LOS ANGELES — Townes Van Zandt, the tortured Texas troubadour who drank himself into an early grave, had a sad, sly song called “No Deal” in which a used-car salesman hands him the keys to a sedan with no engine and then explains: “You don’t need no engine to go downhill, and I could plainly see that’s the direction you’re headed.”
The lyric drew a hearty laugh from Jeff Bridges, the actor who is getting perhaps the best reviews of his long and illustrious career for “Crazy Heart,” which presents him as country singer Bad Blake who, like Van Zandt, is in desperate need of a spiritual handbrake. Van Zandt, who died at 52 on New Year’s Day 1997, was one of the roadhouse stars that Bridges used as a compass point during his trip down the lost highway.
“One of the directions that (‘Crazy Heart’ director) Scott Cooper gave me was to think of the Highwaymen — Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson — and to think that, in our alternate universe, Bad Blake would have been the fifth Highwayman,” Bridges said. “All of those guys and other people went into it. Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan.”
After a pause, Bridges, who turned 60 last month, added another name to that list of musical influences and musicians under the influence. “There are aspects of myself too,” said Bridges, who has moonlighted as a musician for years. “That’s where I start with all of the parts I do. I look for the places where my character and I overlap. That’s always the beginning point.”
For Bridges, the starting point for his career came fairly early — as an infant, he appeared in “The Company She Keeps” (1951), and the glare of klieg lights would be a constant part of his upbringing. By age 9, he was sharing the screen with his father, Lloyd, and brother, Beau, on television and the family business came naturally. Robert Duvall, a costar in “Crazy Heart” and one of the film’s producers, said Bridges has become one of the premier actors of his generation, and he did so with the unhurried air of a surfer strolling the packed sand of Zuma.
“There’s the Actors Studio in New York, everybody sitting around talking about Stanislavski, but that’s not Jeff,” Duvall said. “This is a guy off the beaches of L.A. He learned from his father, that was his mentor, and he always seems so loose and relaxed — but he’s always prepared, and he brings so many surprises, like good actors do.”
Bridges came into his own in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” in 1971, which earned the actor, at age 21, an Oscar nomination. Just two years after “Picture Show,” New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote that Bridges had already established himself as one of the least-contrived screen presences in Hollywood history. “He may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived; physically, it’s as if he had spent his life in the occupation of each character,” Kael wrote in her review of “The Last American Hero.”
Bridges would go on to earn three more Oscar nominations — as lead actor for “Starman” (1984) and for supporting roles in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974) and “The Contender” (2000). Other signature moments in his career include “Tron” (1982), “Jagged Edge” (1985), “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), “The Fisher King” (1991), “Fearless” (1993) and “Seabiscuit” (2003).
Then, of course, there was “The Big Lebowski,” the loopy Coen brothers tale of the Dude, a stoner of the highest order, who has become a pop-culture touchstone. The 1998 film has inspired an annual tribute festival, a just-published book of essays from Indiana University Press and a quirky mountain of merchandising including a talking keychain with blissed-out catchphrases like “This aggression will not stand, man.” The Dude is the most persistent persona for the actor who was always leery of typecasting.
“My dad in the 1960s had this show ‘Sea Hunt,’ where he played a skin diver, and he played that part so well that people thought he was a skin diver. That was a great nod to his artistry, but it created such a strong persona for him that he was only offered skin diver roles. I learned from that, and I’ve tried to mix it up a bit. It’s good to have your audience happily confused. But I’m so happy with the success of ‘Lebowski,’ it’s one of my favorite films ever, and not just films I was in.”
Bad Blake appears destined to join the Dude as a signature Bridges role. Cooper, the director and writer of “Crazy Heart,” said that, during the mad-dash 24-day shoot, Bridges was a marvel to behold. “It’s one of his best performances, and that’s saying a lot,” Cooper said. “He came in with the character fully formed.”
Bridges drew heavily on country-music figures Jennings and Van Zandt, which fans of the musicians will detect quickly, but in his thick-bearded visage he’s a dead ringer for an old friend — Kris Kristofferson. Bridges and Kristofferson first met while making “Heaven’s Gate,” the notoriously ill-fated 1980 western directed by Michael Cimino. Bridges giggled as he talked about Kristofferson’s reaction to an early rough cut of “Crazy Heart.”
“He really, really got a kick out it,” Bridges said. “He said, ‘You look just like me, man!’ We laughed and looked in the mirror and said, ‘We got to play brothers in a movie.’ “
Kristofferson had high praise for the authenticity of “Crazy Heart” and its twang: “By the end of the film, you feel like Bad Blake is as real as anybody who ever played at the Grand Ole Opry.”
The film finds Blake lost in the bottom of a bottle and, driving from small-time gig to gig, he seems to be fading fast. But then he meets a young reporter and single mom named Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who sees past the wreckage. But is it too late for his comeback? The film, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, also stars Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, Blake’s former protege, and Duvall as a bar-owner buddy.
“There’s this magic trick that you try to pull off in a very short period of time on a small film like this,” Bridges said of the core ensemble’s work in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. “At that point, it’s about rapport and being open to things.”
The grim parts of the film present the bourbon-battered Blake slowly (or, at times, quickly) losing his grip on life. But there’s also a comically bleary ballet to the performance by Bridges, who plays Blake as a gifted songwriter who never loses his supple intellect or candor even as his body gives out to his liquored life. The character isn’t self-pitying and, like that old song by Van Zandt, there’s still wit amid the heartache.
“Life is funny and tragic, and the humor in the movie gets you a relief from the downside, but it also sort of sets you up for the next hard moment,” Bridges said. “It makes it a bit off-kilter — you’re laughing and then heartbreak comes. It’s like great country music.”
CLOSE, BUT ...
Jeff Bridges has had four Oscar nominations in nearly as many decades but, as yet, no wins:
2000: Nominated for supporting role in “The Contender.”
1984: Nominated for the lead in “Starman.”
1974: Supporting nomination for “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.”
1971: Supporting nomination for “The Last Picture Show.”