Jeff Bridges, Secrets of a Contented Man

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Kevin Winter / Getty Images


Jeff Bridges wants you to take it easy, man. Read this story; don’t read this story. But here’s a thought. You really don’t want to read it? Maybe then you should read it. Embrace the unembraceable, as Buddha, the Dude, and Bridges himself – who is dudier than the Dude – might say. Just keep your eyes open. Unless you want to keep them closed and have someone read this to you. That can be nice.

Be patient. It will all happen, unless it doesn’t.

Mostly it will. Jeff Bridges will cry. He will dance. He will serenade a blind girl. He will wear a clown nose. He will talk to Buddhists about giving head. He will propose to his wife because of a shooting pain in his ass. He will quote Solzhenitsyn. He will use ejaculate in a sentence twice. He will spend 50 minutes picking out T-shirts. He will see heaven outside of a casino. He will rehearse anecdotes. He will forget songs. He will tell you the difference between describing an orgasm and having an orgasm. He will tell you about getting his director’s name wrong on national television. He will tell you it doesn’t really fucking matter, man. He will tell you he has no idea who he is. He will urge you not to give me shit for ending the previous sentence with is.

This is a mixed-up, bifurcated world; chances are, some of the Jeff Bridges story will not interest you. That’s fine. Jeff wants you to read only what you want to read. Think of this as a DVD. Episodes are titled. Something sounds lame, skip to the next one. Or read them out of order. Jeff does that sometimes.

We begin with the birth canal.

The Womb & Some Other Stuff

It’s early afternoon in the hills above Montecito. The marine layer burns off the Pacific. Everything is toasty and golden. Sunlight slips through a crack in the door outside a home-recording studio. Inside, four men with perma tans encircle a familiar face wearing granny glasses, a psychedelic shirt, and a sunburst guitar. Jeff Bridges gazes over his spectacles and grins.

“Hey, man.”

The band starts playing. The guitarist lays out a Joe Walsh-era guitar solo. The rhythm section kicks in. Bridges starts to growl-sing:

Executives getting blown by sweet young things
Spiritual vampires living like kings
People are running, trying to keep an iron grip
On the reincarnation of Billy Budd’s ship
But the lox was fresh and the business was good
The day Vincent van Gogh came to Hollywood

Whoa. This song is definitely harshening the mood. We were having such a nice California moment, and now Bridges – a guy who has seemingly glided through four decades of Hollywood with nary a psychic scratch – is getting all ‘Day of the Locust.’ The band works through “Van Gogh in Hollywood” for 15 minutes. They play it rock, they play it funk, and they play it pop. Then they play it as funky pop-rock, winding down with a squawk and a bang.

“Hey, man, you like that one? It’s by Johnny Goodwin, my best friend since fourth grade. We took tap dancing together as kids. He lives in Nashville. He wrote one of the ‘Crazy Heart’ songs. He also is a great crocheter. He makes amazing sweaters.”

Bridges scrunches his forehead and gazes at the ceiling. He looks happily confused, his default setting.

“But can we play that in Canada?” he asks. “Do you think talking about blow jobs is going to freak people out? I don’t want to freak people out.”

Next month, Jeff Bridges and the Abiders play their debut professional gig at a casino on the Ontario side of Niagara Falls. Bridges has been playing music his entire life, but there wasn’t exactly a clamor for him to perform live until he won an Oscar this year playing singer-songwriter Bad Blake in ‘Crazy Heart.’

The guitarist makes a salient point.

“Jeff, it’s your show. You can play whatever the hell you want.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right, man.”

Canada seemed like a good idea at the time and will seem like a good idea later, but right now Bridges is freaking out. Well, as much as Bridges freaks out. His meltdowns are more like a kinder Van Winkle waking up after a nap and not being able to find his Prius keys.

“I figured if I was going to get serious about my music, there wasn’t going to be a better time than after ‘Crazy Heart,’ ” says Bridges. “But, man, I don’t know.”

Practice rambles on for another hour. The band rehearses “Somebody Else,” a song from ‘Crazy Heart’ particularly apt for an actor who played a musician and is now trying to be a musician in real life, with a new album in the works. Bridges sings this tune in a twang.

