James Bridges had shown tremendous talent through the 1960s and into the early 1970s. He had a talent for creating dramatic stories and thrillers. The Arkansas native see the peak of his success in the 1970s and early 1980s.
After his success with his 1973 Academy Award-winning film The Paper Chase, the 37-year-old took a few years off. His next film, which he also wrote and directed, took place in Arkansas. September 30, 1955, starred Richard Thomas and Dennis Quaid as teenagers reacting to the news of James Dean’s death. The 1977 film was perhaps his most personal.
The China Syndrome was one of Bridges’s most dramatic projects. He wrote and directed the story about a cover-up of safety violations and an accident at a fictional California nuclear power plant. The title of the film referred to the idea of a potential reactor core meltdown so severe that it would sink all the way through the Earth to the other side of the world. Jane Fonda played a television reporter covering the story, along with Michael Douglas as her cameraman, and Jack Lemmon as a tormented power plant employee desperate to do the right thing.
The film’s premiere in 1979 happened to coincide with the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, one of the most serious nuclear accidents in American History. The two events completely changed the conversation about the future of nuclear power in the United States, souring public opinion on the nuclear industry. The film earned four Academy Award nominations, including nominations for Fonda and Lemmon and another nomination for the screenplay by Bridges and co-writers Mike Gray and T. S. Cook.
His next film also captured the public imagination but in a very different way. Urban Cowboy starred John Travolta as a refinery worker near Houston and Debra Winger as his wife. The story centered on their complicated relationship, one wrecked by jealousy and infidelity. Bridges directed the film which became one of the most popular films of 1980. Most of the story centered around Gilley’s, a real-life honky-tonk just outside Houston owned by country star Mickey Gilley. Scott Glenn and Barry Corbin also appeared in the film. Bridges co-wrote the film with Aaron Latham after reading a magazine article about Gilley’s.
While The China Syndrome did not even have a soundtrack, Urban Cowboy was the complete opposite. The soundtrack for the film went to the top of the charts and became an instant classic, impacting country music for most of the decade. The film became a pop culture phenomenon. In the process, Mickey Gilley’s club became the most famous honky-tonk in the world until it burned in an alleged arson in 1990.
He directed several other films in the 1980s. Mike’s Murder in 1984 reunited him with Winger; and Perfect in 1985 starred Travolta once again, but neither were very successful. The most notable film of this period, his last directorial effort, was Bright Lights, Big City in 1988, which starred Michael J. Fox as a writer struggling with drug addiction. The film also reunited him with John Houseman in a small role.
In 1990, he was diagnosed with cancer. But he had one more story to tell. He began working with Clint Eastwood on the screenplay White Hunter, Black Heart which starred Eastwood as a hunter in Africa. Though the film was unpopular with audiences, it was generally praised by critics.
His health never recovered. He died at a Los Angeles hospital in 1993 at the age of 57. In 1999, UCLA renamed one of its theaters after Bridges. He was buried in his hometown of Paris, leaving behind many close friends and millions of fans whose lives were impacted by his movies.
Special Note: While the author of this feature has enjoyed many of the works of Mr. Bridges, he is, alas, not related.