How the Coen brothers’ 1998 stoner caper became the most worshipped comedy of its generation
'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."
When Joel and Ethan Coen began writing The Big Lebowski, they were at a low point in their careers. After starting with a pair of hits, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the Minneapolis-suburb-raised brothers had churned out a string of critically worshipped box-office disasters: Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy. Reeling from Hudsucker (a big-industry spoof that cost $25 million and made less than $3 million back), the Coens began work on two separate scripts. The first was Lebowski. The second was a much darker film about a desperate car salesman who hires two thugs to kidnap his wife. Called Fargo, the film became a touchstone of the mid-1990s independent-film explosion – and it made money. It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay, with the Coens sharing the latter award.
But the wild success of Fargo left the Coens confused. "If a movie like Fargo succeeds, then clearly nothing makes much sense," Ethan said at the time. "You might as well make whatever kind of movie you want and hope for the best." Taking that to heart, they returned to finish The Big Lebowski, a film that had been in the back of their minds for years. To form the plot, they drew inspiration from Chandler as well as from the real-life exploits of their eccentric L.A. friends. "A couple of the characters in The Big Lebowski are, very loosely, inspired by real people," Ethan said in 1998. "We know a guy who's a middle-aged hippie pothead, and another who's a Vietnam vet who's totally defined by, and obsessed with, the time he spent in Vietnam. We find it interesting for our characters to be products of the Sixties in some way, but set in the Nineties." (The Coens – as is their frequent position regarding Lebowski in recent years – declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Besides Milius, the main inspiration for Lebowski's Vietnam vet was Peter Exline, a script doctor the Coens met while making Blood Simple, whom they called "Uncle Pete, the philosopher king of Hollywood." A thin, gray-haired man who bears a faint resemblance to Beatles producer George Martin, Exline, with his outsize personality and his lifetime of insane stories, formed the backbone of the film. "At one point, I couldn't go 10 minutes without mentioning Vietnam," admits Exline. He also played in a Hollywood softball league in the mid-1980s – Exline recalls an angry Tony Danza once walking off the field during a game – which the Coens used as fodder for Lebowski's wild bowling league.
Then there's the rug. The famous Lebowski rug has its origins from a party at Exline's house in the late 1980s, which the Coens attended. Exline had just laid down a fake Persian rug in his living room, picked up from neighbors who had moved out. "As I'm barbecuing, every 15 minutes or so I'd look down and say, 'Doesn't this rug tie the room together?'" Exline says. "I keep milking this joke, and everyone's really laughing."
At the same party, Exline says, he told the Coens and his guests a bizarre story about the time his Mazda was stolen and wound up in an impound lot. Inside the recovered car, Exline found a kid's math homework assignment, which led Exline and his friend and fellow vet Lew Abernathy to the home of a 14-year-old kid named Jaik Freeman. "We sit down, and Lew got out the homework. He's walking around the living room like Perry Mason. He sticks it in Jaik's face and goes, 'We know you stole the car, Jaik.'" The homework incident, too, was written into The Big Lebowski.
"I remember when Pete told us that [homework] story and thinking there was something quintessentially L.A. about it," Joel Coen once said. "But L.A. in a very Chandler-ian way."
Chandler, of course, famously wrote about a gritty nighttime L.A. in which his protagonist, detective Philip Marlowe, encounters a series of increasingly weird characters the closer he gets to solving a crime. The Coens drew inspiration from classic Chandler novels such as The Big Sleep, which features a wheelchair-bound millionaire, a beautiful wild child, pornographers and an angry heiress who attempts to seduce the hero. The Lebowski plot also mirrors Farewell, My Lovely, in which Marlowe is a passenger in a ridiculously complicated plot, and is beaten up and knocked unconscious throughout the story.
The Coens decided the central premise of Lebowski would be the replacing of the canny Marlowe with a person almost incapable of solving a caper. Their thoughts immediately turned to Jeff "the Dude" Dowd, a former 1960s activist (and member of the Seattle 7) who helped them find distribution for their first film, Blood Simple. A bear of a man with an unbelievable penchant for talking (during the course of a two-hour phone interview, I managed to ask about three questions), Dowd spent many of his post-activist years in the mid-1970s carousing in the Seattle bar scene, waiting for the heat on his troublemaking past to die down. "Yes, we drank White Russians," Dowd confirms. "They took that period of the Dude, froze him in time and moved him up to 1991. On a fundamental level, Jeff Bridges got my body language down entirely . . . the semi-mumbling talking, going off on tangents and stuff like that. I'm an easy mimic. Redford used to do one of me at Sundance when it first started."
When they wrote the script, the Coens didn't have any particular actor in mind for the Dude. But one name came up early: Mel Gibson, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Ethan and Joel ran the possibility past Ethan's old college buddy Bill Robertson, who would go on to write a book called "The Big Lebowski": The Making of a Coen Brothers Film. "I told them, 'Maybe it's time for you to grow up, get the star and be done with it,'" Robertson says. But Gibson didn't take the pitch too seriously, and the Coens moved on with their Dude search, inviting Jeff Bridges to a meeting at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica.
There, Ethan laid out the story of Lebowski and described the character of the Dude as someone who just lounges around all day, hangs out with his buddies and smokes weed.
