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Across 40 years, this dude’s shown range

Jeff Bridges gets retrospective at Somerville Theatre

Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the 2009 film “Crazy Heart.’’ Bridges won the best actor Oscar for his performance as a boozy country singer. Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the 2009 film “Crazy Heart.’’ Bridges won the best actor Oscar for his performance as a boozy country singer. (Lorey Sebastian/Fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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When you take a look back at the 40-year filmography of Jeff Bridges, there’s a temptation to find a career-defining theme in his hilariously spacey, image-rejuvenating turn as the Dude in the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski.’’ Bridges has played his share of characters with an uncanny yet credible ability to display sleepy-eyed quiescence in the face of circumstances that demand more. They are all variations, to an extent, on the Dude toking and bowling his way through a Chandleresque kidnapping mystery.

In 1971’s “The Last Picture Show,’’ for which Bridges earned the first of his five Academy Award nominations, his Texas high-school jock shrugs off a road-to-nowhere existence more easily than he handles Cybill Shepherd’s hormonal-teen fickleness. In the film that finally nabbed Bridges an Oscar, last year’s “Crazy Heart,’’ his country singer, Bad Blake, wearily boozes through a do-or-die stretch of his professional and personal life. In “The Fabulous Baker Boys,’’ he memorably plays another stalled musician; in “Fearless’’ and “The Door in the Floor,’’ his crash survivors suppress anguish with strange detachment; and in another nominated performance in “The Contender,’’ his American president breaks from political turmoil to place exotic snack orders with the White House kitchen.

Still, as we’re reminded by “Spanning Bridges,’’ the Somerville Theatre’s 10-picture retrospective that runs Tuesday through May 20, his body of work is too varied to be neatly labeled. He’s played bandit and boxer, social misfit and literal alien, charismatic bright light and dark, lost soul. The one constant, ultimately, is the way he’s flashed star qualities without any of the typically attendant self-glorification, convincingly biting into roles without letting image swallow them whole. A Globe story once aptly observed that Bridges has “spent a career as not quite a brand name but so much more than mere familiar face.’’

When the Somerville Theatre sought to make a return to repertory programming after nearly 18 years, Bridges fit the bill, and not just for his recent best actor triumph. “Here’s an opportunity to highlight a guy who’s a great actor and in A-list movies, but who also has these crazy ’70s B movies on his resume that you never get to see,’’ says Ian Judge, the arthouse’s general manager. Laughing, he adds, “I’m amazed they had a print of ‘Rancho Deluxe’ but didn’t have one of ‘Fabulous Baker Boys,’ but those are just the vagaries of the business.’’ (One movie that Judge particularly regrets not being able to offer is Bridges’s 1982 dawn-of-video games adventure, “Tron.’’ But fans can get their fix from the sequel/reboot, “Tron Legacy,’’ featuring Bridges and due later this year.)

The retrospective kicks off with a double bill of “Last Picture Show’’ and “Fat City,’’ and wraps with a featured encore of “Crazy Heart.’’ In between, we’ll also see “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,’’ “Stay Hungry,’’ “Starman,’’ “The Fisher King,’’ and “Seabiscuit.’’ “The Big Lebowski’’ is an automatic for the program, given its status not only as a Bridges gateway for the theater’s young demographic, but also as a cult phenomenon celebrated at fan conventions nationwide. (Check out all the ins, outs, and what-have-yous at www.lebowskifest.com and be amazed, man.)

The first half of the repertory slate is equal parts career introduction, flashback to Bridges’s youth, and testament to how quickly and smoothly he was able to establish a reputation separate from that of his TV-vet dad, “Sea Hunt’’ star Lloyd Bridges. In John Huston’s “Fat City’’ (1972), Bridges received strong reviews as a driven boxing hopeful whose prospects contrast sharply with those of a past-his-prime fighter (Stacy Keach). A second best supporting actor nod accompanied “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’’ (1974), in which he plays brash new sidekick to Clint Eastwood’s career criminal, and does a bit of drag to boot. In “Rancho Deluxe’’ (1975), an offbeat Western comedy, Bridges saddles up with Sam Waterston and some Jimmy Buffett tunes as a modern-day rustler. And in “Stay Hungry’’ (1976), as a new-money heir investing in a muscle gym, he lends at least a little cohesion to a story that tosses together everything from Sally Field romance to Southern class tensions and a really unpolished Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Tonally, the remainder of the lineup is something of a grab bag. Bridges does sensitive, studied work in John Carpenter’s “Starman’’ (1984), a genre entry that resulted in a best actor nomination. Channeling the mannerisms of young children, he plays an extraterrestrial who takes on the form of Karen Allen’s dead husband, and is filled with wonder by the experience. (This was also the production on which Bridges first began experimenting with his running series of lauded, panoramic life-on-set photos, work that’s as worthwhile as any of his films.) In Terry Gilliam’s uncharacteristically sentimental “The Fisher King’’ (1991), the actor grounds the performance of Robin Williams as a fantasy-entangled homeless man whose once normal life was tragically shattered by Bridges’s radio shock-jock.

The more recent “Seabiscuit’’ remains clearest in our memory as Tobey Maguire’s ride, but the film’s acclaim also owes much to Bridges’s portrayal of the famed racehorse’s owner, Charles Howard. Like Maguire’s jockey and Chris Cooper’s horse trainer, Howard finds a rescue from personal dark days as he becomes absorbed in molding the undersized, challenging thoroughbred into a winner. So much for lumping together Bridges’s characters as passive dreamers. Consider it the mark of an actor willing and eager to follow his “groovy profession’’ in any number of directions.

The dude has range
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The dude has range

A look at the diverse film roles of Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges.

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