I used to be somebody, but now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow is anybody’s guess

Sometimes the L.A.-bred Bridges sounds like the Texan, Blake. Sometimes he sounds like Jeffrey Lebowski. He rarely sounds like himself except when he starts a song in the wrong key.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s my fuckup. My standard fuckup. Sorry, man.”

Everyone tells Jeff it’s going to be fine. Bridges runs his hands through his lanky, gray-blond hair and gives the pained, conflicted smile for which he is famous. Now 61, he could pass for Brian Wilson’s kid brother, with Bridges being the golden boy who surfed the California myth to the good life without succumbing to the undertow. His blue eyes light up and he tries to explain.

“You ever see that Disney cartoon where Goofy’s got two guys sitting on his shoulders? One voice is telling me, ‘Man, you’re going to kick the bucket; you better do it now.’ And the other voice is like, ‘Man, will you fucking relax? You want to turn your life into one long homework assignment?'”

The band packs up; somebody has to pick up a kid. Bridges says goodbye and then cranks the volume.

“You want to listen to more of Johnny’s stuff?”

He turns on an iPod that is plugged into his studio’s speakers. There’s a song that could be a forgotten Leonard Cohen classic. Then a funny tune about losing weight. And a wry one about the intelligence of country music fans that might not aid Johnny’s career. Then a demo Goodwin recorded with Bridges’s friend Michael McDonald.

We leave the studio and go for a walk to the top of his property.

“Johnny’s fearless with his art. I wish I was more like that sometimes.” We sit on a bench that looks down on his house and into the ocean. Bridges adjusts the positioning of my tape recorder. “I’ve done a lot of interviews – I start telling a story you already heard, you let me know.”

We start talking and yeah, some of the stories are ones I’ve already heard. How his dad, Lloyd, talked him into appearing on his TV show ‘Sea Hunt’ by saying Jeff could buy toys with his earnings. How the director Lamont Johnson had to shame Bridges into doing the film version of ‘The Iceman Cometh,’ an early break in his career. How his friend T-Bone Burnett had to talk him into ‘Crazy Heart.’ How he had to be dragged into his marriage to Susan, his bride of 33 years. And then there’s the Post-it taped above his computer that reads: Is this task absolutely necessary to keep my life afloat?

We head back down the hill for lunch and Bridges expounds on reluctance as a way of life.

“You’ve heard of rebirthing?” he asks. “The theory is that if you take your birth experience and you kind of superimpose that over your first remembered trauma, you’ll see some parallels going on there.”

He gives a shrug.

“I don’t know how deep I should go into this,” says Bridges quietly. “My mom and dad had a child before me who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. They went in and he was just dead in his crib. The doctor convinced my mom to get back on the horse. She got pregnant with me. This was in the days where they tied the woman down during labor and gave her a big spinal shot. But she was allergic to it and I just turned my body in the womb, didn’t want to come out. She started to die and I started to die. She started to pass out and they started counting ‘one, two, three’ and slapping her, screaming, ‘Dottie, wake up! Dottie, wake up!’ She sat up; I turned and came out.”

Bridges pauses for a moment. He has a good sense of timing. “Okay, then my earliest remembered trauma is when I’m three or four years old. I’m in the living room. My mom used to have this beautiful, waist-length hair. And now the front door opens, and I see her there, fur coat and really short hair. She is smiling. I go, ‘Oh, fuck,’ and I ran and I locked myself in the bathroom. That’s me turning around in the womb. And then my father comes and says, ‘Jeff, I want you to come out of there. I’m going to count to 10. One, two…’ – that’s the doctor slapping Mom.”

He lets out a laugh and slaps me on the shoulder.

“I applied that to my life and my problems. That is basically how I deal with all of them. I always have kind of a ‘fuck it, fuck this, I’m not going to do that’ attitude about everything.” Bridges smiles. “And then I do some of them and they turn out okay.”

Connective Tissue

Don’t buy Bridges’s possibly weed-influenced smoke screen. He actually does a lot of things. He is an almost practicing Buddhist. He throws pots. He sells Hyundais and Duracells on the idiot box. He speaks out for ending child hunger in America. He paints. Did I say he throws pots? But amid the jumble of meditation, Sonatas, and crockery, there’s one thing Bridges does almost as well as acting: photography. He’s had a darkroom since he was a kid and has shot portraits on his movie sets for decades. Taking photos helps him relax on difficult shoots like ‘Iron Man,‘ where the script was still in flux as shooting began. “I was freaking out,” recalls Bridges. “But then I told myself, ‘Hey, we’re just making a $200 million student film. It’ll be okay, or it won’t.'”

