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Rookies guide Oscar-nommed actors

First time's the charm for four thesp-helmer collaborations

Jeff Bridges has worked with the Coen brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Weir and, yes, Barbra Streisand.

All great memories, but Bridges has a special enthusiasm for first-time directors, citing the great time he had working with Michael Cimino on “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (for which Bridges received an Oscar nom) and writer-director Steve Kloves (not to mention his brother, Beau) on “The Fabulous Baker Boys.”

“First-time directors bring a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm,” Bridges says. “You look at Orson Welles. You can’t do much better than ‘Citizen Kane,’ right?”

Given his history, it’s not altogether surprising that Bridges found what he calls a career-best role with a filmmaker making his directorial debut. Playing hard-living country music singer Bad Blake in Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” Bridges has won plenty of critics prizes, along with a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award, and could win his first-ever Oscar.

Bridges is one of four Oscar-nominated actors this year working with first-time directors. Joining him are his “Crazy Heart” co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Firth from “A Single Man” and Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger.” Each acting category boasts a representative, indicative of the kind of banner year it has been for new helmers.

“It’s a nice gathering, isn’t it?” Cooper says. “Probably a case of timing with a few people getting a chance at the same moment. It’s nice to see people making the most of it.”

First-timers have been making the most of it throughout the history of the Oscars, going back to Delbert Mann helming Ernest Borgnine to a lead actor victory in “Marty” in 1955. Broadway director and choreographer Jerome Robbins steered (with Robert Wise) both Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to Oscar wins when he adapted his own “West Side Story” for the screen in 1961.

Later, Robert Redford’s 1980 debut, “Ordinary People,” featured Timothy Hutton’s Oscar-winning supporting turn. James L. Brooks made the leap from television to film with “Terms of Endearment” in 1983, scoring Oscars for Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson in the process.

Two others to note: Jim Sheridan directed Daniel Day-Lewis to a lead actor win for “My Left Foot” in 1989 and, a decade later, Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” gave Kevin Spacey the lead actor Oscar.

This year’s group of newcomers scored with strong, personal storytelling. Cooper’s parents exposed him to country and bluegrass music from a young age, instilling a strong love for the songs and people who sang them. “Single Man” co-writer-director Tom Ford felt a deep connection to the main character in Christopher Isherwood’s source novel, leading him to finance the $7 million movie himself when his investors backed out.

And Oren Moverman used his own experience in the Israeli military to understand the emotional complexities that combat soldiers face in “The Messenger.”

“We always knew the movie was going to be about the performances,” says Moverman, who, along with co-writer Alessandro Camon, received an Oscar nomination for the film’s original screenplay. “The characters were the heart of the movie, and it’s very satisfying as a first-time director to see Woody recognized for his work.”

That recognition from voters also helps filmmakers when it comes time to follow up their debuts. Cooper says no studio would touch “Crazy Heart,” but now he’s getting numerous offers to direct existing scripts, having proved he knows how to deliver great work from actors.

“I’m finding myself in a position that’s very foreign to me,” says Cooper, 39, who worked as an actor before writing “Crazy Heart” and continues to flex his acting muscles. “The movie is a great calling card. Now I have the chance to develop some more personal stories to direct.”

Adds Courtney Hunt, who directed Oscar-nominated Melissa Leo last year in “Frozen River”: “I think Melissa’s nomination sent the word that I don’t care how famous you are, all that matters is the excavation and collaboration that gets to the truth of the character.”

Of course, words like that are music to actors’ ears.

“Scott only had something like 24 days to shoot,” Bridges says of his “Crazy Heart” director, “but what’s fascinating to me is that I never felt rushed. I never felt like I couldn’t give an idea or have another take. You can imagine, you have 24 days and somebody comes up, ‘Hey, I have an idea.’ How frustrating. Most directors would nod and move on. But Scott was always eager to find another way. That’s what I’m saying about these first-time guys. They’re open, man. And that’s what you want.”