Friday, December 10, 2010

the dude's good

Actors receive all kinds of Oscars. A common one is the Oops, Our Bad Oscar, awarded for a good performance when (more importantly) the recipient is getting up there in years and/or overdue for some general recognition and/or was snubbed embarrassingly in previous years. Jeff Bridges' 2009 Academy Award for Crazy Heart, which some claimed was that kind of classic Overdue Oscar, was actually for something else if you ask me: smoking.

There has never been a smoker like Bridges in films, and when I say that I am thinking of all film smokers and all smoking movies, from Bogie to Now, Voyager. Bridges' relationship with things he lights on fire and sticks in his mouth creates a parallel world of expression in film that he uses to great advantage and it deserves some recognition beyond the tiny gold cigarette that must be dangling from the mouth of his Oscar.

It started in his earliest work. Bridges smokes in a scene at the end of The Last Picture Show (1971) before he ships off to Korea, his uniform--and his cigarette---hinting at adulthood. Even then Bridges shows some of his classic smoking gestures, including holding his fingers close to his face and tilting his head down as he inhales.

In Starman (1984), Bridges depicts an alien come to earth who in one scene learns to smoke for the first time, (showing us, maybe, how he learned to do it) and before dissolving into a coughing jag that demonstrates the classic Bridges hollow-cheeked suck:

Among other parts in the 80s, Bridges was a post-war smoking innoventor in Tucker (1988):

before the role that I think earned him a gold medal as a movie smoker, The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), which, I'm sorry to tell the film industry, cigarette manufacturers, and my mother, made me want to smoke. I already smoked occasionally, but his character made me want to smoke better.

Taciturn, hooded-eyed pianist Jack Baker is a virtuoso smoker rendered in Bridges' naturalistic acting style, which extends into the smoking as well. Bridges is smart in that he doesn't pretend he's not smoking or minimize his movements. Nor does he try to look as if--or avoid appearing as if--he's too cool for the activity; he engages with it, looks foolish doing it on occasion, has some big gestures the way real smokers do, revels in the sensuality of it. It's subtle in human ways, not classically cinematic ones.

In The Fabulous Baker Boys he luxuriates in long, long scenes of smoking, letting it speak for him--indulging in the smoking even as his character remains coldly closed off. He employs some classic Bridges stuff such as the Dangle, which should look stupid--he talks with the cigarette wobbling in his lips, his eyes screwed up against the smoke, his lower lip pushed up in a silly way to keep it there--but on Bridges doesn't:

He has a distinct way of dragging hard on a cigarette then pulling it out of his mouth at the very last minute before speaking a line to punctuate it, showing that he is thinking and paying attention, but controlling his involvement in the scene until he's ready. He keeps his fingers poised over the cigarette and very close to his mouth the whole time before quickly whipping it out to the side, speaking quietly in the space his gestures have created:

He does this constantly in Baker Boys, accompanied always by the Bridges Suck, which can look goofy or voluptuous, but is always right there in the front of his mouth:

Here it is again in Blown Away (1994):

It goes without saying that somebody who's won a Smoking Oscar has demonstrated versatility in different smoking media, such as evil cigar smoking in Iron Man (2008):
presidential smoke rings in The Contender (2000):
more period smoking in Seabiscuit (2003):
and completely convincing pot smoking (which Bridges apparently quit during production) in The Big Lebowski (1998). The scenes in which the Dude smokes do a lot to show us who this guy is. He smokes like a real pothead: with ease, without worry about how he looks or with nervous attention to paraphernalia, but with a nonetheless dogged and sometimes myopic attention.

Bridges is really good at using smoking as a signifier of dissolute characters and of vulnerability in general, such as the alcoholic ex jail-bird in American Heart (1992) (the thumb push on the bottom lip--also a Bridges move):

and in Crazy Heart, which is among other things something of a paean to smoking. It is an absolute tapestry of debauched, repetitive physical gestures. He's almost never without one:
This was the first film of Bridges' I saw that made me think: is this ultimately a (big, sophisticated, chronic) tic? A crutch? It's so distinctive, so wholesale--there is major risk in doing something on such a big scale. His smoking characters smoke onscreen a lot, and it seems like there are more and more of them. It's either really convincing or the air's so thick with gestures you can't see past it.

