Actor (and photographer) Jeff Bridges is an 'American Master'

The picture at right depicts Hailee Steinfeld on the set of "True Grit." It was taken by her costar, Jeff Bridges, and distributed to critics and Academy Award voters as part of a whole book of photos that Bridges took during the making of the movie. Bridges is the subject of the season-premiere episode of "American Masters," airing tonight at 9 on WETA Channel 26. No wonder it will depict him as a Renaissance Man!

But I'll be watching mostly because the show contains extensive conversations with Bridges about his day job -- making movies. I hope it centers on some of my relatively unsung favorites, such as Lamont Johnson's "The Last American Hero" and Steve Kloves' "The Fabulous Baker Boys." But Bridges' career has been so rich, I'll understand if the program skirts some of his more rugged and individualistic achievements (like Walter Hill's "Wild Bill").


Even before the one-two punch of "Crazy Heart" and ""True Grit," his performances over the last ten years alone have been remarkable and varied.

In "The Contender," he was a Clintonesque president as we wanted him to be: down-to-earth and brilliant, but also principled and a shrewd tactician -- the life of the White House, and the life of the movie.

For "Seabiscuit,' Bridges was perfectly equipped  to embody the generosity and goodness of a well-heeled Depression-era horse owner. Bridges had the savvy to keep the man's racetrack showmanship front and center. But he also had the courage to embrace the man's enormous magnanimity toward Chris Cooper's trainer and Tobey Maguire's jockey. Bridges ended up with a beatific performance.

In "Iron Man," Bridges exerted an immense avuncular presence as Obadiah Stane. If Robert Downey Jr. embodied the slipperiness of quicksilver intelligence as Tony Stark, Bridges provided the mysterious warmth of experience as Stane. With his trademark head of hair shaved, all the power in Bridges' face funneled into his eyes. They were as enigmatic as they were galvanizing.

Bridges has become an actor who can shine in topical melodramas like "The Contender," historical dramas like "Seabiscuit," and comic-book movies like "Iron Man." He didn't even lose his dignity in "Tron: Legacy," though it didn't tap his talent.

One good reason to stay connected to contemporary movies is to see whatever Bridges will do next.

Photo of Hailee Steinfeld by Jeff Bridges