Jeff Bridges is an actor with wide range, eloquence and a new Oscar nomination

A gun dangles and a mustache catches dust as eyes of earned and battered wisdom scour the scrub lands. Jeff Bridges’ righteous Texas Ranger in “Hell or High Water” is a folksy man of grit whose sense of justice, like his drawl, keep his compass set when the bad guys ride and the storm gathers.

The part of unwavering Marcus Hamilton gave Bridges his seventh Academy Award nomination in a supporting or leading role. He won his first Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of an alcoholic troubadour in “Crazy Heart,” another role in which age and experience — although in vastly different personalities — lift a man into fable.

“Woke up this morning in beautiful Solana Beach after playing a cool gig at the Belly Up with my band the Abiders to find out I’ve been nominated for my performance,” Bridges said in a statement Tuesday morning. “What a thrill.”

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Bridges has for decades stood before us in full: flake, madman, alien, president, shock jock, smitten boy, plane crash survivor and, of course, The Dude, that abiding, bathrobe-wearing misfit bowler of sideways poetry and fantastical misfortune. In a career that spans more than 70 films, the 67-year-old actor has disappeared into subtleties, whispers, growls and asides like a man who fits perfectly into the clothes of passing strangers.

His characters are often affable and earnest; calm and thoughtful men at home in their imperfections. Whether it’s the one-eyed bounty hunter in “True Grit” or the talk show host seeking redemption in “The Fisher King,” Bridges embodies his roles without strain or strings. Critic Pauline Kael famously called him “the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived.”

He can find wonder in the smallest things. Bridges, who in the late 1950s appeared with his father, Lloyd, and his brother, Beau, in the TV series “Sea Hunt”, is a child of Hollywood. He watched it shift from the power of the studios in the 1960s to the rise of maverick filmmakers who captured the times with realism. He has endured and thrived in parts of eloquence, individuality and wide range.

His sexually awakening youth in “The Last Picture Show” (1971),  which brought him his first Oscar nomination, was a testament to a nation’s restlessness and change; his alien in “Starman” was a guileless innocent who laid bare human transgression; his whimsical Lightfoot in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” frustrated sidekick Clint Eastwood; and in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” he was a disillusioned jazz man with a slanting cigarette and Michelle Pfeiffer slinking across his piano.

There are times when the creaky man with the rasp can appear a shade from caricature and mannerism. Bridges rarely crosses that line, though, even when he’s heading with mixed blessings toward deeper truths. The Dude, as they say, abides. That role in the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski”  was infectious with a shaggy haplessness that turned an imbiber and raconteur into legend.

The Dude is older. Still wild, ready to surprise. The voice, the narrowing eyes, the face that says a book’s worth of things in a glance. But he moves these days not so much with mercurial glee as with ambled grace.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

 

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