This being Jeff, his method is eccentric. No retro Polaroids or quick-snap digital equipment. He shoots with a Widelux camera, which has a lens with a superlong exposure time – about 15 seconds for a single picture. That’s perfect for him. You can move people around during the exposure, committing to nothing until the last second. Jon Favreau frowns on the right side of the frame; Jon Favreau grins on the left. The juxtapositions are very Jeff – not too dark, not too fluffy, and easy on the eyes.

Looking at the pictures after spending time with Bridges, I was struck by the only constant in all of Bridges’s endeavors: He is always trying to entertain someone. Banal revelation? Maybe, but think about it. Is Daniel Day-Lewis actually trying to entertain you? Eddie Vedder? How about that Bright Eyes dude? Bridges readily cops to it. “I come from a family of entertainers,” he says. “That’s what I do – I’m a performer. I entertain people. I’m not ashamed of that; it’s a good thing.”

There’s circus in his blood. When Bridges was 14, Jeff and his older brother, Beau, would drive a flatbed truck into the parking lots of L.A. grocery stores. They would jump out of the truck and begin fighting. A crowd would gather. Once they had achieved critical mass, Beau and Jeff would cease hostilities and jump into the back of their truck, and they would then do dramatic readings from ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ Invariably, the Bridgeses would try to incorporate the late-arriving cops into their performances. This usually ended badly, with the Bridgeses hightailing it for the next grocery store. The activity seemed completely normal to Jeff: “We were raised with the idea all the time of putting on a show. It was the most natural thing to me.”

Bridges’s naturalism as an actor is repeatedly cited by everyone from legendary ‘New Yorker’ film critic Pauline Kael to director Peter Bogdanovich, who gave Bridges his first big break with ‘The Last Picture Show‘ in 1971. Bridges plays Duane Jackson, a handsome, smalltown Texas teenager. As written in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Jackson comes across as a coarse, womanizing jackass. In the film, Bridges provides him with a vulnerable warmth that makes him less an asshole and more a lost soul.

Bridges scored an Oscar nomination for the role and then another three years later in Michael Cimino’s ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,’ in which Bridges plays a flamboyant, impossibly sunny bank robber alongside an already crusty Clint Eastwood. Bridges’s giddy innocence leavens Eastwood’s poker-face performance – Clint spends the whole film suppressing grins opposite the exuberant Bridges – and the result is a buddy-film classic equal to ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’ “I couldn’t find the character,” remembers Bridges. “And Michael told me, ‘You are that character. You be yourself; your choices can’t be wrong.'”

Love & A Sharp Pain in The Ass

Applying the mellow gold to Bridges’s personal life took a bit longer. We’re eating and talking post-birth canal when Jeff’s wife, Susan, emerges from the kitchen and says hello. She looks as radiant as she did last March watching her husband win his first Oscar. Jeff had been nervous heading into Oscar night after an earlier screwup at an awards ceremony in which he kept referring to ‘Crazy Heart’ director Scott Cooper as actor Chris Cooper.

“That is such a thing you don’t want to do,” says Bridges. “But then you realize that the worst possible thing has happened, the thing you feared the most, and you know what? It doesn’t matter.”

Susan pats her man-child husband on the shoulder. They talk for a minute about their three twentysomething daughters and then she goes back inside. During 2009, the couple spent 10 months apart as Bridges filmed ‘Crazy Heart,’ ‘Tron: Legacy,’ and the Coen brothers’ ‘True Grit‘ almost back-to-back. “She lets me fly my kite and then we come back together,” says Bridges. “We can survive being apart, but it’s not the way I want it to be. I love her more every day.”

He admits that their marriage of 33 years was initially forged out of Cali ennui and angst. They met in 1974 while Bridges was filming Rancho Deluxe near Susan’s hometown of Livingston, Montana. Bridges likes to trot out a picture a friend snapped of Bridges trying to ask Susan out the day they met. But today, he tells a different story. After the movie wrapped, Sue moved to L.A. with Bridges. They dated for three years, but Bridges couldn’t pull the trigger on marriage.

