'The Big Lebowski': The Decade of The Dude

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The rise of The Big Lebowski from bomb to late-blooming cult sensation was gradual. Many of its biggest fans had the same initial reaction as Gene Siskel. "I was indifferent to it [at first]," says Lebowski Fest co-founder Will Russell, 32, who runs a T-shirt shop in Louisville. "It's very convoluted. I think everyone comes to it the same way they come to any other movie – expecting the plot to carry the [film]. What you find is that the plot is ultimately unsatisfying. [The plot] is just the framework they used to build these great characters and this amazing experience." Russell says he's watched Lebowski more than 100 times: "It's just two hours of bliss."

Indeed, as audiences started revisiting Lebowski, momentum began to build. By 2001, movie theaters were showing it at midnight, alongside cult classics like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Lebowski quotes ("Shut the fuck up, Donny!" "Over the line!") became a new form of communication on college campuses. Cable stations began showing the movie regularly (Goodman's line "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass" was changed – rumor has it by the Coens – to the friendlier "This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps"). Record stores started selling Lebowski posters next to the one of Bob Marley smoking a joint, and YouTube started filling up with countless tribute videos – ranging from teenagers re-creating scenes to Fred and Barney from The Flintstones mouthing lines from the Dude and Walter.

Cast members, initially crushed by the movie's poor performance, began seeing evidence of this groundswell about five years ago. "I noticed more and more that the [fans] were younger and younger," Goodman says. "Sometimes they'll throw out a 'Shut the fuck up, Donny.'" Buscemi, who lives in New York, says he'll get Lebowski lines said to him all the time on the street.

Meanwhile, John Turturro – who has a riveting three minutes of screen time as Jesus, the purple-jumpsuit-wearing bowler/sex offender – says autograph-seekers ask him to sign his most famous line, "You don't fuck with the Jesus," constantly. "The tragedy of [Lebowski] is that whoever owned the movie gave away my jumpsuit to a thrift store," Turturro says. "That could have gone for a fortune to charity."

Recently, Turturro has been discussing the possibility of a Lebowski sequel with the Coens, starring Jesus. "We've been talking about it for a while," Turturro says. "Even if they wouldn't do it, they could just write it, and then I'll do it." The story is simple: Jesus gets out of jail and lands a job as a bus driver for a girls' high school volleyball team. "The movie will be about him dealing with his demons," Turturro says. "It will be like a combination of Rocky and The Bad News Bears. At the very least we'd have to have a Dude cameo."

Goodman – who appears to have gained a good 50 pounds since Lebowski was filmed – also hopes to work with the Coen brothers again one day, but he doesn't think the call will come any time soon. "After a while, [my] characters got too similar," he says. "Their names were even similar, so we had to part company. I kind of miss those days. There's a lot of things I'd do differently, but you can't do that. It's against the laws of nature. Time travels on."

If Lebowski ever gets a sequel, it will have a rabid audience among the growing legion of Lebowski Fest conventioneers. It was six years ago when Will Russell and his friend Scott Shuffitt put up fliers around their hometown of Louisville, inviting fans to a Lebowski party at a local bowling alley. "We thought 20 of our friends would show up," Russell says. "It ended up with 150 people – some even from out of state." The Lebowski Fest is now a five-times-a-year event that attracts thousands of "achievers" (the preferred nomenclature of Lebowski fans) who dress up in themed costumes (a Creedence cassette tape, little Larry's homework) while pounding White Russians. Actors with bit parts like Robin Jones (the Ralph's supermarket checkout girl who sells the Dude half-and-half at the start of the movie) regularly attend, but in 2005, pandemonium broke out when Bridges came out onstage at an L.A. Fest and performed "The Man in Me" – the long-forgotten Dylan classic that is basically The Big Lebowski's theme song – with his band. "I came out, and I was playing to a sea of Dudes," says Bridges. "I was laughing my ass off."

It may make Bridges laugh, but it's clear the Dude has struck a generational chord, like Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider or John Belushi in Animal House. "He's sort of a weird role model," says Robertson. "Young people today are pressured to perform and perform so that their grade-point averages will be incredible. And the whole time they're watching society spend away their future and realize their standard of living is going to be much lower than their parents'." That's why younger fans gravitate toward the Dude, Robertson says, "a character who is reasonably smart, though doobie-addled and by anyone's standards a failure, but who is still an incredibly good-hearted person with a sense of loyalty to his friends. At the end of the movie, what you're left with is that [it's OK] if you are a loser so long as you're a good person." Robertson has discussed this theory at Lebowski Fest. Listeners "seemed to tear up at that," he says.

Eating brunch in the Four Seasons-Biltmore Santa Barbara, Bridges contemplates how close the Dude is to his own self. "In the movie, life keeps saying to him, 'Oh, you're pretty mellow, Dude – check this out!' I can relate to that."

I've noticed the line between Bridges and the Dude is pretty blurry. "I think our basic philosophies are the same," he says. Bridges exudes a chilled-out vibe, and he doesn't flinch when a woman appears at our table and, acting like a long-lost friend, congratulates him on the success of Iron Man, in which Bridges plays Obadiah Stane, Iron Man's financier rival.

"I can't remember where I know that woman from," he says as she walks away.

When I ask Bridges how he's different than the Dude, he struggles to find the words. "Maybe the difference between us is... I'm more...is 'ambitious' the right word? Or 'driven'? I can't think of too many ways... Every time I think of a way I'm different, my mind counters it that way and says, 'No, the Dude would do that.' My mind swims when you ask me that question."

A month later, Bridges calls me and confesses he's still thinking about the question. "As an actor, I like to be able to slip in and out of character," he says. "In a way, I'm all my characters, but I was thinking about our last conversation this morning and what Robert Downey does at the end of Iron Man. At that press conference, he's denying who he is in front of the camera, then he turns and says, 'I am Iron Man. . . .' I could look right at the camera and say, 'I am the Dude.'"

This story is from the September 4th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

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