Jeff Bridges is a great actor. Say it out loud. Let the words roll off your tongue. Doesn't sound right, does it? That's because most audiences know Bridges only as a handsome, nonthreatening leading man, happy to play second fiddle to an ape in King Kong or to Barbra Streisand in the upcoming Mirror Has Two Faces. Bridges has done his most impressive and unconventional work in films that don't attract crowds or inspire movie-star fawning — Fearless, for example. At the recent awards voting of the New York Film Critics Circle, of which I am a member, Bridges (Wild Bill) collected almost as many votes for Best Actor as the winner, Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas). But few paying customers saw the portrayal of "Wild Bill" Hickok that prompted Terrence Rafferty in The New Yorker to hail Bridges as "the best actor alive." Is there something about Bridges — besides his refusal to indulge in hambone emoting and hyper self-promotion — that keeps his light so resolutely under a bushel? His latest film offers a few clues.
White Squall casts Bridges, 46, as Christopher Sheldon, the tough, laconic skipper of a brigantine school ship called the Albatross. Chris means to make men of the 13 teenage boys who set sail with him in 1960 for an eight-month voyage to the Caribbean and the South Pacific. The role is a golden opportunity for scenery chewing, but Bridges — who is steadily compelling — shrewdly uncovers the skipper's psyche in gradations. The forces of nature are handled by director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), who crafts a film of rattling tension and riveting visuals as a freak storm sinks the Albatross, drowning four students and two crew members and leaving the skipper to face a fierce tribunal, grieved parents and his own tortured conscience. It's a true story with the usual Hollywood embellishments. But keep a keen eye on Bridges. He provides the ballast when the listing vessel that is Todd Robinson's script starts taking on coming-of-age clichTs that nearly turn White Squall into Dead Poets Society at Sea.
Scott Wolf (Fox's Party of Five) plays Chuck Gieg, the brave leader of the high school crew. Though the young actors are spirited, the script doles out only one measly character trait apiece. Jeremy Sisto is Frank, the troubled rich kid. Balthazar Getty is Tod, the grumpy brat. Ryan Phillippe is Gil, the bashful blond. The others might as well be called Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy and Dopey. Doc is the boss man's wife, Alice (Caroline Goodall), the ship surgeon and tutor. She's over 30 and a strict grader, but her students declare her boobs worthy of a boner. The boys cavort, Calvin Klein-style, in their briefs, talk sex and make the most of an exchange program that involves horny Danish schoolgirls. The skipper isn't too pissed if they return from R&R with a hangover or a case of the clap. On deck, though, he remains a holy terror.
Bridges never pushes to make the skipper a latter-day Ahab, though the boys dub his backbreaking regimen "humiliation training." When one boy is afraid of heights, the old man forces him to climb the tallest mast. When another boy breaks the rules, he ships him home to Mommy. "I'm not here to wipe your noses and your asses," he says. "Captain Compassion speaks" is one insult hurled back. The skipper is building character, and, of course, the boys love him for it.
The film's sentimentality, out of the bighug school of drama, is hard to take. Bridges finds a truer path to the heart of his repressed character. Unlike Kevin Costner as the morose Mariner in Waterworld, Bridges plays stoicism with wit, feeling and grace. He sees to it that the skipper's squint catches everything from a shifting tide to a boy's hidden pain. Typically, Bridges gives a deftly understated performance uncluttered by vanity or shallow pathos. No wonder he's not a star. Bridges respects the skipper's mystery, something hard and unyielding that leaves deeply felt emotions unexpressed. Amid the action heroics of White Squall, Bridges creates a character of consequence.
Will anybody notice, or will the role be another unheralded entry in the Bridges gallery? It wasn't always like this. Bridges made a major splash and picked up an Oscar nomination 25 years ago for his role in Peter Bogdanovich's Last Picture Show, in which he played a brash Texas high school jock with disarming tenderness. No way was this California kid from a close-knit acting family — which includes father Lloyd and brother Beau — ready to coast on looks. He took risks that paid off artistically if not at the box office: as the boxer in John Huston's Fat City; the con artist in Robert Benton's Bad Company; and the doomed drifter attached to Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, which won Bridges a second Oscar nomination, again for Best Supporting Actor.
Pressure to achieve notice in a mainstream epic must have lured Bridges to the shoals of King Kong, Tron and, yikes, Heaven's Gate. He didn't hit pay dirt until 1984, playing an alien in love in John Carpenter's sweet but sappy Starman and winning a third Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor. Success seemed to soften him. The daring he showed in 1981 as a gigolo with aspirations of decency in Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way was no more. He played it safe in female-star vehicles: with Glenn Close in Jagged Edge, Jane Fonda in The Morning After and Kim Basinger in Nadine. The industry nailed him as a lightweight, the kind of amiable, all-purpose actor you hire when you can't afford Richard Gere or Harrison Ford.
In 1988, Bridges rebuilt his career with a stunning turn as a beleaguered automobile innovator in Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The film tanked. From Tucker on, Bridges has delivered a near continuous flow of brilliant performances. Audiences either didn't show up or deflected attention to his co-stars. The dazzle of Michelle Pfeiffer in Steve Kloves' Fabulous Baker Boys wrongly overshadowed Bridges' career-best work, as a world-weary lounge pianist. He was slime-ball perfection as a shock jock in Terry Gilliam's Fisher King, but Robin Williams snagged the Oscar nomination. Bridges was again at the top of his game as the haunted survivor of a plane crash in Peter Weir's Fearless and as the ex-con father in American Heart. Both films did dismal business, reducing Bridges to commercial crap such as Blown Away just to stay active. What does it take to get audiences to reconsider the actor they banished to the land of the bland? White Squall is a good place to start. Then hit the video store to catch up with the best-kept talent secret in Hollywood.