Then one day the couple hiked from Bridges’s Malibu house toward a giant rock on the other side of a canyon. “This rock had two eyes and a big nose and a cave as a mouth,” remembers Bridges. “As the sun went across the sky, the expression on the face would change. We get there and I’m sitting in the guy’s mouth, looking back at my house just how I used to look at the face, and I’m saying, ‘Wow, isn’t this wonderful?’ All of a sudden, this voice speaking very loud coming right up my ass, up through my spine, is saying, ‘YOU WILL NOW ASK THIS WOMAN TO MARRY YOU.’ And I go, ‘Oh, wow,’ and tears start to ejaculate out of my eyes. Sue says, ‘What is it?’ I say, ‘I have the feeling I was supposed to ask you to marry me and I am so fucking frightened.’ And she goes, ‘Well, you don’t have to do that,’ and I say, ‘Good, let’s get the fuck out of here.’ ”

But a week later, Sue got impatient and politely informed him that her biological clock was ticking and he needed to make a decision or she was heading back to Montana. Bridges proposed a day or two later and the couple was married the same weekend, before he could lose his nerve. They headed to Hawaii for their honeymoon.

“Cut to the Seven Sacred Pools in Maui,” says Bridges. “All these beautiful pools, and all I smell are the rotting mangoes. I’m pouting and pouting. And she goes, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I say, ‘Oh, nothing.’ And this kind of goes back to that birth thing, doing what you don’t want to do, wondering, ‘Am I being coerced into this?’ It took years to get out of it.”

Bridges leans back into his chair and stares out toward the ocean.

“Whenever I doubted my love, I’d say, ‘Remember that guy’s mouth, that voice shouting up your asshole to your heart.’ I had this vision of myself being an old man and saying I had one true love and I let that diamond slip through my fingers.” But Bridges explains there was one other thing that pulled him through, admittedly not quite as romantic. He looks boyish, as if he just stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum. “The adjustment I gave myself that allowed me to marry her, having all these fears, was that you could always get a divorce. I know it’s not romantic, but once I gave myself that escape hatch, I knew I’d never use it.”

Bridges switches the subject to an upcoming trip. He is heading to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts in a couple of weeks to speak and meditate at a Zen Buddhist conference.

“You should come, man. Johnny is going to be there. We’re going to play some songs. Johnny is petrified to play in front of people, but we’re going to make it happen.”

The purpose of the conference, according to Bridges, is to convince people to think differently about peace and nonviolence. He grabs a book off a shelf called ‘The Lucifer Principle’ that expounds on this theory for almost 500 pages.

“There’s a Solzhenitsyn quote in here I like. Here it is: ‘If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?'”

Bridges is still reading as we head out to my car. It’s now magic hour, and California is in a golden state. Evil, hunger, and Michael McDonald songs seem blissfully out of reach. But not to Jeff.

“Interesting, right? We have to stop thinking peace is this natural state. It’s not. It goes against centuries of evolution. We have to think about everything completely differently. Take the book, read it if you want. Okay, man, cool hanging with you. See ya.”

I head down the drive and look in the rearview mirror. Bridges is peering over his granny glasses. He is waving.

Lebowski & the Anti-Lebowski

The everybody-loves-Jeff Bridges home base is, of course, ‘The Big Lebowski.’ For the two of you who haven’t seen it, Bridges’s Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. the Dude, is a bowler stoner. He has a big heart, no job, and an omnipresent White Russian. He is hapless and well-intentioned, much like Bridges would be without his wife, daughters, sidemen, and manager. “The Coen brothers told me they were writing a script for me,” recalls Bridges. “I thought, ‘That’s cool.’ Then I read the script and I was like, ‘Have you been following me around to parties?’ It’s a lot like a younger version of me.”

I vowed to be the first magazine writer not to write about Bridges’s Dude-like qualities. Such a cliché, I thought. And then you meet him and he is, well, the goddamned Dude in all his fuzzy-headed, non sequitur goodness. If anything, Bridges’s cinematic Dude understates things.

Here’s a taste. In 1984, Bridges was cast as an alien fallen to Earth in ‘Starman.’ This was his research: “I started going through my phone book thinking, Which of my friends would I not be surprised to find out was an alien? Then I just followed the dude around. He was a dancer and had dyed his hair platinum blond – white almost. He definitely could have been from another planet. He was far out.”

