Burning Bridges

Salt Lake City Weekly | July 29, 2004
Now that the throne of Greatest Living American Actor is empty—its presumed occupant, Marlon Brando, having recently departed us—I think it’s time for one of those old-school heavyweight punch-offs to claim the crown. I’m just speaking metaphorically, of course: an Olympiad of monologues and short scenes between thespian heavy hitters for the chance to sit at Meryl Streep’s right hand. There’d be a lot of money riding on crafty veterans like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and Robert DeNiro; Johnny Depp or Edward Norton might get some action for being quicker on their toes.

And me … I’d take Jeff Bridges against the field.

At the age of 55, Bridges is no young turk, but he’s rarely spoken of in the same sentence with our acting royalty. This despite the fact that his best performances over the last 15 years stack up against the best work of anybody during that same period: the slumming piano player in The Fabulous Baker Boys; the suicidal DJ in The Fisher King; the blissed-out Dude in The Big Lebowski; the cocky President of the United States in The Contender. And in The Door in the Floor, Bridges proves again that he can jab, move and throw a knockout uppercut with the best of ’em.

Bridges plays Ted Cole, a writer who has made the transition from mediocre novelist to highly-successful author/artist of children’s stories. He’s also something of a prick. The guy who talks about his work with a practiced self-effacement and a waggle of his ink-stained fingers is also an inveterate womanizer who has continued his philandering ways after the tragic death of his two teenage sons, while his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) remains barely functional as mother of their 5-year-old daughter Ruthie (Elle Fanning).

Ted and Marion are in the process of separating when 16-year-old Eddie (Jon Foster), an aspiring writer, arrives at their East Hampton beach home to spend the summer as Ted’s assistant. And it’s here that screenwriter/director Tod Williams—adapting the first chunk of John Irving’s novel A Widow For One Year—gives Bridges the hook on which to build his performance.

The dynamic between the pro and his would-be protégé casts Eddie as the story’s dynamic center, even as Bridges slinks into the skin of a man who demands the upper hand in every situation. When Ted realizes that Eddie and Marion have begun an affair, he doesn’t erupt into jealousy. He simply uses the information as a power tool—for leverage over Marion regarding custody of Ruthie, and to keep Eddie off-balance by off-handedly referring to the details of the position in which Ruthie caught them. Bridges masterfully finds the seductive side of Ted’s powerful personality, even as he reveals a man more vital in his own imagination than he is in reality.

Williams proves pretty vital himself at the always-challenging task of translating Irving to the screen. Very occasionally, he drifts into a high-toned seriousness that would have been unthinkable to Irving. Yet he also gets his hands around the author’s sense of absurdist comedy in a manner completely absent from such disparate failures as The Cider House Rules and Simon Birch—nowhere more successfully than in the frantic aftermath of Ted’s panicked flight from the home of one jilted lover (Mimi Rogers). Basinger’s empty-shell performance as the mourning mother may threaten on numerous occasions to drag The Door in the Floor into pathos, but there’s always a humorous edge lurking in the background.

As smart as Williams may have been in remaining faithful to his source material, his smartest play was grabbing Bridges. In one of the film’s showcase moments, Ted relates to Eddie the circumstances surrounding his sons’ deaths as a distanced narrative, referring to himself in the third person. Williams holds the camera on Bridges, resisting the urge to cut away to Eddie’s reactions too often, keeping the focus on a writer who turns his darkest day into just another piece of storytelling because it’s the one way he can assert control over his own grief.

Most actors would have played that scene with an extra tear, or a grab for sympathy. Bridges simply tells the story, putting the period on another riveting performance instead of reaching for an exclamation point. That’s what separates the best from the rest. Long live the king.

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