Looking back at the awards season of 1998-99, it's hard not to feel some chagrin. That was the year Roberto Benigni did his clown's leap to the stage to pick up his Best Actor Oscar, but in retrospect, the issue isn't that Benigni beat out Nick Nolte, Edward Norton, Ian McKellen and Tom Hanks for the award; it's that Jeff Bridges wasn't even nominated. His deft, hilarious, thrillingly perfect performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. the Dude, in the Coen brothers' genius film The Big Lebowski should have been showered with prizes. Instead, the only official honor Bridges got for the 1998 film was a nomination from the Satellite Awards, whatever those are.
What has all this got to do with Crazy Heart, which features Bridges as a washed-up country-and-western singer? A low-budget affair made by Country Music Television, the film might have gone straight to DVD if ICM hadn't gone to bat for a theatrical release on behalf of first-time writer-director Scott Cooper. The agency's persistence is paying off in Oscar buzz for Bridges, who has been nominated four times in his career and has always gone home empty-handed. If the Golden Globe nomination he earned this week is any sign, it seems probable that he'll be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his performance in Crazy Heart as the alcoholic singer-songwriter Bad Blake and while the film isn't quite the timeless gem Lebowski is, Bridges playing the perennially soused is, once again, spectacularly award-worthy.
That's not to say that Bad is just an older Dude. Certainly there are similarities both men wander around with a lowball in hand, pot belly swaying in gentle tandem with the ice clinking against the side of the glass, and Crazy Heart even opens at a bowling alley. But whereas bowling was the Dude's favorite sport and main occupation, for Bad, finding himself performing at a bowling alley in Pueblo, Colo., is a misery. He's a legend in the country-and-western scene, but he's 57, broke and no longer even afforded the dignity of running a tab at the bars where he plays ("I'm ..." he starts to tell an unsympathetic bartender waiting for her $4.75, then gestures at the stage with a weary paw. "Hell, I am the band.")
Moreover, Bad has a lot more menace in him than the Dude; he's so self-destructive that anyone around him is likely to get hit with some sort of whiskey-soaked shrapnel. Indeed, alarm bells go off the minute we hear that the love interest he meets on the road, an aspiring journalist named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), has a 4-year-old. (And she's a single mother, movie shorthand for Vulnerable with Babysitting Issues.)
In his bitterness, Bad might be closer to Jack Baker of The Fabulous Baker Boys, 20 years down the road and without Michelle Pfeiffer's Susie Diamond for motivation. Bad is angry at just about everything, from what might have been in his personal life (there's an abandoned son out there somewhere) to the fact that his slick protégé Tommy Sweet (a spot-on Colin Farrell) is hugely successful, largely on the basis of having turned one of Bad's songs into a smash hit. Bad would tell you Tommy's career was never the one he was after, but given how used up he feels by his life in music, it's only natural that he assigns the blame to the person who most obviously used him.
Every movement of Bridges' performance reveals not just the mess Bad is, but something about the man he once was. There is a terrifically naked moment when Jean catches him watching porn on the couch, with nothing but a towel tossed over his paunch. She's embarrassed, but more important, he's mortified, and for the first time, as he attempts to gather the shambles of his dignity around him, we see that Bad is not beyond caring. Cooper nicely juxtaposes this with a later scene of Bad's seducing Jean when she's on her way out a different door, and he's wonderfully courtly and engaged. (Unfortunately, I didn't know exactly what to make of Jean. There's something vaguely untrustworthy about the character, which may have been Cooper's intent or Gyllenhaal's lapse, hard to tell. She's all squirms and smiles.)
Yet for all that meticulous craft, Bridges still gives such an organic performance, you sometimes forget it's him you're watching (peering into that face, you'd swear it's Kris Kristofferson) and that he's playing a fictional character. When Bridges sings Bad's wistful, weary songs written by producer T-Bone Burnett and a group of other musicians, including Ryan Bingham, who has a small part in the film you feel like this is a guy you might be lucky to find at your local honky-tonk. One of the first lyrics we hear from Bad is "I used to be somebody/ Now I am somebody else." Jeff Bridges has made a lifetime of being somebody else, and he just keeps getting better at it.