Maybe Bridges absorbed some aspect of this uncertainty, let it grow inside him into a kind of stance against his times. He made a startling number of westerns and neo-westerns in the Seventies, a decade when the western was supposed to be dead — from Robert Benton’s Bad Company (1972), about young, draft-dodging thieves during the Civil War, to Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), about an impressionable Depression-era youth who sets off to find the frontier and instead becomes a cowboy movie stuntman, to Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe (1975), about a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers. (Even when the films aren’t westerns, they borrow from the idiom: The Last Picture Show lives in the shadow of the genre and the myth of a dying frontier. So does Hell or High Water. Ranger Hamilton is a throwback, but he’s a throwback to something that never really existed. Near the end, we see him come home, and we notice that he doesn’t live in a tent, nor in a room above a saloon, nor on a ranch. Instead, he has a nice, modern house in town, filled with modern conveniences and a big-screen TV.)
Yet Bridges was never really a typical western actor. For most of his career, he had none of the gruffness or stoic, wounded terseness of an archetypal cowboy hero. In fact, he was the opposite. He was chummy, light on his feet, even naïve — part surfer, part tenderfoot. In those early roles, he’s something of a foil for western heroes: In Hearts of the West, he plays opposite Andy Griffith; in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), he co-stars with Clint Eastwood, who is everything Jeff Bridges is not. His presence is an almost modernizing one, as a bright-eyed but self-aware kid who can see that the world around him is disappearing. A lot of these films end with his character defeated but spiritually intact. Even death passes over Jeff Bridges gently.
I haven’t seen a lot of these films. But I have seen the somewhat bizarre and fascinating utter failure that is the 1979 Winter Kills. In this film, Bridges plays the brother of an assassinated president (a thinly veiled JFK figure of course) who tries to find the real killer. This film includes John Huston as his blue-speaking vile father (awesome), Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milan, and Toshiro Mifune playing Huston’s Japanese servant. And I have to tell you, Toshiro Mifune should play no man’s servant. It’s a disaster of a movie with an out of control cast and like so many mediocre films of the 70s, is certainly interesting.