THE Reunions ISSUE
1989 | THE Fabulous Baker Boys | BY ANTHONY BREZNICAN | PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT TRACHTENBERG
TRUTH IS LIKE a good jazz song: A different version emerges from everyone who performs it. So when you start reminiscing with the stars of The Fabulous Baker Boys 25 years later, a kind of three-part harmony takes shape. Everyone hits a different note, but somehow they’re still in sync. “We get all mixed up. We have different versions,” Jeff Bridges says. “But when we talk, we hash it out.”
Baker Boys, which earned four Oscar nominations, is the only film that teamed Bridges with his brother Beau, costarring as piano-dueling siblings Jack and Frank Baker, who’ve hit hard times on the lounge circuit. Together, they decide that a sexy female singer could bring new vitality to the act, so they hire Michelle Pfeiffer’s streetwise songstress Susie Diamond, whose sultry renditions of “The Look of Love” and “Makin’ Whoopee” not only add spark to the trio but threaten to incinerate it.
In real life, it was the other way around. Rather than come between the Brothers Bridges, Pfeiffer who was nominated for Best Actress for the role remembers being daunted by their fraternal chemistry. “The bond they have is so strong, anyone who is around it has to be envious of it,” says Pfeiffer. “Jeff just tortures Beau and it’s hilarious. They are just on each other all the time in the most loving and dear way. It’s like they’re 12.” That dynamic is still at work today, Pfeiffer says, as the three of them gather in downtown Los Angeles for the EW reunion photo shoot. “It’s never, ever left them,” she says. “In fact, if anything, Jeff has become more boyish over the years.”
Like its stars, The Fabulous Baker Boys has never felt dated, in part because it had a swinging nostalgia vibe even when it was new. Written and directed by Steve Kloves (who went on to adapt the screenplays for Wonder Boys and most of the Harry Potter movies), the 1989 musical dramedy still goes down like a warm glass of Scotch. Jeff’s character, Jack, yearns to do more than play background music for drunks, while Beau’s pragmatic Frank is a family man who prefers to keep things status quo. He begs Jack not to fall for Susie, but…who ever listened to his big brother when it came to a girl?
The three stars never reteamed on the same screen, and in separate conversations it’s hard just to get them on the same page. Who came to the movie when? Jeff thinks he was the first to be cast, but Pfeiffer says she was offered the script by Kloves five years before it got made; she then lost the role briefly before it circled back her way.
Meanwhile, Beau insists that Jeff fought to land him the Frank role. “The studio wanted a sort of [bigger-name] actor, and Jeff said, ‘No, I want my brother to play it.’ He really provided me an opportunity,” Beau says.
Sweet, right? Jeff remembers it differently. He acknowledges suggesting Beau to Kloves, “but I didn’t have to twist Steve’s arm. He kind of dug the idea of Beau doing it too. If it had been another actor, I would have had to figure out ways to demonstrate to the audience that we were brothers. You could put a lot of energy into that,” Jeff says. “With Beau, it was a given. We just relaxed into those characters,’ Sometimes a little too much. For instance, there’s the matter of the fight…
Late in the movie, with tensions and tempers high, Frank and Jack brawl over Susie and the future of their musical collaboration. It’s the culmination of years of strain between the brothers, whose obvious love for each other has started to drown in resentment. “That fight scene, we were so excited about,” Jeff says. “Our dad taught us how to stage-fight.”
Dad, of course, was the late Lloyd Bridges, star of the 1958-61 TV drama Sea Hunt (and later the Airplane! and Hot Shots! spoofs). When they were teenagers, Jeff and Beau used to put their faux fisticuff skills to work by roughhousing in the parking lot of their neighborhood grocery store. When enough onlookers rushed over, they’d stand up, grab guitars out of the back of their pickup truck, and start playing music. It was the perfect way to draw a crowd. “So when we had a chance in The Fabulous Baker Boys to use some of our father’s lessons, Steve let Beau and I choreograph that scene when they fight up against the chain-link fence,” Jeff says.
“We thought two things would happen,” Beau adds. “First of all, the sound would be great crashing into it, but it would also be forgiving. It wouldn’t be like crashing into a brick wall. But…I don’t know if you’ve ever looked closely at aluminum fencing, but it has millions of little barbs.” He laughs.”
