He's a Star(man)
Bridges has always been a contender
By Bert Osborne

If, before he were allowed to play the president of the United States on screen, a movie star had to be elected to the job based on his Hollywood track record, then Jeff Bridges would be precisely where he belongs in The Contender.

By a landslide. In a career spanning 30-odd years and some 50 films, Bridges continues to build his reputation on a diversity of indelible characters - from the disillusioned drifter of Cutter's Way to the wide-eyed, innocent alien of Starman (which earned him one of his three Oscar nominations to date), from the redemptive radio shock-jock of The Fisher King to the contemplative western outlaw of Wild Bill.

Written and directed by former movie critic Rod Lurie, the bristling political drama The Contender casts Bridges as President Jackson Evans. Ever-mindful of his liberal "legacy" and how he'll be remembered in the history books, he appoints a woman, Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), to fill the vacancy left by his recently deceased vice president. Among the proverbial hurdles in their way: the disgruntled old-guard conservative (Gary Oldman) in charge of her confirmation hearing; and the pesky matter of a possible sex scandal lurking in Hanson's past.

Bridges' President Evans is smooth-talking and razor-sharp in equal measure, dapper in all of his designer suits. Indeed, it's hard to believe this is the same guy whose last most prominent performance was as a potbellied pothead and slob named The Dude in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998) - and yet doesn't it just figure?

"From the very beginning, I always knew I just wanted to do as many different types of roles as I could. In my acting choices, I've decided not to limit myself to just playing people I admire, you know? Not to sound grandiose or anything, but acting isn't about promoting a particular image or lifestyle. It's about trying to experience every possible aspect of humanity," explains Bridges, 50.

"Playing a more upstanding character like this one in The Contender is great, but I also want the freedom to play a despicable maniac who buries people alive (in The Vanishing), if I feel like it," he elaborates. "There are a couple of advantages to mixing things up like that. For one thing, it helps keep my own interest level up, trying to hang a 180 of some sort from one role to the next. But it also gives the audiences a feeling of never knowing what to expect from you."

He says it's a lesson he learned from his late father, the veteran character actor Lloyd Bridges. As teenagers just starting to contemplate acting careers for themselves, Jeff and his older brother Beau would occasionally appear with their father on his '60s TV series Sea Hunt. "It was interesting to watch what happened to my father in his own career. He'd been around a long time before finding success with Sea Hunt, but he was SO successful in the show, people thought that's who he was, this deep sea diver. On the one hand, that was the ultimate compliment to him as an actor, but on the other hand he started getting nothing but deep-sea-diving scripts," Bridges recalls.

After a pause, the actor admits, "I sort of took a cue from that. I never wanted to fall into the same trap. I saw the pain of it, how frustrated he was that he didn't get to do a lot of different kinds of roles after that. That's why it was so great later in his career, when he found success with those Airplane! movies. I remember suggesting him for a dramatic part in a movie I did called Blown Away, and the producers were like, 'But he's really more of a comedian, isn't he?'"

Bridges smiles. "Sometimes, I guess you can't win for losing."

But sometimes you can. Bridges squirms when reminded of the Premiere magazine article of a few years ago which proclaimed him "the most underrated actor of his generation."

It's hard not to wonder why he's never become a more viable box-office commodity. Could it be because for every popular Jagged Edge or The Fabulous Baker Boys he makes, he'll do a dicey Fearless or American Heart?

Don't ask him. "It's not that I've tried to avoid mainstream or commercial stardom, but I haven't really pursued it, either," he replies with a shrug. "I guess I'm just drawn to making the kinds of movies I like going to see, and I'm very pleased with the way my career has developed over the years as a result of that. I feel appreciated and I'm very well-paid, so how is that underrated?"

Needless to say, The Contender is the kind of movie Bridges likes going to see. "You know what I loved about it? There was an ambiguity to a lot of the characters. They weren't just drawn in black and white. The movie's about all the egos involved, and how hard it is to keep crisp that line between serving society and serving oneself. Does my character have society's best interests at heart by wanting to put this woman in office, or is he just motivated by how he thinks it'll make him look? Is the Gary Oldman character a purely evil guy? Of course not, because he truly believes he's serving the greater good," the actor observes.

"This movie might piss a few people off on both sides of the political spectrum, but would that be such a bad thing, especially right now? Maybe it'll inspire people to take a more active role in government and get out there and VOTE."

Coulda Been

'The Contender' fight is rigged

By Rob Bricken

In this off-season, while politics are keeping such a low profile in the American consciousness, it sure is gutsy of The Contender to open this season. This tale of the nomination of a female vice president might be a stern warning about the dangerously intrusive conservatism in Washington nowadays, or a message that maybe America is ready for a chick in the White House.

While The Contender may or may not succeed in having a message, it sure isn't a very good movie.

Here's the scoop: the former veep is dead. Prez Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) picks woman-y female Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) over some more digestible old white guy. Evil Senator Shelly Runyan (Gary Oldman) opposes her and is running the committee that will oversee her confirmation hearing. A lovely story of political intrigue and maneuvering complicated by the fact that Senator Hanson was frisky in college, and Runyan finds out. Like super-frisky. Like, Hustler-level frisky... And that's pretty frisky.

Hanson refuses to say anything, because it's her personal life.

So the movie begins with the scandal emerging, the committee meetings, loads of character interaction and nothing worth recalling. The plot stretches and bucks in some points, but weighted by a few great performances (notably Joan Allen and especially Oldman) it chugs unevenly along until just before the end, where the film totally whores out its respectability, in much the same manner Allen's character is alleged to have done.

Many people, having seen a moving picture before, will figure out the film's 'surprise' plot points hours before the film trots 'em out for the big finale.

Meanwhile, closing speeches by Hanson and President Evans pour the most heart-felt saccharine, politically unlikely speeches to be heard-this is in contrast to Runyan's committee hearing, which sounds exactly like C-SPAN.

Director Rod Lurie (Deterrence) tries to make things a little interesting by portraying Oldman's character as a man of conviction as well, but this is ultimately destroyed by the film's desire to fit in a good vs. evil battle. When the movie has Runyan's wife helping Hanson's side because she disapproves of his actions, it's just another mind-boggling blow against realism to help polarize a movie which would have benefitted far more from ambiguity.

And here's the crux - while many scenes seem to have an intriguing realistic feel in character interactions - such as how a man who is the president might genuinely act behind the mantle of power - the film's enslavement to a textbook drama means the film is peppered with ludicrous plot points, unbelievable actions, and a highly uninspired ending/sermon.

If real politicians acted like folks do in The Contender, they would never get elected in the first place.

All the politicians could scarcely be any less politically savvy. And in a movie grounded on politicians and political intrigue, it must seem real, or else the movie fails.

Which it does; did someone call for a veto?