'The Big Lebowski': The Decade of The Dude

How the Coen brothers’ 1998 stoner caper became the most worshipped comedy of its generation

Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges at the Premiere of 'The Big Lebowksi'
Catherine McGann/Getty Images
September 4, 2008

'This whole room is kind of dude-like," Jeff Bridges says. It's a summer afternoon at Bridges' Santa Barbara, California, estate, and the 58-year-old actor is digging around his dusty garage, looking for memorabilia from The Big Lebowski. Artifacts from the movie are strewn about his Spanish-tiled house. In Bridges' recording studio – where he once cut an album with Michael McDonald – sits one of the bowling-pin hats used in the trippy dream sequence with Bridges and co-star Julianne Moore. In his office are the grimy jelly sandals that Bridges' character, a slacker called the Dude, wore for most of the film. When we walk up to the ocean-view bluff where Bridges likes to hike every day, there's the remains of a cocktail in a dirty cup. It's a Black Russian. As far as I can tell, this seems like the biggest difference between Bridges and his most enduring character, who prefers his Russians white.

Now Bridges, a four-time Oscar nominee, is rooting through a giant stack of cardboard boxes in his garage. After a while, he clutches something and pulls it out.

"Ahhh," he says. "Here it is."

It's the Sweater. As in, the beige and brown zigzag cable-knit sweater that the Dude wears through much of Lebowski. For a die-hard fan, it's like seeing Harrison Ford dig out Indiana Jones' fedora.

Bridges sees me smiling and laughs hysterically. "Here, try it on," he says.

"I can't," I say. It would be wrong.

"C'mon," he says.

I put the Sweater on. It's heavy, and way too big. Bridges grabs my cellphone camera. "Move your right shoulder a little bit to the side," he says. "Head up a little bit, perfect, right there."

To think this is all about a strange movie that bombed when it came out in 1998. But in the 10 years since its woeful release, The Big Lebowski – a tangled Desert Storm-era comedic caper directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men) – has become the most beloved movie of its generation. Young comic stars like Seth Rogen (the co-writer and star of the current hit Pineapple Express) and Jonah Hill (Superbad) worship the film. The Internet teems with Lebowski tributes and videos (like "The Mii Lebowski," a homage done entirely using Wii video-game characters), and the film has inspired dozens of academic papers, with titles like "Logjammin' and Gutterballs: Masculinities in The Big Lebowski." Several times a year, thousands of costume-wearing fans flock to conventions called Lebowski Fest. Bridges attended a Southern California Fest a few years ago – "My Beatles moment," he says. To date, The Big Lebowski has made $40 million on DVD – more than twice what it made in theaters – and in September, Universal is releasing a 10th-anniversary limited-edition DVD of the film, which will come (of course) in a bowling-ball case.

"No movie is quoted more often amongst [our] friends," says Jim James, the lead singer of Louisville, Kentucky, band My Morning Jacket, who performed at their hometown Lebowski Fest in costume (James dressed as the Dude). "We often hear stories about how it has changed people's lives."

Why has Lebowski become an early-21st-century phenomenon? The answer may be as complicated as the film's labyrinthine plot, which the Coen brothers loosely based on the L.A.-noir novels of Raymond Chandler. Part of Lebowski mania can surely be attributed to the fact that it's just a very funny premise for a film. Bridges' Dude (real name: Jeffrey Lebowski) is a listless L.A. pothead wiling away the early 1990s playing in a recreational bowling league with friends Walter Sobchak (a mercurial Vietnam vet played by John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (a mild-mannered sidekick played by Steve Buscemi). When a pair of clumsy thugs confuse the Dude with another, wealthier Jeffrey Lebowski – peeing on his prized rug in the process – the Dude is thrown into a screwball escapade that involves a family feud, a gang of nihilists, the avant-garde art world, the SoCal porn scene, lost homework, Tara Reid and a missing toe.

But that's just the start of it. Early in Lebowski, the narrator (a cowboy named the Stranger, played by Sam Elliott) intones, "Sometimes there's a man, who, well, he's the man for his time 'n place." The odd truth is this man – the Dude – may have been a decade ahead of his time. Today, as technology increasingly handcuffs us to schedules and appointments – in the time it takes you to read this, you've missed three e-mails – there's something comforting about a fortysomething character who will blow an evening lying in the bathtub, getting high and listening to an audiotape of whale songs. He's not a 21st-century man. Nor is he Iron Man – and he's certainly not Batman. The Dude doesn't care about a job, a salary, a 401(k), and definitely not an iPhone. The Dude just is, and he's happy.

"There's a freedom to The Big Lebowski," theorizes Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played Brandt, the wealthy Lebowski's obsequious personal assistant. "The Dude abides, and I think that's something people really yearn for, to be able to live their life like that. You can see why young people would enjoy that."

"Lebowski is one of those rare magnets of the universe that has the power to change time and space, to draw people and events together," says James.

"The Dude is like Dirty Harry," says the brash conservative screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry), one of the Coen brothers' inspirations for Goodman's manic vet, Walter Sobchak. "Dirty Harry became a movement. And the Dude became a movement. It's symbolic of a whole way of life."

No one is more surprised by the extended life of Lebowski than the people who made it. When I meet him one afternoon in L.A., Goodman immediately tells me it's his "favorite thing [he's] ever worked on," and he laughs uproariously when I quote him some of Walter's best lines (a favorite: "Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos"). Moore, who played Maude, the estranged artist daughter of the wealthy Jeffrey Lebowski, says it's "one of the movies people mention most to me. I keep saying that one of these days I'm going to go to a Lebowski Fest." Adds Buscemi, who has appeared in nearly 100 films, including a few Oscar winners, "I'll pass three guys on the street, and they may just give me a nod. They don't even have to say a line from the movie. I know what movie they're thinking about."

Bridges, too, says that he never really saw The Big Lebowski's second life coming. An actor's actor, he has played rowdy townies (The Last Picture Show), quiet aliens (Starman), louche piano players (The Fabulous Baker Boys) – but none have had the impact of the Dude. And while some actors have difficulty accepting the indelibility of a well-loved character, that is not the case with Bridges. He is at peace with the Dude. When asked if he would be upset if The Big Lebowski is the movie he's most remembered for, Bridges doesn't hesitate. "No," he says. "Not at all."

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