“We ended up just trashing our bodies on that thing,” Jeff says. There was another flaw in their plan. “A pretty important flaw we had no safe word.” According to Jeff, much of the fight was improvised, and at one point Jeff’s character, Jack, jumps on top of Frank and bends his fingers backward, threatening to break them so he can’t play piano anymore. With a safe word, Jeff and Beau could both react with screams and wails but stop if the action went too far. “Beau was like, ‘Oww, oww, you’re hurting me! You’re hurrrting me!’” Jeff recalls. “In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s good, Beau! Act your ass off!’”
Except, Dude, Beau saysah, hell, we’ll just let them duke it out…
BEAU “[Groans] I knew Jeff was going to get freaked out, so I told him, ‘I want there to be a stop word, so if I say it, you know you’re hurting me.’ I can’t remember what it was but he ignored it totally. He didn’t stop. It finally finished, and I excused myself and went to the hospital. I thought he’d broken my hand.”
JEFF “[Chuckles] We did have to take him to the hospital. I can’t remember if anything was broken or not. I don’t think I broke anything.”
If anything was shattered in The Fabulous Baker Boys, it was the hearts of moviegoers and critics. “There is a scene in The Fabulous Baker Boys where Michelle Pfeiffer, wearing a slinky red dress, uncurls on top of a piano while singing ‘Makin’ Whoopee,’” Roger Ebert wrote in his review at the time. “The rest of the movie is also worth the price of admission.”
That scene remains the film’s most indelible, even decades later, and it almost didn’t happen. “Michelle tried to talk Kloves out of doing that scene,” Jeff says. “She was like, ‘You want me to get up and dance on the top of the piano? Come on!’”
All true, Pfeiffer says. “I thought the whole notion of standing on top of a piano singing could be really silly and I could potentially make a big fool of myself. I shared that with Steve the day before we were shooting,” she says. “Steve said, ‘Trust me: and I did because I was fairly certain that if I did come off looking foolish, it would end up on the editing floor.”
Susie Diamond knows how to turn herself on for a performance. (In her audition scene, she casually informs the brothers she’s a former escort.) But Pfeiffer says playing provocative has never come easily to her, even though she’s portrayed a litany of screen sirens. “You feel very exposed,” she says. “Those things I approached with probably the most anxiety and trepidation. You have to just step into Susie Diamond’s shoes.”
Even if they could break your ankle. “The piano was like black lacquer,” Pfeiffer says. “I’m in high heels and a velvet dress. Everything is slippery. I’ve got a mic in my hand, and I have to look as graceful as possible.” They shot the scene for six hours, but there was one particular move that terrified her. “Walking down off the piano and stepping down on the keyboard and then down on the bench and not looking down,” Pfeiffer says. “You have to pretend that one wouldn’t look down when walking off a piano. Susie has eyes in the bottom of her chin, or eyes in the bottom of her feet.”
For Pfeiffer, who recorded all her songs and then lip-synched on camera, singing was just as nerve-racking. She hadn’t worked her pipes since Grease 2 seven years earlier. But her interpretations of jazz standards wowed not just fans but her costars. “I was always upset that Michelle’s rendition of ‘More Than You Know,’ Susie’s audition song, is not on the [soundtrack] album,” Jeff says.”I hope they rerelease it someday. I remember betting Michelle a thousand dollars she would be offered a singing contract for an album. I think she was.” She was, Pfeiffer confirms, but she passed. Bridges laughs. “She lost the bet, and I don’t think she ever coughed up the bucks.”
Given how fondly all three feel about the movie, it’s odd that none of them have ever worked together again. The closest they came was when Pfeiffer helped present the Best Actor Oscar to Jeff for another musical drama—2009’s Crazy Heart. “That was a wonderful surprise,” Jeff says. “It would be great to work with her again, she’s so talented.” Jeff and Beau, of course, see each other all the time. “I consider him my best friend as well as my little brother,” Beau says. Jeff says acting together was something they had wanted to do their whole lives. “We always took it for granted that we would,” Jeff says. “I’m sort of surprised we haven’t done it more. But we set the bar kind of high with The Fabulous Baker Boys. That was a cool movie.”
So … how about a sequel? “I would love to see where these three people are,” Pfeiffer says. “It would be fantastic. I don’t know that it’ll ever happen, but yeah, that would be fun” It’s never too late for an encore.