Enticing Jeff Bridges to voice a washed-up surfer dude in the 2007 children’s movie Surf’s Up, the filmmakers sent the actor a video of an animated penguin declaiming a few of his lines from The Big Lebowski. They probably didn’t need to work that hard: An avid surfer, Bridges has dropped in and out of Dudeville many times in a 40-year career. But the preternaturally good-humored actor relished the joke almost as much as he enjoys playing occasional gigs with his band, he says with some bemusement, “in a sea of dudes” at Lebowski festivals.

Playing big lugs began for the handsome Bridges with his turn as the dimly bulbed, ducktailed young Apollo who so ineptly deflowers Cybill Shepherd, then offers himself as cannon fodder in Vietnam in The Last Picture Show (1971). Earlier this year, he played a tripped-out army poobah in Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. But the movie that’s picking up chatter about the Best Actor award that has inexplicably eluded Bridges through four Oscar nominations is Crazy Heart, a modestly budgeted new indie by first-time director Scott Cooper, in which the actor, who stars as a burned-out country music star ripe for either salvation or hitting bottom, sings his own numbers.

Bridges, who turned 60 last week and can slump his lithe linebacker build into lumpish inertia as needed, is an intensely physical presence who leads with his body in a way that often obscures the emotional intelligence he lends his characters — a gallery of American manhood in all its compromised, destroyed or hopeful ambiguity. In Seabiscuit,Tucker and The Contender, Bridges brought his relaxed charm to bear on expansive, optimistic visions of American leadership, just as he expertly curdled that charm into villainy in Jagged Edge and Iron Man.

For my money, though, his best roles have been damaged men who subtly suggest the range of their potential, for better and worse. He was a wayward slacker who suddenly took matters into his own hands in 1981’s little seen Cutter’s Way, and appallingly persuasive in The Door in the Floor (2004) as a man incapable of acknowledging his grief over the loss of a child. In between, he was heartstopping in Martin Bell’s American Heart (1992) as a paroled bank robber, failed by his parents and now set fair to fail his own son. Bridges could be that man a couple of decades on in Crazy Heart, as the drunken, clapped-out singer Bad Blake, trying, in some small corner of himself, to be good.

Onscreen, Bridges makes it all look easy. In person, he’s affable and courtly, but admits that even deciding whether to accept a role is torture. Over lunch at the Four Seasons hotel, he recounts a dream he once had. “I was going down a very wide river with big cliffs on the other side,” he says. “Scattered throughout this river were huge whirlpools, and my task was to navigate through them. At the vortex of each whirlpool was a beautiful jewel, and I’d get mesmerized for a second and go, ‘Oh, oh, I almost got caught.’ I’d go on, and the same thing would happen.”

Bridges, who draws, takes photos and does ceramics between acting gigs, turned that dream into a painting titled Jeff Makes a Decision. “That’s my process,” he says with a self-amused laugh. “Once you say yes to a movie, you’re automatically saying no to all the other beautiful jewels.”

Once he’s committed, fear sets in. “The dude side of me doesn’t like to be challenged, you know? At the same time, it’s what I respond to,” he says, recalling being overcome with awe upon seeing the great Robert Ryan’s sweaty palms on the set of John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh, a gig that Bridges turned down until a colleague yelled at him for being an idiot. “Talk about fear!” says Bridges. “I asked Ryan, ‘After all these years?’ And he said, ‘Yes. I’d really be scared if I wasn’t scared. Don’t try to get rid of that thing.’ So I had a wonderful time making that movie, and after that I said, ‘I can do this for the rest of my life.’”

“The ones I end up doing are the ones I just can’t refuse,” says Bridges. “And that has served me well.” He tried to avoid Crazy Heart for a while. “What distracted me was that it was about music, which I love. But there was no music attached to it. About a year later, my friend [music producer] T-Bone Burnett — we go back 30 years to Heaven’s Gate — who also had the script, said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ So we started to get excited. It was definitely one I couldn’t say no to. The jewel was too gorgeous.”

Crazy Heart is a promising first feature for Cooper (himself an actor), but Bridges enlarges, in every sense, the movie’s familiar territory of self-destructive celebrity. “When he’s up onstage that’s his home. That’s a typical thing with performers like that; once they get to success, they start to abuse themselves,” says Bridges, who spends a lot of time around musicians, all of whom he fondly calls his dear friends. Cooper had originally wanted to base the movie on the life of Merle Haggard, says Bridges. “But Merle had been married five or six times, so it was hard to get the rights through all his wives.” Wading, with his usual abandon and an exposed big gut, into the defiant self-immolation of Bad Blake, Bridges also makes room for an open destiny for this mumbling wreck of a man, craning his neck forward as if interrogating the world for whatever crumbs of insight or salvation it might spare him.

Bridges comes from Hollywood royalty. His father, Lloyd Bridges, who starred in the television series Sea Hunt, and his brother Beau, eight years older than Jeff (they played lounge singers together opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys), both encouraged and shaped him. But he’s always lived in the shadow of nepotism, which may account for his chronic ambivalence, and explain why his career has skittered between big studio movies and small indies. It says a lot about the actor that his all-time favorite movie is Citizen Kane (about another flawed giant), but his current favorite is Once, a romantic Irish indie whose music all but takes the place of dialogue. He wonders whether it’s always been this hard “for an old guy to get a job” in the industry. Yet he will follow in John Wayne’s footsteps as the iconic Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit, scheduled for release in 2011, and he’s in post-production on a sequel to the 1982 sci-fi thriller Tron.

About the Oscar buzz, Bridges says modestly, “Any time you get acknowledged by the guys who do what you do, that’s pretty good, right?” Mostly, though, he comes on like a man slightly bewildered by his own good fortune. “I have my favorite possession in my pocket,” he says, and pulls out a dog-eared old photo of a lovely young woman. Her name is Susan Geston, and she was working her way through college as a maid near the Montana set where Bridges was shooting Rancho Deluxe in 1974. In the photo, which someone who worked on the set sent him a few years ago, she’s smiling, but, Bridges explains, she was turning down his request for a date. They’ve been married for 35 years.

Crazy Heart opens December 16 in Los Angeles theaters.

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