Long Live the Dude

Omaha native Gail Levin chronicles Jeff Bridges for ‘American Masters’

Omaha native and Emmy Award-winning documentarian Gail Levin profiles actor Jeff Bridges in a new film kicking off the 25th season of “American Masters,” a series produced for PBS by New York Public Media THIRTEEN in association with WNET. Levin, an Omaha Central High graduate long based in Manhattan, says the project has been on quick turnaround to parlay the heat surrounding Bridges. A year ago he won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as country musician Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Oddsmakers predict a nomination for his rendition of lawman Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ True Grit. “We’re really trying to take advantage of all the energy and buzz of everything that’s going on with him,” says Levin (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memories). Her film reveals Bridges’ multi-faceted creative ability. In addition to acting he’s a musician. He performs with his band The Abiders. He’s also a photographer, painter, potter and vintner. Performing his own music in Crazy Heart surprised many, but it was simply an extension of what he’s always done. “His great love is music, and it has been all throughout his life,” she says. “He’s now really playing a lot of music, doing gigs. We’ve got a lot of footage of him. We shot at this funny little place he played in Niagara Falls.” She also captured him at a Zen symposium. “I don’t know that he would call himself a Buddhist, but he’s certainly in that ether at the moment. He’s very involved with a group called Zen Peacemakers.” Levin was struck by a passage Bridges wrote in the intro to his book Pictures, a sampling of images the actor captured on movie sets, then put in photo albums and gave them as gifts to cast and crew. In describing why he prefers the panoramic Widelux still camera, he offers a key to his creative method: “ … it has an arbitrariness to it, a capricious quality. I like that. It’s something I aspire to in all my work — a lack of preciousness that makes things more human and honest, a willingness to receive what’s there in the moment, and to let go of the result. Getting out of the way seems to be one of the main tasks for me as an artist.” For Levin, the insight helps explain what makes Bridges a durable star 40 years since his feature breakthrough in The Last Picture Show. In her interviews with him, his family and colleagues, Levin found he’s more complex than his public Everyman-Next-Door, laid-back Dude persona. “The interesting truth about him is that he’s rather tortured all the time. He says in the film he’s rather reluctant to all of this (film career). I think he came to it obviously through the legacy of his father (the late actor Lloyd Bridges) and his older brother Beau, But he even says he’s a little bit lazy, he’s got a little of the Dude in him, and it’s always kind of hard for him to kind of gear himself up again.” This “drag me to the party” resistance and ambivalence is how he moves through life. She says some Bridges collaborators, such as Terry Gilliam and John Goodman, speak to his cautious approach. “He’s not a spontaneous, improvisational actor,” says Levin. “He really needs to know what and where. He has guides who school him in being a junkie or a drunk. He takes that all very seriously and seems to form close relationships with these people who sort of become his models for how to play various parts. “I think he’s very particular about the kinds of things he chooses. I think he picks films that have some intrigue for him and not necessarily what are going to be the biggest blockbusters. He’s a very individual star. I think he’s really on his own path.” While Levin enjoyed “amazing access” to Bridges and Co., she found his well-protected veneer hard to penetrate: “You’ll see in this film there’s a much darker side to Jeff than people realize, and this kind of push-me, pull-you about the acting is really a great revelation. People think he’s easy going about it, and he’s really not. But he doesn’t divulge dark disappointments and things like that. Others say it.” She says if there are secrets to pry loose, “you gotta be long and deep with him,” adding she didn’t establish a rapport that might have led to such intimacies. As for Bridges being an American Master, she says, “He’s worked with remarkable directors, he has an extraordinary body of work. He’s an amazing amalgam. He’s an artist on many, many levels.” Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides premieres Jan. 12, showing locally on NET at 9 p.m.

posted at 08:09 pm
on Monday, January 10th, 2011

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