True Grit, the Coen brothers sorta-remake with Bridges in the John Wayne role, which opens December 22, appears to be a possible apogee of Bridges' onscreen smoking. Even the trailer feels smoky, with all its grays and browns and outdoor shots and period quality:
Playing Rooster Cogburn gives him the opportunity to work an extremely boiled-down, aged, potent version of classic Bridges acting, full of vulnerabilities and gestures and (hand-rolled) cigarette smoking. I am guessing he will be great, if he doesn't tip over into growly caricature. Either way, though, it looks like Bridges' role as King of Cinesmoking is secure. No matter how you feel about smoking--it makes me ill now, I'm sorry to say; my days of hoping to imitate the Bridges insouciance are long gone--he sure is good at it.


Anonymous said...

So true.

DB Stewart said...

Very cool. You deserve some sort of phone call from Bridges (or maybe a job with his publicist). You are a true fan.

Emilly Orr said...

I may have to throw a Bridges movie marathon. I never connected how often he's seen onscreen with something on fire.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Great writing, great observations. Smoking onscreen is an art.

Kalisa said...

I don't see how he keeps his hair (& facial hair) from catching on fire in some of these roles.

Anonymous said...

you left out his excellent smoking in Masked and Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Now this is how a blog post is written. Excellent job!

Hey, who knows? Maybe Jeff will drop by and leave a comment of his own; I know he was into blogging early on.

JACK @readjack said...

This is great! Let me add 2000's "The Contender" to the mix, where Bridges played our smoking president, Jackson Evans. Can't find any photos, or even a good scene on youtube, but he can be spotted in the trailer ( with a cigarette at :33 and a cigar at 1:46.

Incidentally, Gary Oldman does a fiendishly nice job smoking it up in the trailer...

Looking forward to Rooster Lebowski...

Kaibound said...

Elizabeth, wow, what a surprise and pleasure to have run into your blog and then have it about one of my favorite actors and one who I've talked with many moons ago in Santa Monica.

It's so true and remarkably enduring that he's done that smoking within all those films. It tells me how easily he blends it into his character and makes it not a big deal but then as you describe it, it is a big deal. Good job Elizabeth.

Alexa said...

WOW! *That's* a review! I giggled my way all through your post, while marvelling at your novel perspective. The photos are fabulous. Dude!

... That photo of the new *True Grit* film is almost eerie ... Bridges does resemble John Wayne ...

Thank you for a delightful, original read

Anonymous said...

I love the way Jeff Bridges smokes a joint in The Big Lebowski. And how he releases it from his mouth with his fingers is true to form with mellow hippie culture.

But the Best smoker in all of cinema is French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. How he smokes those fat cigarettes in Breathless, and how much smoke he releases is unforgettable.

Elizabeth M. Tamny said...

Thank you so much for the nice comments, commenters! Much appreciated, and I'm sorry it took me a while to say so.

I *must* find scenes from the Contender. I looked around once it was pointed out (a rabid JB fan contacted me) but the YouTube stuff is not giving me what I want--apparently he blows SMOKE RINGS in that one. Must get. I may have to suck it up and get it from Netflix (not on streaming).

I quite agree about the Gary Oldman character's smoking from the clips, btw. That character seems rather farcical and scenery-chewing, as does the whole movie (why I avoided it in the first place).

I quite agree that Belmondo was an amazing smoker. He made me want to smoke too! I went through a Gauloises phase because of him.

Michael Waskom said...

Fantastic post.

Anonymous said...

A special communiqué from Nolan Hofstadter of the International Order of Brothers Shamus: We are proud to contribute to your most excellent post. In "The Big Lebowski" the soaking Dude is actually blowing smoke rings. And very important to the code, he blows THREE!