LOS ANGELES — Townes Van Zandt, the tortured Texas troubadour who drank himself into an early grave, had a sad, sly song called No Deal in which a used-car salesman hands him the keys to a sedan with no engine and then explains: "You don't need no engine to go downhill, and I could plainly see that's the direction you're headed."
The lyric drew a hearty laugh from Jeff Bridges, the actor who is getting perhaps the best reviews of his long and illustrious career for Crazy Heart, in which he plays country singer Bad Blake, who, like Van Zandt, is in desperate need of a spiritual handbrake. Van Zandt, who died at 52 in 1997, was one of the roadhouse stars whom Bridges used as a compass point during his trip down the lost highway.
"One of the directions that (Crazy Heart director and former Somerset resident) Scott Cooper gave me was to think of the Highwaymen — Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson — and to think that, in our alternate universe, Bad Blake would have been the fifth Highwayman," Bridges said. "All of those guys and other people went into it. Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan."
After a pause, Bridges, 60, added another name to that list of musical influences and musicians under the influence. "There are aspects of myself, too," said Bridges, who has moonlighted as a musician for years. "That's where I start with all of the parts I do. I look for the places where my character and I overlap. That's always the beginning point."
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For Bridges, the starting point for his career came fairly early: As an infant, he appeared in The Company She Keeps (1951), and the glare of klieg lights would be a constant part of his upbringing. By age 9, he was sharing the screen with his father, Lloyd, and brother, Beau, on television, and the family business came naturally. Robert Duvall, a costar in Crazy Heart and one of the film's producers, said Bridges has become one of the premier actors of his generation, and he has done so with the unhurried air of a surfer.
"There's the Actors Studio in New York, everybody sitting around talking about Stanislavski, but that's not Jeff," Duvall said. "This is a guy off the beaches of L.A. He learned from his father, that was his mentor, and he always seems so loose and relaxed — but he's always prepared, and he brings so many surprises, like good actors do."
Bridges came into his own in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show in 1971, which earned Bridges, at age 21, an Oscar nomination. Just two years after Picture Show, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote that Bridges had established himself as one of the least-contrived screen presences in Hollywood history.
Bridges would earn three more Oscar nominations — for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), Starman (1984) and The Contender (2000).
Then, of course, there was The Big Lebowski, the loopy Coen brothers tale of the Dude, a stoner of the highest order, who has become a pop-culture touchstone. The 1998 film has inspired an annual tribute festival in Louisville, a just-published book of essays from Indiana University Press and a quirky mountain of merchandising. The Dude is the most persistent persona for the actor who was always leery of typecasting.
"I've tried to mix it up a bit," he said. "It's good to have your audience happily confused. But I'm so happy with the success of Lebowski, it's one of my favorite films ever, and not just films I was in."
Bad Blake appears destined to join the Dude as a signature Bridges role. Cooper, the director and writer of Crazy Heart, said that, during the mad-dash 24-day shoot, Bridges was a marvel to behold. "It's one of his best performances, and that's saying a lot," Cooper said. "He came in with the character fully formed."