in California who's this surfer dude. He's absolutely as good as any one of them."

So, yes, while I've seen many of his films by this point, I still have several on the must-see list to right this wrong. And with "Starman," "Cutter's Way," "Against All Odds" and "American Heart" all currently streaming live on Netflix, I'm envisioning a Jeff Bridges winter-day marathon in my near future.

Note: If you missed the program on TV, you can watch it in its entirety online here. Also, for an even more in-depth and intriguing look at his on- and off-screen endeavors, check out Jeff Bridges' official website.

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