by Tony Dayoub
With Jeff Bridges a seeming lock for Best Actor in this year's Oscar races, there come the inevitable disclaimers, "Yeah, he deserves one, but this isn't necessarily the performance for which he should be getting it." True that in the past, Oscar has been bestowed on notable actors in second-rate roles as compensation for being overlooked in other more important performances. Most famously, Al Pacino got one for Scent of a Woman (1992) despite three instances (okay, maybe two) in which he could and should have received one for his captivating minimalist performance as Michael Corleone in The Godfather series, forever justifying his irritating inclination to play it big. Indeed, Denzel Washington was another actor who received one of these Oscars for Training Day (2001) when he really deserved it for Malcolm X in the year that Pacino got his award. What no one seems to be saying about Bridges' performance as country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart is that in this case, the honor may actually be deserved.
Part of the reason, no doubt, is the "been there, done that" issue that arises when one looks at Crazy Heart and the debt it owes to its predecessor, Tender Mercies (1983). So greatly do the two films stories of aging alcoholic country singers dovetail, it was necessary to cast the latter's Robert Duvall (who won an Oscar for that, concidentally) and throw him a producer credit just to acknowledge the inevitable comparisons between both films.
This is not to diminish the film's warmth and genuine relish in allowing one to observe Blake's self-loathing so closely. Director Scott Cooper presents Blake as a functioning alcoholic who has the old leather-feel of an endearing curmudgeon rather than the off-putting antics of an obnoxious scoundrel. Bridges invites the viewer into his charming sphere of influence much the same way he does his paramour Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). He simply turns up the defensive allure an actor must rely on the same way an alcoholic has become accustomed to doing when evading the underlying predicament of his own existence.
This easy charm is what has thus far undercut Bridges chances for recognition. If all of his vastly different performances in great movies—from Duane in The Last Picture Show to the Dude in The Big Lebowski; from Bone in Cutter's Way to Scudder in 8 Million Ways to Die; from the titular Tucker to Max Klein in Fearless—can be made to look so easy, then is it any wonder that it's taken so long for Bridges to be acknowledged? Here, finally, is a role that stands out in an otherwise average film, and perhaps by aiming low Bridges has finally achieved the measure of success he has merited all along.