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10 Greatest Roles of Jeff Bridges

As the actor hits theaters in ‘Tron: Legacy’ and ‘True Grit’, Peter Travers looks back on his top performances

Lorey Sebastian/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Jeff Bridges finally won his Oscar this year after 40 years of making movies. Funny things is, his role as broken-down country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart isn't even his career best. No way, dude. Maybe it took so long for Bridges to take home Academy gold because he makes his craft look easy. Another sign of a great actor is how the stench cloud that covers a lousy movie doesn't seem to taint him. Heaven's Gate was a famous flop. Ditto the 1976 remake of King Kong. Bridges was sly and fun in both of them. So here, in tribute to one actor's true grit, are my picks for the 10 best performances by Jeff Bridges. Add your own in the comments.

10

‘True Grit’ (2010)

I am by no means rating Bridges' most recent performance as the last in a line of bests. It's just that the film is still resonating in my head, looking for its proper place in the Bridges pantheon. Where would you put it? Following John Wayne in a 1969 western that won The Duke his only Oscar, The Dude saddles up with his own take on the character — a fat, one-eyed drunk of a U.S. Marshall called Rooster Cogburn — and rides the hell out of it. Reuniting with the Coen bothers (after Lebowski) to bring the great Charles Portis novel to the screen, Bridges revels in the formality of the language that Rooster uses to put a good face on his basest instincts. You can't take your eyes off him, which has been true from the beginning.

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Columbia Pictures/Courtesy of Getty

9

‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971)

The classic Peter Bogdanovich film of Larry McMurtry's novel about life in a small Texas town in 1951 started Bridges on his distinguished acting career with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Bridges was 21. He plays Duane, a boy who comes of age, gets crushed by the school beauty (Cybill Shepherd), and heads off to Korea. Bridges cuts to the heart of the character near the end when Duane and his friend (Timothy Bottoms) attend the last show at movie house about to shut its doors as folks stay home with the TV. Through the play of emotion on Bridges' face, the film sums up the end of an era with an aching tenderness.

8

‘The Door in the Floor’ (2004)

John Irving's novel, A Widow for One Year, is the springboard for a major Bridges performance as children's book author Ted Cole, who is no help to his wife (Kim Basinger) or himself in dealing with the deaths of their two sons in a car crash. Irving's story requires Bridges to reveal the film as a tragedy of death and dismemberment, a stinging comedy of bad manners, and a tale of sexual betrayal and healing. He handles them all beautifully, burning every nuance in to the memory.

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7

‘The Contender’ (2000)

Rod Lurie's political drama put Bridges in the role of the President of the United States, trying to replace his dead VP with a woman candidate (Joan Allen). Bridges tears into the role, flashing a Bill Clinton temper and Dubya good ole boy attitude as he raids the White House kitchen. You haven't lived till you see Bridges chewing out a politico while chowing down on a shark-steak sandwich. Oscar gave him another acting nomination. Who could resist?

6

‘The Fisher King’ (1991)

Terry Gilliam's film fantasy casts Bridges way against type as Jack Lucas, an arrogant prick of a radio shock jock who is ready to off himself when a caller he ridicules opens fire on the patrons of a New York nightclub. Playing against Robin Williams as the instrument of Jack's redemption, the usually sympathetic Bridges plumbs depth of despair in a character who's impossible to like. The risk-taking becomes him.

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5

‘Starman’ (1984)

Bridges earned his first Oscar nomination in a starring role playing a creature from another planet who takes the form of the dead husband of a woman (Karen Allen) from Wisconsin. Working with director John Carpenter, Bridges finds humor and heart in a character that could have been reduced to special effect, much like his role in Tron two years before. Bridges is priceless in the scene in which Starman learns about sex from watching Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr roll around on the beach in From Here To Eternity.

4

‘Fearless’ (1993)

Perhaps the most underrated film of the 1990s. The ever-brilliant Bridges and an Oscar-nominated Rosie Perez play traumatized survivors of a jet crash (terrifyingly rendered), who teach each other how to live again. It sounds like an early take on the TV hit Lost, but this darkly comic and emotionally bruising film is alive with fresh provocations. Bridges goes to dark places that lesser actors would run from, helping director Peter Weir achieve moments of astonishing beauty and terror.

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3

‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ (1989)

This mood piece from debuting director Steve Kloves casts Bridges as Jack Baker, a womanizer who's been doing a piano lounge act for fifteen years with his married brother Frank (Beau Bridges). For spice, they add Susie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), a professional escort turned singer. Jack falls hard. Who wouldn't with Pfeiffer as inspiration? Bridges, playing a romantic in a cynic's skin, performs nuanced wonders with every look and gesture. Just watch his face when Pfeiffer climbs on his Steinway in a slinky red dress and sings "Making Whoopee." He's a goner.

Lorey Sebastian

2

‘Crazy Heart’ (2009)

As has-been country singer Bad Blake (great name), Bridges looks like something scraped off the bowling alleys he's been reduced to playing. His beard redefines scraggly. His guitar can't hide his gut. His voice croaks from cigarettes, booze and one-night stands that earned him four divorce decrees. But this Bad boy can write songs and sing them like they're torn from his insides, even though Bad's headliner days are behind him and he has a habit of puking between songs. It's a juicy, career-crowning role, and Bridges — a master of subtle brilliance — plays the hell out of it. The Oscar was long overdue.

Video: Zen Cowboy Jeff Bridges

Universal Home Entertainment

1

‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)

Like you thought I'd say anything else. All hail the Dude, played by Bridges in a performance that belongs in the acting time capsule, despite the cruel fact that he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar that year. Roberto Benigni won for the hateful Life Is Beautiful. Shame and double shame. The ponytailed, pot-bellied, pot-smoking Dude, real name Jeff Lebowski, mostly bowls with his buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) and sometimes Jesus (an unmissable John Turturro), a pervert in a hairnet. Then the Dude is mistaken for a gangster, also named Lebowski, and his adventures begin. Priceless moment: A hood pees on the Dude's rug, forcing its removal and saddening the Dude no end: "That rug really tied the room together."

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