The Legend of Jeff Bridges Rides Tall Once Again In “Hell Or High Water”

His role as an aging Texas Ranger earned critical praise in a career that goes all the way back to swimming with his dad in “Seat Hunt.” This memorable role may deliver his 7th Oscar nod, and first for Chris Pine, playing the Robin Hood role

Jeff Bridges as the aging Texas Ranger and Gil Birmingham as his partner

Growing up one of my favorite TV series was “Sea Hunt,” an action adventure show, which starred Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelson, a former U.S. Navy frogman. He was strong, smart, crafty, intuitive and virile.

Much of the show his sturdy, skinny frame was costumed in bathing suits as he wheeled his craft across the water to solve crimes and save the innocent from the guilty. His cabin cruiser was named after mythological Greek heroes who sailed with Jason to find the Golden Fleece. He himself was using the show to make a comeback after being blacklisted for once belonging to a group alleged to have Communist ties. Talk about heroes.

After it was rejected by all three networks at the time, “Sea Hunt” became one of the great success stories of early TV syndication (selling shows station by station instead of as part of a network), and it has been in re-runs ever since.

During the four seasons it was produced (1958-1960), both of Lloyd’s then young sons Beau and Jeff made occasional appearances, and Jeff also later had a role on “The Lloyd Bridges Show,” an anthology series (1962-63).

Young Jeff Bridges on "Seat Hunt" with his dad, Lloyd Bridges, who died in 1998

When I watched Jeff on “Sea Hunt,” he was just that kid (a year younger than me). I knew he was Lloyd Bridge’s real life son. But he didn’t make a strong impression at the time, compared to his father’s character’s exciting adventures.

JEFF BRIDGES IS A TRUE SCREEN LEGEND

I should have paid more attention. In the six decades since Jeff Bridges has far out shadowed his dad’s career, and his brother, although Beau has had a very good career as well. In fact one of my favorite movies they did together, “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”

Jeff has emerged as one of the most important, respected and productive performers of the modern era. He really is a screen legend. He has made it from analog to digital and gotten better with age. He chooses his projects carefully and then creates and crafts characters that are both him and someone else entirely.

That is among the reasons Jeff has the distinction of not only being the acting version of the winner of “Survivor,” but also among the youngest and oldest ever to be Oscar-nominated.

Jeff Bridges discussing acting with the author's wife, actress Jodi Taylor

He got his first nomination at age 22 as Best Supporting Actor for his memorable work in Peter Bogdanovich’s acclaimed black and white 1972 western “The Last Picture Show.”

He was nominated in 2010 at age 60 for Best Actor in “Crazy Heart,” and became the oldest ever to win an Oscar. That movie also brought Bridges the Golden Globe and SAG Award.

CRITICS LOVE “HELL OR HIGH WATER,” WILL OSCAR VOTERS?

He might well be in for honors again for his latest movie - another dusty contemporary western - “Hell Or High Water.” It is a modern day western in which Bridge plays a Texas Ranger who because of age is being forced to retire. He takes on the set off to find two off-center bank robbers, played beautifully by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

It has won critical plaudits, and has an awesome 98 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival last May and was a big hit.

Rotten Tomatoes summed up the critical reaction: “Hell or High Water offers a solidly crafted, well-acted Western heist thriller that eschews mindless gunplay in favor of confident pacing and full-bodied characters.”

Typical is a review that calls it “perfect.”

“’Hell or High Water’ is a lean, efficient modern Western that is so satisfyingly constructed I’m tempted to say it’s just about perfect,” wrote critic Peter Rainer for the Christian Science Monitor. “There’s a special pleasure in watching a movie that knows exactly what it’s after and then, in scene after scene, gets it.”

Independently produced and released in American theaters by the movie division of CBS, it has grossed under $30 million in North American theaters since its Aug. 12 theatrical release. That is OK for an indie but it really will have its most important life in the after-life.

CELEBRATING ONE OF THE BEST INDIE MOVIES THIS YEAR

So I was happy this week to attend a party in west Los Angeles in honor of the Home Entertainment Release of “Hell Or High Water.” These days that doesn’t mean just DVD, but also Pay Per View, pay cable, digital, downloading, streaming and all future platforms. It is a challenging movie to sell internationally because of its uniquely American story and characters.

Cast members mingled with media and friends at the event put on by Lionsgate Home Entertainment and CBS Films at Bludso’s Restaurant.

When I arrived, the center of the buzz in the busy tavern was Jeff Bridges in person. He was trying to say hello to everyone and stopped constantly for pictures and selfies as his publicist raced him away to a waiting limo, hopefully to rest up and find more good scripts for more of his signature pictures.

Chris Pine is sandwiched between the author and Jodi Taylor

CHRIS PINE'S CAREER SOARS BEYOND CAPTAIN KIRK

Some of the other cast was still around. Chris Pine was being congratulated for his performance as one of the two bank-robbing brothers in what some call a modern day Robin Hood role.

Pine’s own growing body of memorable film roles includes playing Captain James T Kirk in two “Star Trek” movies (2009, 2013), the musical “Into The Woods,” “Unstoppable,” “This Means War,” “Rise of the Guardians,” “Horrible Bosses,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” “The Finest Hours” and many more.

