Jeff Bridges is unquestionably outstanding in Crazy Heart, the Scott Cooper directed movie about a burnt-out cowboy troubadour named Bad Blake that’s up for three Oscar nominations, including a best actor nod for Bridges.
The dude who played the Dude will probably take home the statue on March 7, and deservedly so, though I thought a grieving Colin Firth was equally great in A Single Man. But Bridges’ Bad Blake is the kind of attention grabbing performance that everyone calls “brave,” where the actor proves willing to sacrifice his or her dignity to get at something essential about the human condition.
Halle Berry did it in Monster’s Ball to win in 2002, though she had to roll around naked with Billy Bob Thornton in order to earn her trophy. Mickey Rourke paraded around in spandex last year in The Wrestler - a movie that Crazy Heart has a lot of parallels to - and still he lost out to Sean Penn for the Oscar. In comparison, all Bridges had to do was expose most of his 60 year old bloated carcass as he desperately tried make it to the toilet in time to throw up.
I don’t mean to denigrate Crazy Heart, which I enjoyed immensely, from Bridges’ super-grizzled, show-stopping turn to the T-Bone Burnett produced soundtrack, which includes an a cappella version of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” sung by 79 year old Robert Duvall, as well as choice Louvin Brothers, Lightnin' Hopkins and Waylon Jennings cuts, and essential contributions that might make a star (and maybe an Oscar winner) out of young Texas songwriter Ryan Bingham, who shares a name with the character Oscar nominated George Clooney plays in Up In The Air.
The thing I might have like the best about the movie, though - along with to the beauteously blue New Mexico vistas that Bridges’ beat-up truck goes rambling through – is that it sent me off on a whiskey-soaked country singer movie bender of my own.
Thanks to Netflix and Turner Classic Movies, I went on a little exploratory compare and contrast venture, holding Crazy Heart up to two other movies about hard-earned honky tonkin‘ home truths. And my snow bound viewing got me thinking about how even up-from-the-art-house indie films like Crazy Heart tend towards the pat and sentimental, and how everyone seems to be afraid to make an honest to goodness feel-bad movie anymore.
The two other journeyman country singer movies I watched were Tender Mercies, Bruce Beresford’s 1983 good hearted yarn starring Duvall, who won a best actor Oscar trophy of his own for his role as quietly intense recovering alcoholic Mac Sledge, and Payday, Daryl Duke’s 1973 irredeemable tale starring the young and brilliant Rip Torn as Maury Dann, a rotten son of a bitch midlevel country star who Torn portrays with evil eyed relish.
Tender Mercies and Payday are both nervier than Crazy Heart, each in its own way. Beresford’s movie, from a just-this-side-of-corny script by playwright Horton Foote (which also won an Oscar) begins with Duvall’s Sledge attempting to rebuild his life after he meets a young single mother with a cute towheaded boy, just as Bridges‘ Blake does in Crazy Heart. Tess Harper, in her first movie role, does a convincing, unselfconscious job as Sledge’s second wife.
All of Duvall’s hell-raising is over after the first scene. Tender Mercies dares - and succeeds – to try to hold your attention with a story about a decent man who went terribly wrong and is now slowly trying to make things right. Along the way, he’ll find that no matter what he does, events are still likely to conspire against him: “I don’t trust happiness,“ he says. “I never did, and I never will.“ Its helps a whole lot, of course, that the high Texas plains are beautiful to look at, and that Duvall is riveting as an intensely circumspect, deeply troubled guy trying to keep his demons at bay.
(There’s also a local angle: Glenn Mills, Delaware County-based country-folk songwriter Craig Bickhardt wrote two songs for Tender Mercies, and that’s him singing “You Are What Love Means To Me” as the credits roll.)
Payday is an entirely more nasty and brutish affair, a cult movie that was a commercial failure in its time and unavailable on either VHS or DVD for years. Crazy Heart lit the light bulb for me to finally check it out, and a contemporary assessment seemed all the more appropriate after the now 78 year old Torn - best known for character actor roles in Men In Black and The Larry Sanders Show - got himself a spot of trouble in last month when he walked into a bank with a loaded gun, so inebriated, his lawyer claimed, that the actor thought he was in his own house.
Payday was directed by Daryl Duke, but more importantly - for my money, anyway - it was written by Don Carpenter, the all-but-forgotten hard-boiled American existential master, who died in 1995, and whose brilliant and long out of print novel Hard Rain Falling was reissued last year with a forward by George Pelecanos. (That’ll have to be the subject of a separate post.)
“You only go though life once,” Torn’s Maury Dann says. “You might as well do it in a Cadillac.‘ As he tours the mid-South, he does plenty of bad things in the back seat of his Sedan de Ville, and he doesn't feel bad about any of them.
Fairly emblematic is the scene below where he leaves one longtime mistress on the side of the road and takes off with another one far too naïve to realize what she’s gotten herself into. And like Bridge’s Blake (who has a long lost son) and Duvall’s Sledge (who has a long lost daughter, played by Ellen Barkin), Torn’s Dann makes an effort of sorts to reconnect with a family he’s neglected, by showing up for what he thinks is his son’s birthday either four months late or eight months early.
Payday was a failure at the time of its release. It’s easy to understand why, as it’s got a wicked streak a mile wide, and it takes a cynical world view that’s much more in keeping with the feel bad movies of the 1970s like Network or Straw Dogs that reflected the curdled disillusionment of the Nixon years that followed the idealism of the ‘60s. It’s a black comedy that’s fun to watch, though, because Torn enjoys himself immensely playing an amoral character who’s not the slightest bit interested in redemption.
That brings me back to Crazy Heart, which, as I said, I really liked, even though it was underwritten and sometimes strained credulity, like with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s music journalist mom’s relationship with Bridges, or Colin Ferrell’s well-intentioned but not quite convincing turn as a big-time country star whose past conflicts with Bridges’ character aren’t fully fleshed out.
And the impressiveness of Bridges’ performance carries over to the singing he did himself, just as ably as Duvall did in Tender Mercies and Torn in Payday. (Check out Duvall doing his best Haggard here. ) Stepping into an alt-country genre where unpretty voices abound, Bridges has more than enough presence to get by on expertly turned songs such as “Fallin’ and Flying” and “I Don’t Know” that were co-written by the late Stephen Bruton.
But for all of its grit, and its fair share of harrowing scenes involving the desperate need for a drink, it’s clear from the beginning that Bad Blake will indeed live up to his name, Crazy Heart is going to ride a road to redemption, no matter how bumpy it may turn out along the way.
I haven’t read Thomas Cobb’s Crazy Heart novel, of which the author has said that the dual inspiration for Blake was the singer Hank Thompson and the novelist (and Cobb’s creative writing teacher) Donald Barthelme. My understanding, though, is that in it, Bad Blake comes to a bad end.
The Hollywood version doesn’t have the cojones to go that far. Crazy Heart avoids completely succumbing to the happy ending machine – it’s not as sappy as all that. But if Bridges and Gyllenhaal don’t ride off into the sunset, they do get to bask in luminous Southwestern light with the audience comforted by the knowledge that things are finally going pretty good for Bad Blake.
The ending doesn’t feel unearned – we’ve all been rooting for the soulful big lug to get himself together all movie long. But it’s not nearly so satisfying as the best – or the saddest - of country songs. And compared to Tender Mercies and especially Payday, the movie lets us off easy, as if it knows we've all gone as soft as Bad Blake’s beer belly, and aren't up to facing the cold, hard truth.
Previously: St. Vincent at the FU Church