The power of Lebowski works for Bridges, even when he is the anti-Lebowski. He has built so much good will that when he goes against type you can’t look away, whether it’s the sullen piano player in ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys,’ the choleric and alcoholic Blake in ‘Crazy Heart,’ or his upcoming portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshal on an altruistic killing spree, in ‘True Grit.’ Mind you, this isn’t a remake of John Wayne’s cranky but lovable Cogburn. This is trademark Coen brothers darkness – just in time for Christmas! – hewing closely to Charles Portis’s novel. “I had some concern about, ‘Why are you doing a remake?'” says Bridges. “But once I read the novel, I understood.” He dodges further questions about the film, slipping back into Dudespeak.

“I don’t like to ruin the discovery of seeing it in the theaters by talking about my characters too much. You know, I didn’t see the ‘Star Wars’ films until much later. I was so grateful my friends didn’t spoil the whole ‘Luke, I am your father’ thing. That was cool of them.”

Nectarines & Head

It’s two weeks later and on the other side of the land. Late summer in the Berkshires. If you’ve hit the mill-vegan bookstore, you’ve gone too far. Back up a mile or so. Take a left up the dirt road that leads to a converted farmhouse that is full of good vibes, peasant skirts, and a palpable lack of deodorant. In a back room, Jeff Bridges strums a guitar at a conference table. Next to him is a beautiful young woman and a man who looks rode hard and put up wet.

“Hey, man. This is Johnny Goodwin. And this is my daughter Isabella. She’s an expert on kids’ yoga – any questions, ask her. This is . . . Aw, man. I forgot your name. Stephen! Yes!”

Techies enter and begin throwing dark blankets over the window. They are from the PBS show ‘American Masters,’ which is filming an episode on Bridges, and they will give the next 24 hours an extra layer of refracted refraction. An old guy with shaggy eyebrows, suspenders, and a cigar in his shirt pocket walks into the room. He looks like a retired prop comic. The old man and Bridges embrace like lefties reuniting on the site of an ROTC protest.

Bernie Glassman is his name, and he’s the reason we’re here. He founded Zen Peacemakers. The ZP are Buddhist activists. This is a bit like being Mennonite snipers. Bernie holds a yearly conference where writers, philosophers, activists, and Jeff Bridges (if he’s not shooting a film) come. They talk about the application of Buddhist teachings to solving issues like violence and hunger. When things get too stressed or the conversation grows angsty, Bernie puts on a red clown’s nose and everyone chills.

Bernie takes Bridges by the arm and leads him into the center’s main room. Tonight, Jeff and John are going to play songs for the folks, but first there’s a panel on artistry and activism. Bridges ambles onstage and everyone claps. He sits down and puts a small briefcase on the table next to him. Bernie introduces him, then the room goes quiet.

“Thanks for having me,” says Bridges. He speaks sleepily. “As an appetizer, I would like to offer someone in the audience a little head. I like to do that from time to time for my friends. Give them a little. It establishes a bond.”

The pacifists and poets titter.

Bridges smiles.

“Matter of fact, I gave Bernie a little head for his 70th birthday. He seemed to enjoy it.”

Now everyone is paying attention, particularly the PBS folks.

Bridges opens the briefcase. He pulls out a little head he has made of clay. “When I make pots, there’s always a little clay left over,” he explains. “I make little heads out of them, hundreds of heads. Some look angry, some look sad. This isn’t Bernie’s head. This is the head I’m offering today. It’s not free head. I’m going to charge for it. All the proceeds will go to the Zen Peacemakers.”

Everyone is a little disappointed. You don’t even get the head; you lease it, Elantra-like, for a year. Any questions about Bridges’s persuasive skills are answered when folks fork over $12,000 for a head.

Backstage, Johnny Goodwin strums a guitar. He is the molecular opposite of Bridges – short, slightly overweight, with dark circles under his orbs that are sometimes mistaken for black eyes. He is beyond world-weary but kindhearted.

“Jeff lived two doors down when we were kids,” says Goodwin. “We both had great imaginations, and we just made up whole worlds while we played.”

