Tim and Jeff: A Love Story

(Although this piece has been revised several times over the past few years — it was originally penned in 1999 — it has retained its original structure and the integrity of its mental and emotional processes. In other words, it’s an honest and accurate reflection of how I came to understand through writing the reasons for my affection for two actors.)

This is not information I generally give out freely. To some women friends, yes — those who will nod their heads in agreement, or at least in understanding. But never to men. It’s difficult to explain. Hell, I don’t even know the reasons yet.

But here goes.

I love Jeff Bridges. I love Tim Robbins. I love them equally, and (my gut tells me) in about the same way. We are a ménage à trios, even if they don’t know it yet.

And it’s nothing like that. Sure, I acknowledge their respective good looks, but they don’t stir my loins. Our threesome is and always will be chaste, and not just because I’d probably be pinned to the ground by burly men if I came within 100 yards of either of them, especially after I’ve written this.

“I love you.” With an intimate, the words don’t need substantiation or rationale. They are understood. But with Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, I find myself fumbling — spitting out stupid justifications. Or withdrawing — trying to pretend I didn’t say it.

The words themselves seem to mean nothing. But I know somehow they aspire to deeper truth. I love you, Tim. I love you, Jeff.

I’ve sorted through any number of possible explanations for these strange emotions in thinking about this little piece of confessional writing. Inevitably, nothing seems to work.

As a culture, we seem to love movie stars for one of two reasons: We want to fuck them, or we want to be them. (And those yearnings can apply to their movie-star lives or the roles they play, further complicating the psychology.)

But I have no interest in fucking Tim Robbins or Jeff Bridges, and I doubt seriously I’d want to be them.

On the latter count, I’m a bit ambivalent. If I could look like Jeff Bridges or Tim Robbins at their ages, I would. If I could have the respect they do, I’d be pretty happy. But I wouldn’t want to be an actor (which seems to come with being one of them) because of intense stage fright, and I don’t know them personally, so I can’t say if I’d be happy with their dispositions, intellectual powers, ethics, or emotional lives. Plus, I don’t want to fuck Susan Sarandon, age difference aside. (And I don’t want to be her, for that matter.)

I move on.

Obsession is often misinterpreted internally as love. So I ask myself: Am I obsessed with either of these men?

Hardly.

Were I obsessed, I would have gone out of my way to see Robbins in Fraternity Vacation. As appealing as the movie sounds, I have thus far resisted. In fact, I’ve only seen 10 movies with Tim.

My record with Jeff is even more pathetic: only 10, methinks, of more than 50, and I didn’t get very far into Wild Bill when I gave up.

That possibility aside, I pause to consider something else. Hovering just below love when it comes to movie stars is intense respect and devotion, bordering on the compulsive need to argue with strangers that Actor X is the greatest thespian ever to appear on film.

I certainly don’t hold Jeff Bridges in that esteem. His acting M.O. seems based largely on pretending to be (or actually being, hell if I know) drunk. He’s generally slurry and surly, with his mouth all screwed up, whether his character has been drinking (Bridges’ monologue to Pinocchio in The Fisher King) or is stone-cold sober (as in Fearless).

Bridges is a very competent actor, but the faintness of that praise is more than obvious. Sometimes he’s great — or is it only perfectly cast? The snotty critic David Thomson — a great writer whose acumen with words masks his glib dismissiveness — writes that Bridges “took big risks as the villain in The Vanishing.” My translation: He stretched, he sucked. Still love ya, babe.

A better case can be made for Robbins, who has showed great range and depth in widely disparate roles. But he has his faults. He went with an obvious, overcooked script in The Shawshank Redemption and ended up dull, likable, and innocent. His dolt savant in The Hudsucker Proxy was cute but uninspired.

And he’s chosen, of course, to direct: Bob Roberts was strong as far as it went, but the target was just too easy, and Dead Man Walking, for all its merits, succeeds more as a political tract than as a film. (And, repeating myself, it was also too easy. The true test of the audience would have been an unrepentant killer. And while we’re on the subject, who could look at Matthew Poncelet’s hair without laughing?)

By way of contrast, I offer Harvey Keitel. He’s a great actor. He’s not afraid to say, “Look at my penis.” (The second of the previous two sentences does not represent a logical progression from the first, of course.) He’s flexible and adept, and he regularly improves upon his material; he makes some not-so-good movies (Bad Lieutenant, in particular) worth watching. And unlike contemporaries De Niro and Pacino, he’s never stayed in one place long enough to be boring. I respect him intensely, and if I weren’t afraid that he’d kick my ass, I’d like to meet him. But I don’t love him.

