LOS ANGELES — Jeff Bridges’ star turn in “Crazy Heart” as downtrodden country music legend Bad Blake has been earning the veteran actor some of the most glowing reviews of his career, from writers who have invoked the names of many real-life musicians in their assessments of Bridges’ portrayal of the fictional Blake.
“Peering into that face, you’d swear it’s Kris Kristofferson,” Mary Pols wrote in Time magazine. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers suggested that “Bad is an outlaw combo of Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard.”
And in the New York Times’ review, A.O. Scott noted that during the film, “You hear songs by Townes van Zandt and Waylon Jennings, and you may also think of Willie Nelson and some others. As for Mr. Bridges: He can’t help it if he looks like Kris Kristofferson and sounds a little like David Allan Coe.”
Few, however, have zeroed in on the Country Music Hall of Fame member who actually inspired the creation of Bad Blake in Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel: Hank Thompson.
“I used to be a country music writer,” Cobb told me after flying out from his home in Rhode Island to attend the film’s star-studded premiere in Beverly Hills. “This was in Houston, and I went to cover a show one night — it was an arena show with Conway Twitty, and Hank Thompson opened for him.”
Thompson was best known for his 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life,” which topped the country chart for 15 weeks, and had a remarkably long career, placing records on the country charts in five decades, from 1948 to 1983. He toured tirelessly, upward of 200 to 250 shows a year until shortly before he died at age 82 in 2007.
For that early-‘80s show with Twitty in Houston, Cobb recalled, “He was backed that night by a local band that I knew had been called that morning and asked, ‘Do you want to back Hank Thompson tonight?’ I thought, ‘What a horrible thing: that someone of Hank Thompson’s stature was playing with a pickup band, and a band that didn’t even know they were backing him until that morning. That was part of it.”
At the time, Cobb was working on his doctorate in creative writing and wrote up the incident for one of his classes. “I had to have a story ready the next day for a workshop, when I put on a new John Anderson record and heard the song ‘Would You Catch a Falling Star.’ “
That song, written by Bobby Braddock, certainly evokes the character that Bridges plays onscreen:
WOULD YOU CATCH A FALLIN’ STAR BEFORE HE CRASHES TO THE GROUND?
With that image swirling in his mind, Cobb said, “I started thinking of Hank Thompson, sat down and wrote what was essentially the first chapter of the book.
“I had interviewed Hank Williams Jr., Hoyt Axton, Lacy J. Dalton and George Strait, when he was first starting out,” Cobb said. “I spent a fair amount of time on their buses — when they were parked, so I had a really good idea of what the life was about. ... It took me eight months to write, writing about three pages a night.”
The book, however, wasn’t a big hit and went out of print not long after it was published. The movie rights had been optioned several times, though nothing ever materialized. When screenwriter-director Scott Cooper approached Cobb about four years ago to take another shot at turning it into a movie, the author didn’t think much about it, much less that it would quickly land two Golden Globe nominations and much talk about Academy Award nods.
“It’s been a miraculous little film,” Cobb said. “Scott’s fond of saying that if it had taken one more year, he never would have gotten it made. He got financing right before Lehman Brothers’ (investment bank) crash. There’s been all this serendipity, these wonderful accidents, with this person getting attached, then that person. I frankly after 22 years never really expected to see this film made.”