Goodwin’s life has been as turbulent as Bridges’s has been smooth. There have been lost decades in L.A. writing songs before heading out for Nashville 15 years ago. He’s had moments of success – a song on a Brad Paisley album – but he’s just scraping by. When Bridges was approached by producer-musician T-Bone Burnett about ‘Crazy Heart,’ he suggested Johnny write a song, and the end result was “Hold On to You,” the tune that opens the film.

“T-Bone really liked it,” says Goodwin with pride. “He helped with the second verse. He could have buried it, but he put it first. Me and Jeff have been trying to find a place for our music, and we found it.”

Goodwin hasn’t played live for decades, except for a cameo at a Montana bar near where Bridges has a ranch. (He played one song and, according to Bridges, “was just ejaculating sweat.”)

“I just stopped,” says Goodwin. “L.A. and Nashville audiences are so intimidating.” He twists the knobs on his guitar. “I don’t know, this whole crowd is so easygoing. It’s going to be like playing for a bunch of nectarines.”

Bridges returns. “You doing okay, Johnny?”

“We’ll see.”

It’s now about 20 minutes before showtime. The room is getting claustrophobic with well-wishers. Someone suggests we clear out so Johnny and Jeff can have a quiet moment. Instead, the door opens. A man leads a blind girl into the room. She has long, beautiful black hair and a beatific smile.

“Jeff, she’s a huge fan – just wanted to meet you for a minute.”

“Hey, sweetheart, why don’t you sit here. I’ve got to run through a few of my songs.”

The girl sits down, her walking cane across her lap.

Jeff starts strumming. He plays “What I Didn’t Want,” one of Johnny’s songs. It’s a sweet song. Maybe Goodwin had his best friend in mind, maybe he didn’t, but the words mirror Jeff’s reluctance-as a-way-of-life vibe.

I didn’t want to be bound
I didn’t want any ties
I didn’t want to give an inch or make any sacrifice
I didn’t want more
Thought I had what I needed
But the love we made made a better man of me
I used to dream of being free but now I don’t
And I bless the day I got what I didn’t want

Bridges plays quietly and sings in a voice that is his own. The blind girl smiles endlessly. She bobs her head, metronome-like. When the song ends, the room goes silent.

“Bravissima,” says the girl. “Bravissima.”

I know it sounds made up, but it happened.

A few minutes later, Goodwin and Bridges are seated on a small stage in front of maybe 400 people. Bridges is all smiles, but Johnny looks gray: A shimmer of his flop sweat is reflected in the overhead lights. Then Jeff reaches over, touches him lightly on the shoulder, and whispers something to his friend. Johnny exhales.

Everyone sits down and the PBS cameras roll. Bridges sings a song. Johnny sings a song. It’s perfectly enjoyable. Then Bridges decides to liven things up. He stands and puts on Bernie’s red clown nose. “I’ll do some physical movement to your song,” Bridges says to Johnny. He turns to the cameraman. “Now, Alan, would it be better if I did it over here so we both stayed in the frame?”

A few in the audience snicker. Bridges smirks and thrusts his palms outward.

“Hey, what can I say? I respond to cameras, man.”
Heaven, Tears, and the Lojong Principle

Two weeks later we move on to the continent’s rusty interior – 22 miles from Buffalo, in Canada, the land of Tim Hortons and bad pizza. Outside, Niagara Falls tumbles. But we’re inside at an Indian casino, the modern adult playground. The Avalon Ballroom at Fallsview Casino Resort is hallowed ground: Bacon, Costner, and Willis – the Holy Trinity of actor-rockers – have all failed to hit the right notes on this very stage. Now Jeff Bridges stands on the same spot with just one request.

“Can someone bring me a cup of tea with lemon? That would be very nice.”

Jeff Bridges has a cold. This has ramifications.

Yesterday’s rehearsal was a mild disaster, and he’s a little nervous. Sure, there was that charity warm-up gig last week in James Cameron’s front yard, but Bridges and the band seem not quite ready for 1,500 folks – some of whom have paid up to $90 a ticket.

He plays a couple of songs and then stops.

“I want to go over the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ story,” he says. He takes a breath.

“Thank you all for coming. You know, I’ve always loved music. And a lot of that has to do with my buddy T-Bone Burnett. We met while filming ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ Another one of my heroes, Kris Kristofferson, was in the movie, too. T-Bone played my maid. But every night, we’d all get together and just jam. It was a wild, great time.”