When we spoke I asked him if having a dad as an actor had an impact on him. His father Robert had many TV and movie roles, most memorably as Sergeant Joseph Getraer on the TV series “CHiPs” (1977-1983). His mother Gwynne Gilford was an actress but became a psychotherapist.

Chris said being raised by actors was a major influence on his career choice. As he was growing up, show biz was dinner table conversation, and he was able to visit his dad when he was working on a set.

Chris shared some hard times with another family, those who had worked on “Star Trek” with him, after the sudden death in July of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin. The actor who played Chekov in Star Trek (2009) was killed in a bizarre accident in his own driveway when his Jeep Cherokee crushed him because of a faulty gearshift. His death sparked a $5 million class action lawsuit.

Director David Mackenzie with the author

THE WESTERN MOVIES SCOTTISH DIRECTOR

When I met the movie’s director, David Mackenzie, I had to lean in to listen as he spoke in a strong Scottish accent, with a great deal of noise all around us.

In September, The Guardian wrote a profile of the director that said, “Mackenzie’s reputation as the most self-effacing of film-makers appears to be borne out by his quiet, almost tentative, speaking voice (as well as the impressive, face-concealing beard he is currently sporting).”

Mackenzie said when he got the spec script for “Hell or High Water,” it was “love at first sight experience

Although this was his ninth feature, it is only his second in America (and the first was not memorable). He has been a darling on the European festival scene, but this is easily his biggest movie.

Working from a script by Taylor Sheridan, whose credits include the intense drug smuggling thriller “Sicario,” Mackenzie captures not only the scenery and people of the American west, but the mood of the times as well. The film is at heart about the deep economic malaise has left many places closer to ghost towns than vital communities. The plot is about two brothers who take up robbing banks of small amounts to save the family farm from a bank and a world-weary lawman who must track them down as the final act of his long career.

Gil Birmingham found a shared love of music with the star

JEFF BRIDGES CHEMISTRY WITH GIL BIRMINGHAM

One of his fans is Gil Birmingham, the veteran actor who plays Alberto Parker, the junior partner to Jeff Bridge’s Marcus Hamilton. Throughout the movie Hamilton ribs Parker about his Mexican heritage (he is half-Mexican, half-Indian), and Parker gives it right back with insults about Hamilton’s age and past.

Birmingham shared with FilmObsession,com in August the key to his great chemistry with Bridges: “Most of it was on the script but David Mackenzie, amazing director, gave us such latitude and breath and improvisation. I think the connecting wire that really helped us out is from the first day I met Jeff we connected with music. We’ve both been musicians since we were young. We’d bring our guitars and would jam practically everyday. That language of music allowed us greater space of trust and a reading of each other that was very natural to transpose over to the work in front of the camera.”

Margaret Bowman does her stance and glare as the world's bossiest waitress

MARGARET BOWMAN PLAYS ALL 88 KEYS

One of the most delightful and delighted people at the party was actress Margaret Bowman, a spry 88-year-old scene-stealer who plays the bossy waitress in “Hell Or High Water.”

“In the scene, before either of the Rangers can get a word in, “ wrote the Houston Post in August, “Bowman tells them exactly what they're going to order: a T-bone steak, medium rare, with iced tea, and either corn on the cob or green beans.”

“Her line, "What don't you want?" is memorable to the level of meme-worthy. In a story about history, tradition and people's relationships to their land, what could have been a throwaway scene becomes vital to the film's evocation of West Texas.”

Bowman told my wife Jodi Taylor (who is also an actress) and I about how she got into movies. She said after raising six children she began to do theater and seek out movie and TV parts. Her husband told her that her hobby was taking up too much time and she said she told him it was no hobby, this was the rest of her life. She was then in her 50s.

She left home to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, in classes where everyone else was barely of legal drinking age. She went to Nashville to appear in repertory theater, and then back to Houston. She said she tried L.A. for a pilot season but after four months of making rounds and getting no work, she decided she would be better off back in Houston, where she now lives.

For Hell Or High Water she put a scene on film for the producers and director, and went to Albuquerque, New Mexico to meet with the casting director and others. The movie is set in Texas and about Texas but it is actually shot in New Mexico on a very low indie budget reportedly only $12 million.

Critics have singled out Bowman’s scene with Bridges as the funniest in the film, when she tells him what he can order, and what he can do if he doesn’t like it.

Bowman has worked with Clint Eastwood in A Perfect World (1993), Tommy Lee Jones in a 1995 TV movie, the Coen brothers in No Country For Old Men,” and The Lone Ranger feature flop, playing the role of a fat lady (she is not fat).

Bowman can also be seen in the upcoming fifth season of Longmire on Netflix.

In the credits to Hell Or High Water, Bowman’s character is called “T-Bone Waitress,” but she gave her a back-story. To Bowman the characters name was Maisie, and he had moved back to her home town to care for an ailing mother in law and ended up there for the next four decades.

"Everyone has a story," Bowman told the Houston Chronicle. "Nobody's cardboard."

Guests at the party could belly up to the bar for a Jackpot

“Hell Or High Water” is a movie whose tight text, symbolic images, memorable characters and underlying meaning of life in Texas today is a tribute to the power of indie cinema. Jeff Bridges is the living breathing heart of the movie, but life in the America is the context.

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