I go back to the beginning: When does love begin? When do we stop merely liking and cross over into that dangerous state that opens us up to all sorts of pain and suffering?

I think Tim first caught my eye with Robert Altman’s The Player. As the shallow movie-studio executive Griffin Mill, Robbins could have easily been lost among the dozens of cameos, Michael Tolkin’s tight, smart script, and Altman’s referential, winking direction, including the impressive eight-minute tracking shot that opens the film.

And even if Tim doesn’t get trumped by those things, his role threatens to alienate the actor from the audience. He embodies all the terrible traits we’ve come to hate in execs of any sort: He’s a liar; he’s self-centered; he looks down on nearly everybody; he cheats on his girlfriend with an exotic beauty named Good Dog’s Water (or somesuch); and he even kills a lowly writer. Worst of all, he gets away with every bit of it.

Yet the movie works, not just as Altman’s gentle fuck-you to Hollywood but as both a thriller and a human drama. The biggest testament to Robbins’ work comes at the movie’s end, when I found myself happy that Griffin got the woman, kept his job, and saved the day.

How did that happen?

For all Mill’s faults, the script and Robbins give the audience access to his core. The badass is scared — initially that he’ll lose his job, and then, after drowning poor Vincent D’Onofrio, that he’ll be caught. And Mill is unnerved by the lurking creep with big hair, a natural reaction to being stalked by Lyle Lovett (who, in a great moment of self-deprecation, quotes Tod Browning’s Freaks).

The fear is explicit in the script, but Robbins can take sole credit for making a connection with the audience. He is believably afraid. This point of contact is essential if the audience is to have anything beyond a knowing amusement with the film. And past being good at being scared, Robbins balances Mill’s arrogance with his fear. And once we can relate to Griffin, we begin to appreciate his balls (not literally, of course), his resourcefulness, and his — let’s be honest — courage under much pressure.

Robbins must make the audience believe that such a slick, deliberate, and conniving person can lose control, and then regain it — just as we’d like to imagine ourselves doing. He succeeds wonderfully.

But while Tim’s performance is integral to the success of the work as a thriller, The Player is first and foremost a parody of a thriller. Robbins is crucial, but the net effect belongs to the script and direction. This is Altman’s movie, not Tim’s. An admirable performance, but certainly not the basis for my undying love.

I move to Jacob’s Ladder, a film that conflicts me greatly. I feel like I’m cheating on Tim. While my heart is with him, other parts of me are drawn to Elizabeth Peña and her squeaky little giggle and that wonderfully cute Latina accent. And as much as I want to empathize with a man losing his boy, I get more excited than I’d prefer to admit when little Macaulay Culkin gets reamed by a car before he’s able to make Home Alone and its sequels.

But if The Player isn’t my love connection with Tim, it must be this movie.

On first viewing, I liked much of what was going on but didn’t understand it. Jacob’s Ladder begins in Vietnam, when a group of soldiers, apparently, goes crazy. Jacob Singer, played by Robbins, is stabbed in the gut. Then the movie cuts to the future (in terms of Vietnam), with Jacob, a postal worker, living with Elizabeth Peña after leaving his wife. He’s terrorized by creatures with tails, with heads moving at speeds that make their features blur, with horn stumps, with no eyes. Then the movie cuts to a seemingly alternative future (again relative to Vietnam), in which Jacob never left his wife, and dreamed of living with Elizabeth Peña. Then we cut back to Elizabeth Peña “reality,” and finally, back to Vietnam, where Jacob is dead.

The movie, initially, seemed to allow for multiple interpretations. Either Robbins’ Vietnam soldier had died in Vietnam and imagined his future(s), or he had lived one of his futures and imagined his death and the rest. Neither was satisfactory.

On third viewing, it came into focus. I understood, finally, that the movie was a bit like C.S. Lewis’ argument about Jesus: The movie is brilliant, or it sucks; there is no middle ground. (For the uninitiated: Lewis argued that Jesus was either the Messiah or a bad man. If he wasn’t the savior, then his claims and acts made him evil, deceptive, and wrong. He could not be a prophet or simply a good man elevated to a status he did not aspire to.) Nobody, in other words, could back up the argument that the movie is simply okay.

So, that left me with two choices. Either Jacob died in Vietnam, which pretty much renders most of the movie moot, or he didn’t, which leaves the puzzling question of what to make of the ending, in which Jacob looks quite dead in Vietnam. And which interpretation makes the movie brilliant, and which one makes it shit?