Bridges then spends considerable time contemplating whether he should take his jacket off after the third or the fourth song. I guess it shouldn’t have been a terrible surprise – Bridges is a notorious overpreparer for his films – but hearing the Dude rehearse spontaneous patter is still a bummer, like seeing Santa Claus eating at Chipotle in street clothes. It doesn’t help that his guitar strap is from ‘Crazy Heart’ and reads BAD. It makes me wonder if moments with Bridges are real or just an ‘American Masters’ performance.

The next night’s show is a shambling mess of a success. The audience skews very ‘Golden Girls’-ish. Bridges is a movie star here in nowheresville, so everything he does is right. The jacket removal and the Heaven’s Gate story both kill. No one even notices when Bridges plays the wrong song on the set list, which wouldn’t have been a big deal if the rest of the band weren’t set up for another song in a different key. He plays Johnny’s “Van Gogh in Hollywood” and then apologizes for the subject matter.

Afterward, Bridges sits in the backstage lounge with the band. He has a vodka and water in his hand. (“White Russians are too sweet.”) The band, the promoter, and his manager tell him it was great. Bridges doesn’t quite believe it.

“Was it really okay?” he asks before heading off to bed.

The next morning, we go for the requisite field trip. A VIP van whisks us down to the falls. Bridges is wearing a cap and poncho, but he’s still recognizable, and he poses for some photos with tourists. Then we take an elevator to a viewing platform under the falls and Bridges is just another slack-jawed visitor.

“Man, think how we have harnessed this for power. If we could do that, what else could the world do?” He looks out at tourist boats creeping toward the crescendo of water. “We’re going to do that next, right?”

First, though, there’s a stop at the gift shop and an hour debating T-shirt choices for his girls. Bridges’s reluctance-as-religion carries over to the consumer thing, too. Finally, we jump into the van again and drive down toward the boats. The falls have put Bridges back in his philosophical mode: There’s talk of mild fence-mending with his wife after Jeff let the ‘American Masters’ folks take over his house for a shoot.

“It got back to a recurring theme,” says Bridges with a sad chuckle. “My self-centeredness. There’s a Buddhist school of thought called the Lojong Principle. If the thing you hate most about yourself is your ego and you want to get rid of it, the thing to do is embrace your ego and try to figure out how to use it creatively. I’m trying to figure that out.”

We are whisked to the front of the tour boat. Bridges shakes the hand of Kenny, the boat owner. “Let me ask you a question,” Bridges says to him. “You ever forget what’s right in front of you?”

Kenny laughs. “Many times, but then there will be a day where I’ll go, ‘Look what the hell is right in front of me.'”

We head toward the cascading waters. Immediately, sheets of water douse us all. No one cares because it’s a goddamned Cecil B. DeMille film. We look up at 188 feet of falling water and Bridges starts to holler.

“Positive ions! I think this is what heaven looks like. This is like the difference between talking about an orgasm and having an orgasm! Wow, wow.”

The whole trip is maybe 25 minutes and takes decades off Bridges’s age. The tension of the shows is gone from his face, and the hopeful man that we want him to be returns.

That night, after sound check, we sit down for a final time. We talk quietly, just the two of us. Oh, and an ‘American Masters’ cameraman. I stumble around the issue of whether he is conscious that he is still singing in the voice of a character rather than as himself. He doesn’t quite cop to it, but he admits that he worries he thinks too much about the melancholy lyrics of Johnny’s tunes and the ‘Crazy Heart’ songs.

“I found when I really engaged with the songs, the words were so powerful, they were too strong,” he says, his voice rough. He searches for words.

“It’s like the guy today at the falls,” he says. “I might talk about it tonight, but it might shut me down.” Tears fill his eyes. “Every once in a while you realize what’s right in front of you, it’s so fucking strong. Every once in a while you realize you’re alive. What an opportunity. How do you . . .”

His voice trails away. I ask him about the song “Somebody Else” and if that’s what he’s talking about. He nods his head with force.

“Yes! I don’t know who the hell I am,” says Bridges. A triumphant looks comes across his face. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

We wrap things up and shake hands. The PBS cameraman gives us a smile. “Great stuff.”

Bridges ambles toward the elevator and his room for an afternoon nap.

It’s just five hours until the next performance.

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