A light went on above Bridges' head. "I'm one of those guys," he said.
Filming of Lebowski began on January 27th, 1997, and lasted three months. As on all of their movies before 2004's The Ladykillers, Joel got sole directing credit and Ethan was listed as the producer. In actuality, both men split the duties right down the center. "It was unheard of back then," says Universal executive Rick Finkelstein, who worked on Lebowski. "We had to get a waiver from the Directors Guild in order to do that, because they have a rule against it." Goodman, who also starred in Barton Fink and Raising Arizona, remains fascinated by the brothers' unique relationship. "They share a uni-mind," he says.
Bridges can recall seeing the duo argue only once on the set. "It was while filming the dream sequence and my head was going to hit the bowling pins," he says. "Joel said, 'When you hit the pins, kind of grimace because it's going to hurt.' Ethan replied, 'Really? I always thought he would kind of smile when he hits the pins.' I'm looking back and forth like, 'Oh, no, here it comes.' Finally, they just said, 'Aw, let's just shoot it both ways and deal with it in the editors' room.'" (Ethan ultimately won.)
Curiously, Bridges had vowed to abstain from smoking weed until the movie was in the can. "I wanted to have a clear head," he tells me. Bridges says he only occasionally smokes now: "Usually around Christmastime is when the harvest comes in, and somebody will say, 'Hey! Look what I got!'"
Anyone who's worked on a Coens set marvels at the attention to detail. Every camera angle is drawn out on a storyboard months before filming begins, first in extremely crude thumbnail sketches Ethan creates and later in more fleshed-out drawings by the Coens' longtime storyboard artist, J. Todd Anderson. Looking at them now, you see that a sketch of a relatively insignificant shot – like a close-up of Jesus, a rival bowler and sex offender, ringing the doorbell as he goes door-to-door telling his neighbors about his criminal history – matches the finished scene with perfect precision. "The Coens are the most fiscally responsible filmmakers that I've come across," says Finkelstein. "Whatever they tell you, you know you can take it to the bank. They're so precise in their vision and execution that it's just astounding."
The Coens are also willing to make less money on a movie if it means they have more control. When Bridges got his initial offer for the $15 million Lebowski, he was shocked. "It was a split between John [Goodman], me and the Coen brothers," he says. "I got the initial offer, and I said, 'Jesus, this is the best you guys can do? You won the Academy Award, and this is the kind of offer you're making me, man? Come on, we can do better than that.' And they said, 'No, we really don't want to make it any bigger deal than this, because we want the financiers to be beholden to us. We don't want to be beholden to them.' They were getting a great deal having these Academy Award winners for very little. Therefore, the atmosphere on the set was so relaxed, no pressure."
As for the script, the cast of The Big Lebowski still talk about it as if it were a holy document passed down from the heavens, with no room for deviation. Consider the line the Coens wrote for the Dude to say to the wealthy Lebowski in the back of a limousine:
"I – the royal we, you know, the editorial – I dropped off the money, exactly as per – look, I've got certain information, certain things have come to light, and uh,"
"[I did] my best to follow this script, word, by ellipses, by 'fuck,' by 'man,' every little thing," Bridges says. "I tried to put an extra 'man' in or an extra 'fuck,' or a pause or something, and it didn't feel as right. It felt undone. It was just written so perfectly." (Goodman remembers the only nonscripted lines to hit the screen come at the very end, when the Dude calls the wealthy Lebowski a "human paraquat.")
"Everything in the script has intention to the point that it's rhythmic," Moore says. "I remember Ethan just coming up and giving a direction where he asked me to remove [a word]. Those are the kind of directions they would give because they have that much specificity."
When The Big Lebowski hit theaters on March 6th, 1998, critical reaction was mixed. Most declared it an overindulgent, too-quirky departure from the comparatively sparse Fargo; a few found it hilarious. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's argument over the movie perfectly encapsulated the debate. Ebert: "Few movies could equal [Fargo], and this one doesn't – though it is weirdly engaging." Siskel was much harsher. "I just think that the humor is uninspired," he said. "Isn't kidnapping for ransom a tired plot these days? Kingpin was a much funnier movie set in the world of bowling. The Jeff Bridges character wasn't worth my time. There's no heart to him. The Big Lebowski? A big disappointment."
At the box office, America was still in the midst of Titanic mania. That March weekend, the three-hour James Cameron epic would win its 12th straight weekend box-office battle with a $17.6 million haul. The Big Lebowski opened in sixth place that weekend with a tepid $5.5 million, placing it just $300,000 above Good Will Hunting, which had come out three and a half months earlier. The shine of Fargo was all but forgotten: The Coens were back to making overpriced disasters.
"I thought it was hysterical, and I thought that Jeff and John were geniuses and they both deserved Academy Awards," says Moore. "Nobody saw it, and I was like, 'What?!'"
"After this incredibly controlled minimalist gem that Fargo was perceived to be, The Big Lebowski was like this Tourette's outburst in the limo on the way home from the Academy Awards," says Robertson. He gives another analogy: "It's like they were opera stars who sang a perfect aria – and farted as they walked offstage."
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.'"