Total Recall: Jeff Bridges' Best Movies
We count down the best-reviewed work of the Crazy Heart star.
Not even a family tree full of dramatic DNA automatically adds up to the kind of talent Jeff Bridges has displayed over the course of his nearly 40-year career. Bridges has gone on to score five Oscar nods -- his most recent nomination, for Crazy Heart, was awarded just this week -- all while assembling one of the more interesting, and critically successful, filmographies in the business. So successful, in fact, that Bridges' top six films all boast Tomatometers above 90 percent -- which is a roundabout way of saying that you can't have a Jeff Bridges Top 10 without leaving out plenty of good stuff -- in the interest of getting the chorus of groans out of the way up front, you won't find The Big Lebowski, Tron, or The Contender here. So what does that leave? Let's spin the dials on the Tomatometer and find out!
10. Winter Kills
Winter Kills is based on a taut political thriller by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate -- and unlike Condon's earlier book, which seemed eerily prophetic in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, Winter's story was a deliberate parallel to the Kennedy murder, even including a Jack Ruby stand-in named Joe Diamond. Condon's blackly humorous novel spun an enthralling, albeit morbid, tale; unfortunately, by the time cameras started rolling on the adaptation, the behind-the-scenes drama on the production turned out to be worthy of a film all its own. Plagued by an out-of-control budget and a pair of drug-dealing producers -- one of whom was murdered during production -- Winter Kills was lucky just to see the light of day, let alone earn largely positive reviews from critics; healthy grosses were probably too much to hope for. As the Chicago Reader's Dave Kehr summed it up, "The film is funny, but it's frightening and vertiginous, too -- a complex tone that apparently left audiences baffled."
Before Michael Cimino turned Heaven's Gate into a cautionary tale for directors with total control of their movies, he was just another young and hungry filmmaker looking for his first big break -- a break he received from Clint Eastwood, who read Cimino's script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and decided to give the kid a chance. It isn't hard to see what drew Eastwood to the story, which throws a young hood named Lightfoot (Bridges) in with a crusty thief known as Thunderbolt (Eastwood, of course) and sends them off in pursuit of the hidden loot left over from Thunderbolt's last big score. It's a vintage heist flick, in other words -- and vintage Eastwood, right down to the car chases and stogies. Featuring supporting turns from Gary Busey, Geoffrey Lewis, and a never-more-imposing George Kennedy, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was a decent-sized hit for Eastwood's Malpaso Productions. Looking back on its success, Ian Freer of Empire Magazine wrote, "Eastwood is in good, if not great form, Bridges steals the whole show, and Cimino displays a sense of unpretentious fun and appealing grasp of character that should have held him in good stead for a lengthy career. It didn't."
Talk about your labors of love: Director Francis Ford Coppola had dreamed of making a Preston Tucker biopic since the early 1960s, and at one point, planned on filming a musical based on the embattled carmaker's life with Marlon Brando in the starring role. The financial woes suffered by Coppola's American Zoetrope production company eventually put the project in turnaround, but with some encouragement from George Lucas -- and Jeff Bridges stepping in to play Tucker -- Tucker: The Man and His Dream finally became a reality. Sadly, much like the real Tucker's dream, Coppola's movie was destined for financial ruin: Despite solidly positive reviews from the critical community, Tucker went down as one of 1988's biggest flops. It's since gone on to build something of a cult appreciation on home video, but Tucker -- which Time's Richard Schickel praised as "a film consistent narratively, confident stylistically and abounce with the quaint quality that animated both the hero and his times" -- was ultimately as out of step with its marketplace as the cars Tucker dreamed of building.
Every Total Recall list has its share of films you know are going to make the cut, but it's often just as much fun to find the more esoteric entries in an actor's filmography -- the movies that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks and aren't closely identified with the star in question. Case in point: 1973's The Iceman Cometh, the four-hour film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play that was released as part of the American Film Theater series. Directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring a cast that included Lee Marvin, Fredric March, and Robert Ryan in one of his final performances, Iceman helped Bridges extend his early-career streak of solidly reviewed films with excellent pedigrees. As Roger Ebert wrote, "For four hours we live in these two rooms and discover the secrets of these people, and at the end we have gone deeper, seen more, and will remember more, than with most of the other movies of our life."
The story of a suicidal ex-talk radio DJ who finds redemption in a homeless man's insane quest for the Holy Grail, The Fisher King gave all three of its creative principals a chance to play against type: Robin Williams, displaying the understated dramatic chops that earned him a Golden Globe for Awakenings; Bridges, playing a character who begins the film as a thoroughly contemptible lout; and director Terry Gilliam, taking advantage of the opportunity to make a movie that didn't require loads of special effects. Though it wasn't ultimately a huge hit at the box office, Fisher was modestly profitable, Bridges earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, and most critics were pleased with the results -- including David Ansen of Newsweek, who wrote, "Working within the constraints of a big studio film has brought out Gilliam's best: he's become a true storyteller and a wonderful director of actors. This time he delights not only the eye but the soul."