I decided that Tim died in Vietnam. (Supplementary materials on the DVD support this interpretation explicitly, with both director Adrian Lyne and writer Bruce Joel Rubin claiming this as the truth.) More viewings finally made that judgment the only possibility. Watching Jacob’s Ladder recently, it seems completely, painfully obvious. (Lyne has never been one for subtlety, and Rubin, the man who brought us Ghost, can’t be accused of working on multiple levels in his writing.)

So, clearly, Jacob is imagining his future. But to what end? His (imagined?) chiropractor Louis provides the answer: “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life — your memories, your attachments.” Jacob’s “demons,” he adds, aren’t torturing him but “freeing your soul.”

Jacob clearly doesn’t want to die, but he’s clearly dying. These last moments or hours of life are therefore consumed with coming to terms with death. Why did the man who stabbed him do it? (Jacob imagines a government plot to give soldiers aggression-enhancing drugs.) How could he accept leaving his wife and kids without their father? (If he would have left them anyway, then it was pretty much the same thing.) What would his life been like had he lived? (Filled with flashbacks and horrors.) The vast majority of the film, then, is Jacob’s elaborate justification for his own premature death. He accepts it only by deciding he would have abandoned his wife and children anyway, that his death is not random but the result of the evil, blood-loving government, and that his life would have been a waste post-‘Nam anyway.

These thoughts and interpretations aren’t new to me. But, in wondering why I love Tim Robbins and Jeff Bridges, their importance hits me. Pretty hard. I flash back to the fall of 1993.

On its opening day, I went to the movie theater to see Peter Weir’s Fearless, with Bridges playing a plane-crash survivor trying to find his place in the world. It ripped my heart out.

I make the connection.

My father died of a heart attack two days before Thanksgiving 1992, on his way from Ohio to pick up my brother and me at college. In the context of his generally good health, there was no warning. Given family history, we probably should have expected it. Of course, we didn’t.

Fearless was a sucker punch, and while I’ve always known why in a general sense, it’s only now that I’m connecting the dots.

Bridges plays Max Klein, a man not far from my father’s age who survives a horrific plane crash and saw his business partner killed. Klein is a hero: He helped many people in the plane make it out alive. He found a missing baby. After the crash, he befriends a boy he saved and helps the grieving, distant Carla understand that she couldn’t have saved her baby when the plane hit.

But Klein isn’t so much alive as “not dead”: He feels like a ghost, and walks through traffic and stands on top of buildings to prove, in an odd contradiction, that he has no fear and that the world can’t kill him. All the while he becomes remote and surly (not to mention slurry) with his family, refuses to help secure a good settlement for his partner’s widow, and is a borderline dickhead.

But when eating a strawberry — the “forbidden fruit,” to which he might or might not still be allergic — he collapses, and re-lives the plane crash in his head. In this vision, Max literally walks toward the light (blunt symbolism duly noted) after the crash.

In the actual crash, the light represented escape from death; now, unconscious, no longer breathing, it is his escape from life. He walks calmly to the brightness, giving in.

His final choice, though, comes when his wife calls to him while trying to revive him. He turns back, in his vision, seemingly shocked that anybody would care he was making his exit. Back in real life, he coughs, and begins breathing. “I’m alive,” he cries.

Fearless is about a man who just happens to survive a great tragedy, and doesn’t seem to be grateful in the least. Only when faced with death a second time — this time with a choice — does life’s preciousness move him, and make him want it back.

Jeff Bridges became my father facing death. But Max Klein lived. He chose to live. Did my father have a choice? Did he prefer to abandon us?

Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder also became my father facing death. He still died, but the prospect ripped him apart, to the point that he imagined a confused, tortured future in which his unfair demise was explained, in which he tied up some loose ends, in which he realized that he had nothing left to offer the world anyway. And once he saw his tormentors as angels instead of demons, he submitted.

He didn’t want to die. He had no choice. But in the moments before death, he tried to understand, to reconcile.

I hope my father had the same opportunity, to die at peace, at least in his own mind.

Fearless and Jacob’s Ladder are the same movie, essentially, or at the least different treatments of the same subject: how a person approaches, understands, and reacts to death. They use similar devices — flashes of the life and death, detached main characters, and a great struggle against natural processes. And in these struggles, I looked for my father. Completely unconsciously, but I see it now.

I feel unburdened. I no longer have to claim that I love two men I’ve never met. And at last I understand why two movies — however imperfect — drew me to them again and again. They simply wanted me to understand their hold on me.

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