The Dude Abides

I’ve been writing in serious mode lately: American healthcare, the shooting in Tucson. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break, to talk about events of less moment, and moments of greater magic.

Last night’s “Master Class” on PBS profiled actor – and artistic Renaissance man – Jeff Bridges. I’ve never seen his cult film The Big Lebowski, though it just made the queue. According to “Master Class”, which featured Bridges in many scenes from films throughout his career, it seems I haven’t watched even half his movie output.

But several of the films I did see made a huge impression: The Last Picture Show, Starman, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Crazy Heart, True Grit. While it’s true that Bridges’ performances in the recent Crazy Heart and True Grit are intertwined – playing an alcoholic tends to reverberate – they’re both authentic and down-home real. Working with his older brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Bridges hit it out of the park in his portrayal of the frustrated musician who doesn’t believe in his own talent enough to pry himself out of piano-bar-gig drudgery. The Last Picture Show was the movie that transformed him into an actor we wanted to see more of, as the golden boy of a small and sinking Texas town.

Everyone has their favorite movies of all time, and one of mine is Starman. I’m not going to tell you to run and put it on your queue – not unless you’re convinced you want to see an extraordinary performance. The story itself is simple sci-fi: having heard the Voyager 2 invitation to visit Earth, an alien in the form of pure energy nears us, yet crashes in Wisconsin after being fired upon. In order to survive, the starman (Bridges) must be picked up by friends – which means he has to travel to Arizona. With him he carries seven spheres of energy, but as we all know, they’re not enough to get him anywhere near Arizona. He investigates a nearby house, and, using a lock of hair from Jenny Hayden’s (Karen Allen) recently deceased husband, creates an instant clone, demanding at gunpoint that Jenny drive him to his rendezvous point.

After a roadtrip battling rednecks, bad traffic, a fiery collision, US Army pursuit, and Jenny’s hostility, fear and mistrust (remember, he looks just like her beloved husband), the alien makes it to an Arizona crater and leaves Earth, giving Jenny the last silver sphere and telling her she will bear their son, who will know all Starman knows.

A little schmaltzy, right? A little weird? Hardly believable?

Wait until you see Bridges’ performance. He renders the alien into someone cautious and curious. To prepare for the role, Bridges observed both birds and babies, then combined the two ways of watching and reacting to reach Starman’s quirky, enthusiastic inquisitiveness. He’s a quick learner (“Red, stop. Green, go. Yellow, go very fast.”), and while initially abrupt with Jenny, communicates his own tenderness. Every moment of Starman moves toward what writer Ursula Le Guin calls “speculative fiction” – science fiction low on science, yet heavy on interpersonal interaction between species. That Bridges maintains his alien persona, never once stepping out of role, is an enormous achievement, and it’s what makes this movie distinctive.

Oops. I lied. I’m going to say it: run to your computer and put Starman on your queue.

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