Hasitha Fernando revisits The Big Lebowski at 25…
Now this-a-here story I’m about to unfold revolves around a pair of upstanding American filmmakers and a little movie the duo crafted two decades prior. Over the years, this ‘ere film which goes by the name of The Big Lebowski, has gone on to become something of a cult-classic phenomenon with a massive following of fervent fans.
Aside from the regular fan conventions and annual film festivals centered around it, the endlessly quotable flick has even spawned a pseud-religion, Dudeism, which promulgates the philosophy and laidback lifestyle of the movie’s main character The Dude. But I digress, let’s step back to the year 1994 and the release of The Hudsucker Proxy, the catalyst that inevitably led to the creation of The Big Lebowski.
Following their success in the early 90s with critically acclaimed award-winning dramas like Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, the Coen brothers were looking to step away from their comfort zones and explore other genres of film that would appeal to a broader audience and gain them mainstream acceptance. Hence, the decision to bring to life a script that they, together with Sam Raimi, have been working on ever since the trio met on the set of The Evil Dead.
The Hudsucker Proxy was a family centric, screwball comedy inspired by the comedic works of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. The movie boasted the largest production budget the Coen Brothers have worked with thus far, but with big names like Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh attached to the project the Coens weren’t too worried about the hefty price tag. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned and The Hudsucker Proxy received mixed reviews when it opened and bombed spectacularly at the box-office.
Not to be disheartened the talented pair thought that they’d go back to what they’re familiar with and conjured the script for the brilliant black comedy crime drama Fargo. Shot on a shoe-string budget of $ 7 million the movie went on to gross $60.6 million at the box office. This got the Coen brothers contemplating about how unpredictable audiences are in general; which is what emboldened them to follow up Fargo with an off-kilter, zonked out detective comedy.
“The Big Lebowski is about a character called Jeff Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges, who is an aging pothead living in Los Angeles and he becomes a victim of a case of mistaken identity, just because he happens to have the same name as a millionaire who lives out in Pasadena. By virtue of that, he is thrust into this intrigue surrounding a kidnapping involving the millionaire’s wife,” summarizes writer Ethan Coen.
From the get go, both of them knew they’d need some uniquely colorful characters to populate their idiosyncratic story, and where better to draw inspiration than from real life? The lead character of the Dude was an amalgamation of two individuals personally known to the Coens – Jeff Dowd and Peter Exline. Dowd was a political activist turned film producer who got acquainted with the brothers when they were seeking distributors for their first feature Blood Simple, back in the mid-80s. Dowd had been a member of the Seattle Seven, the inner circle of the Seattle Liberation Front which was a radical anti-Vietnam war movement, and adored his White Russians. The chap was also fondly known as The Dude, among his friends.
Peter Exline, a former Vietnam war veteran, was another individual the Coen’s were inspired from. Introduced to the pair through their DOP of Miller’s Crossing, Exline hit it off with the Coens and shared all kinds of stories with them, including ones involving his writer friend Lewis Abernathy. One story in particular which’ll no doubt sound familiar to fans of The Big Lebowski, involves Abernathy tracking down and confronting an 8th grade kid who stole his car. And like in the movie’s story, Exline’s car was impounded by the LAPD and Abernathy discovered the high-schooler’s homework under the passenger seat.
Apocalypse Now scribe John Milius was the source of inspiration for the gun toting, ‘Nam fixated Walter Sobchak. Milius too possessed an unhealthy obsession for guns and the military like his movie counterpart. Another central character in the story is Maude Lebowski, the eccentric daughter of the reclusive millionaire, played brilliantly by Julianne Moore and even her part was partly based upon two real-life artists, Carolee Schneemann and Yoko Ono. The former had a propensity for ‘working naked in a swing’ like Maude.
Influenced and inspired by this motley crew of utterly weird-as-hell real life characters and their stories, the Coens started to put pen to paper around the time they were shooting Barton Fink. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and author Raymond Chandler’s work in general, certainly influenced the overall structure of the Coen’s effort, “The story itself is very loosely based on the narrative structure of a Chandler novel, in that those novels are very episodic in nature. They follow the main character as he encounters other different characters on his journey to uncover a mystery – find a missing person or whatever it maybe in the novel,” described Joel Coen during a behind-the-scenes interview.
