Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jeff Bridges and the subtle art of acting

There is a scene in "The Door in the Floor" when Jeff Bridges is called on to perform a monster of a monologue.

Bridges' character is a children's book author who lost both his sons to a horrific accident. In the monologue, the character gives a detailed, lengthy description of the accident and the moments that lead up to it.

What is astonishing about the scene is not what Bridges does, but what he chooses not to do. Another actor may have injected the monologue with emotion -- a wavering voice, a sudden change in tone, or any number of weapons in an actor's arsenal.

But Bridges, true to his closed-off character, delivers the scene with both clinical detachment and a writer's eye for detail. His voice remains even, and the lines sound polished and rehearsed, as if the character had been drafting this scene in his head until the moment came to deliver it.

The moment is not flashy. It's just exactly right.

That scene, that sense of rightness, is what makes Jeff Bridges the most underrated actor in American film.

There are plenty of good actors around, many of whom perform brilliantly in showy roles. But it's Bridges' finely tuned sense of calibration that makes him special -- and it's the same thing that may cause fans to overlook him.

Here are a few of the performances he has turned in that I find especially interesting:

The Big Lebowski. There's not enough room on the Internets for me to detail all the reasons why this movie is awesome. (Although, off-topic here for a moment, notice the way Julianne Moore's character acidly dismisses the plot of the porn film Logrollin' as "ludicrous," as if her character judges porn movies by their stories.) But Bridges' performance has to be mentioned as the central masterpiece inside the masterpiece. In the hands of another actor, the Dude could have been a ridiculous sketch of a character, but Bridges chooses to give him a shambling, laid-back dignity that anchors the film. It's one of the great comic performances of all time.

The Door in the Floor. As a children's-book author who has buried the grief over his sons' death deep inside himself, Bridges is astonishing in this overlooked film, during which his character expresses emotions in tiny, aching ways, from the odd slant with which he views the world to the way he drunkenly weaves down a street on his bicycle.

The Contender. Bridges puts in a nice supporting turn as the President, playing him both sly enough to actually become president but wise enough to be a good one.

Arlington Road. This unsettling thriller gives viewers a snapshot of American paranoia -- and features a sinister Joan Cusack to boot. Bridges gives a grounded, subtle performance as a professor who becomes convinced his neighbors are home-grown terrorists. It's such a well-crafted performance that you feel as if you're in Bridges skin when suspicion and fear starts to creep over him.

The Fisher King. Bridges is so good as a smug, smarmy radio talk-show host at the beginning of this film that I was disappointed when tragedy struck, knocking him off his privileged perch. Then he was so good as a self-loathing video-store clerk that I was disappointed when Robin Williams came bounding along as a figure to change his life. Then he was so good as a man who has found redemption that I was disappointed the movie was over.