By Joan Tarshis
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Jeff Bridges is a very talented man. He can act. He can sing, dance, play guitar, and write music. He can sculpt, paint, and sketch. He's a gifted photographer. He started a record label called Ramp Records, and he's got a pretty cool website. Believe me, I tried to find something he can't do, or someone who doesn't like him, and I came up empty.
But wait... Mr. Bridges does have one small kink in his armor: he is late. I'm waiting for him in the cushy lounge in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, playing solitaire on my Palm Pilot. To be honest, I was late, too. After I lose a few games, he arrives - taller than expected, and broader. He's not in jeans, his customary attire; instead he's in a beige Ermenegildo Zegna suit and coffee-bean brown suede loafers. His straw-blond hair is cut shorter than usual - but like those of his father, the late Lloyd Bridges, and his older brother, Beau, it's still a mop to be coveted. Nestled below two sagebrush eyebrows, those bankable blue-ribbon eyes look slightly overworked.
He plops down on a plush love seat, seemingly happy to be off his feet. He looks tired and admits he is. It's a productive tired, however; he was swamped by people who wanted to talk to him about his book, Photography by Jeff Bridges, at the national book buyers' convention. Still, those trademark Bridges-blue eyes, though overworked, manage an occasional sparkle from under heavy lids.
"Can we do the interview here?" he asks, while looking around the empty room. "If it gets too noisy, we can go up to my room." I tell him it's the best offer I've had in a while. As the words leave our lips, the room fills up with people who want to relax with a few evening drinks. We look at each other, and with a nod, I follow him to the elevator. Reaching the top floor, we enter an elegant suite, French provincial. He turns the cool air up and throws his suit jacket over the back of the couch. On the coffee table in front of the living room's entertainment center are the remnants of the lunch he didn't eat. "That salad didn't make it," he says, as he opens an Evian. We clink glasses as Bridges croons,"a votre santé", I reply, "L'chiam."
I'm here today because Jeff Bridges is a busy man. He has an original movie premiering on STARZ, called Scenes of the Crime, on June 28; the highly anticipated Universal Pictures' Seabiscuit is set for a late July opening. He has just come from a major book retailers' convention, where he did hours of interviews about his coffee table book, Photographs by Jeff Bridges (Powerhouse Books), hitting bookstores in November. It's a collection of black-and-white photos shot during the production of various films he's made. He uses a panning still camera called a Widelux, which achieves panoramic wide-angles and allows the photographer to paint designs on a shot.
"You've seen those long pictures of the civil war,"said Bridges. "Mine is a 35-mm version of that camera. I remember the first time I ever saw anything like it was when I was getting my high school photograph taken. The guy had a Widelux and there was a rumor going around that if you ran around real quickly you could beat the lens. It was true. So there's a lot of kids in their class pictures twice."
Though never rising to the level of stardom he deserves, Bridges' filmography is as long as an elephant's trunk. He's accumulated four Oscar nominations (The Last Picture Show, in 1971 at 21 years old; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, three years later; Starman, in 1984; and The Contender, 2000). So why has super-stardom eluded him? Bridges attributes his deficiency of box-office blockbusters to his tendency to choose a role for reasons beyond the commerciality of a movie. This, and the fact that many Hollywood "Powers That Be" award roles by the number of bottoms an actor has put into theater seats, rather than talent or suitability. But he's not bitter about it. After growing up in and around the industry, he shrugs it off, knowing this reality is as unyielding as a river's course and just as foolhardy to fight.
In Seabiscuit, Bridges apparently has picked a winner. He plays the racehorse's owner, Charles Howard. It's perhaps a role closer to his own nature than even he realizes. The story revolves around four characters: a half-blind jockey (Tobey Maguire), a down-on-his-luck trainer (Chris Cooper), Bridges, and, of course, the racehorse who took them and the entire country on the ride of a lifetime during the dim and depressed days of the 1930s. "All of these people," he says, "have been through tough times and have seen their day. In Seabiscuit's case, he had a pretty bad track record and it looked like his racing days were over. The same could be said for Red Pollard (McGuire) and Tom Smith (Cooper); they were not really well thought of in the first place."
What attracted Bridges, 53, to this role was Howard's championing of the underdog. "Even before he got Seabiscuit, he liked to find people that other people had lost faith in. He got something out of making those people successful and seeing qualities in each of them that maybe the world hadn't seen," he says. Rumor has it, Bridges possesses some of the same qualities as Howard. Not bad for a town that looks in garbage pails and under fingernails for bad news to gossip about.
Bridges accentuates how lucky he was to be able to talk with Laura Hillenbrand - author of the best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. He reports that she was very generous with her time for discussions about Howard. "Of course, I read the book and got a lot out of it," Bridges says. He pauses for a second, brow furrowed, then continues, "There must be a nicer word that isn't quite as vulgar as 'having a lot of balls' (laughs)." Chutzpah, I suggest. "Right! I had the chutzpah to ask her if she had anything of his that she could lend me. Something I could just kind of carry on my person as I got about it. So she sent me a wallet that had a pass that he always carried. So having that was great as far as just bringing in his spirit, or channeling him, or whatever you want to call it."
No stranger to horse racing, Bridges reports that his grandfather, Fred Simpson, went to the track four or five times a week. "He was very into it. As a teenager I used to drive him down to Santa Anita. As a matter of fact, I'm dedicating the photography book to him and my cousin Erica - who turned me on to Laura's book. She called me up about five years ago right after the book came out and said 'I've read this book; you've got to play this part.' I said, 'Maybe a script will be written some day.' It gave me great satisfaction to call her up years later and say, 'Your prophecy came true, Erica.'"
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SMOKE - Summer, 2003
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