It’s impossible to extricate Jeff Bridges from the Dude, when you watch The Big Lebowski nowadays, but even the man himself was a little confused when he was cast as the perpetually stoned Angelino. During an interview with Variety the prolific actor recounted that particular moment, “The Coens said ‘Jeff we’ve written something for you man!’ I said, ‘Oh, wonder!’ I was a big fan of their, you know, Blood Simple and their early stuff. And then I got the script and I said, ‘Wow, you guys must have been spying on me in some of my, you know, high school days or something. This is, you know, wonderful. It’s nothing like I’ve ever played before, I don’t know why you’ve got me in mind.’ But I’m sure glad they did, because that, it’s a wonderful film. Those guys are masters, they know how to do it.”
And to say that Bridges enjoyed playing the part is something of an understatement. Ethan Coen joyfully recalls the gifted thespian’s commitment to his art, “What Jeff did pretty consistently is at the beginning of the start of every scene he’d walk up to one or the other of us and ask if we figured or not if ‘The Dude burned one on the way over?’ and if we reply in the affirmative Jeff would go to a corner and rub the knuckles over his eyes to turn them red, and did the scene.” In preparation for his role Bridges did meet Dowd but actually drew a lot from his personal experiences back in the sixties and seventies, “I lived in a little place like that and did drugs, although I think I was a little bit more creative than the Dude.”
Both John Goodman and Steve Buscemi had worked with the Coens on multiple projects by that point, so the siblings had already decided which role they were going to play and had written it specifically for them. The situation was different with regard to who would play the Dude, so at one point Mel Gibson was considered before the brothers eventually settled on their ideal candidate – Jeff Bridges. Before David Huddleston was cast as the titular Big Lebowski, a plethora of creatives ranging from the likes of Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, Gore Vidal and Ernest Borgnine were sought. But a majority showed disinterest in the script or were simply unavailable.
British cinematographer Roger Deakins’ long-term collaboration with the Coens began with Barton Fink. This was because their previous go-to DOP Barry Sonnenfeld left to pursue a career in directing. Since then, Deakins has become something of a staple in all their productions meticulously lensing them and garnering innumerable award nominations along the way. For The Big Lebowski the director duo wanted to have a contemporary feel to their story visually, as opposed to something more dramatic. However, the trippy dream sequences required a more stylized approach and that’s where Deakins’ distinctive camera work came into play.
In The Big Lebowski the soundtrack featured in it, as well as its score, played an integral role in complimenting and augmenting the myriad moods and situations the film depicted. American record producer T-Bone Burnett was hired specifically to accomplish this objective. The Coens knew that the movie needed music from disparate genres to make it work hence the soundtrack Burnett assembled artists such as Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Carlos Santana, Yma Sumac, Kenny Rogers, Henry Mancini, ZZ Top and The Gipsy Kings. Quite a heady concoction indeed. And the most interesting detail is that each character was assigned their own unique musical signature. For example, “Lujon” by Henry Mancini was chosen for the shady porno producer Jackie Treehorn and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by Bob Nolan was picked to introduce the omniscient narrator called the Stranger.
With the backing of Polygram and Working Title Films, which had funded the Academy award winning Fargo, production on The Big Lebowski commenced with a modest budget of $15 million and went on for a period of eleven weeks. It received its world premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 1998 before opening in North America on March 6, 1998. It grossed $5.5 million on its opening weekend, and finished its theatrical run with a worldwide gross of $46.7 million.
Though it received favorable reviews at the time of its release, its true impact came into focus only a couple of years after. Midnight screenings of The Big Lebowski popped up in various counties and these became a major attraction to fans of the flick. This mushroomed into an annual fest titled Lebowski Fest, which had its inaugural ceremony at Louisville, Kentucky in 2002 and expanded to several other cities. Even the British have their own Lebowski inspired festival known as The Dude Abides, held in London.
Dudeism or The Church of the Latter-Day Dude was another movement inspired by the lead character’s singular lifestyle and philosopher. As per its website, there are a over 220,000 “Dudeist Priests” that have been ordained from all over the world. The film’s influence has even spread as far as the world of science, with two species of spiders and an extinct Permian conifer genus being named after the titular character and the movie. So as you can see, the legacy of this idiosyncratic cult-classic remains unending.
Chock full of memorable performances, endlessly quotable one liners and absurdist situations galore The Big Lebowski is an extrasensory voyage that never loses its je ne sais quoi, even amidst an ever-changing cinematic landscape dominated by big-budget tentpoles and streaming content. The Dude truly abides and then some.
Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.