The Dude abides - ‘We believe The Dude represents a practical philosophy of self- betterment’
Twenty years on from the release of 'The Big Lebowski', Patrick Smith looks back on how the box office bomb became a global phenomenon
In 1984, a film distributor and former radical called Jeff Dowd threw a party. Celebrating the forthcoming release of Blood Simple, the trailblazing comedie noire for which Dowd had helped secure distribution, hundreds turned up at a 50s-style bowling alley in Santa Monica where the Rat Pack used to drink.
The film's stars, Frances McDormand and John Getz, were there. As were its first-time directors, Joel and Ethan Coen, with whom something stuck that night. It wasn't just Dowd himself - an imperturbable, sartorially slovenly pothead nicknamed 'The Dude' - it was also the milieu. From these two seemingly disparate worlds, the idea behind their gilt-edged comedy classic The Big Lebowski was first conceived.
Released 14 years later on March 6, 1998, the film tells the LA-based tale of a quixotic, 10-pin-bowling-loving slacker known as The Dude, who's swept up in a maelstrom of mistaken identity, kidnapping and blackmail. "It just seemed interesting to us to thrust [someone like Dowd] into the most confusing situation possible, the person it would seem on the face of it least equipped to deal with it," Ethan said at the time of the film's release.
Back then, neither he nor his brother could have predicted that the film - which flopped on its release - would become the global phenomenon it is today. Worshipped by Hollywood A-listers such as Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen, it has inspired countless internet tributes, academic papers and themed cocktail bars in destinations as far from the US as Iceland. Each year, thousands of costume-clad superfans bowl up at travelling conventions called Lebowski Fest, and the film's even spawned its own religion, Dudeism.
"It's one of the movies people mention most to me," cast member Julianne Moore told Rolling Stone in 2008, while Steve Buscemi, who played the ineffectual Donny, one of The Dude's sidekicks, said: "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."
Far from being mere pastiche, The Big Lebowski is a hilarious cocktail of vaudevillian surrealism and intricate storytelling, with some of the most indelible characters ever seen on screen. Take Moore's maniacal, "strongly vaginal" conceptual artist, or John Turturro's purple jump-suited paedophile-turned-bowling-enthusiast, or Peter Stormare's Teutonic porn-star nihilist. "All the characters are pretty much emblematic of Los Angeles," Ethan once noted.
It's these curious oddballs to which the film owes much of its alchemy, says Will Russell, the founder of Lebowski Fest and co-author of I'm A Lebowski, You're A Lebowski. "They are hilarious," he says. "Also, the soundtrack kicks ass and the movie inexplicably gets better every time I see it and I've seen it well over 100 times."
Meanwhile, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the unctuous personal assistant Brandt, had his own theory. "There's a freedom to The Big Lebowski. The Dude abides, and I think that's something people really yearn for, to be able to live their life like that," he said. "You can see why young people would enjoy that."
The Coens began work on the script around the time of Barton Fink, their Palme d'Or-winning 1991 period piece about a playwright's gradual descent into hell. Besides Dowd, they drew inspiration from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep as well as two other outlandish real-life figures: John Milius, the bombastic right-wing director of Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Peter Exline, a script consultant with whom they'd worked on Blood Simple. Aspects of both men's personalities are present in The Dude's bowling team-mate Walter, a combustible, gung-ho Vietnam veteran played by John Goodman. In fact, Exline's influence extended beyond that character: like The Dude, he owned a Persian rug that, in his words, "really tied the room together".
While Walter and Donny were written expressly with Goodman and Buscemi in mind, the main role was less clear cut - the Coens initially approached Mel Gibson, but when the 119-page script failed to pique his interest, attention turned to Jeff Bridges. Although resistant at first due to concerns that The Dude's penchant for pot would make life difficult for his daughters, Bridges signed up after the Coens visited him at his home. That he was tied up with filming the elegiac 1995 western Wild Bill, however, meant in the meantime they decided to shoot another script, titled Fargo - a daring, snow-capped crime caper that would later receive seven Oscar nominations, winning Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay.
Production for The Big Lebowski eventually began on January 27, 1997, with the Coens working on a budget of $15m. Dowd, who doesn't receive royalties from the film, spent some time on set.
"The way The Dude carries himself, like if you can imagine him at [the pornographer in the film] Jackie Treehorn's place, his arms behind his neck, sitting there, slouching, with a White Russian, that's definitely me," he tells me down the phone in a thick drawl. "I tell it like it is. The style is me, too, though Jeff Bridges did add the jellies [the shoes he wears]."
Close your eyes now and it's impossible to imagine anyone but Bridges donning a dressing gown to play this shambling amateur gumshoe, so gracefully does he capture The Dude's nonchalance. "The only time we ever directed Jeff," recalled Joel in Ronald Bergan's book, The Coen Brothers, "was when he would come over at the beginning of each scene and ask: 'Do you think The Dude burned one on the way over?' I'd reply 'yes' usually, so Jeff would go over in the corner and start rubbing his eyes to get them bloodshot. That was the extent of our direction."
Elsewhere, the cinematography was done by Coen brothers regular - and Oscar winner this week for Blade Runner 2049 - Roger Deakins, who masterfully shot The Dude's Dalí-like dream sequences, while T Bone Burnett was asked to help curate the soundtrack. And what a soundtrack, taking in psychedelia, roots and rock, with tracks by Captain Beefheart, Moondog, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
"Ethan and Joel had already written a lot of the songs into the script, like Bob Dylan's 'The Man In Me' and Kenny Rogers's 'Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)', and they relied on T Bone for other choices," says Carter Burwell, who wrote the film's score.
"The Coens didn't want it to sound like a score, so whatever I was going to contribute should fit in with the feeling of the song score to the film. My job was to tie things together - there were cases where I would basically pick up where the song was leading off and create the conclusion to it, sounding as much like the song as possible.
"For Jon Polito's character, who is a private detective, I wrote a jazz thing that starts almost like a score but then when Jeff Bridges gets to Polito's car, the music squeezes down and becomes something that is coming out of his radio."
Filming The Big Lebowski took 11 weeks, and it opened a year later to mixed reviews and an indifferent box office, grossing $5.5m in its first weekend. "Few movies could equal [Fargo], and this one doesn't - though it is weirdly engaging," wrote Roger Ebert, while The Guardian called it "a bunch of ideas shovelled into a bag and allowed to spill out at random. The film is infuriating, and will win no prizes."
The film has risen steadily to cult-hit status, finding its audience on DVD and Blu-ray. It has also given the world Dudeism. Founded in 2005 by Oliver Benjamin, a travel writer based in Thailand, the religion has nearly half a million ordained Dudeist Priests, and is built, he says, on the same core view as Taoism, Buddhism, early Christianity and many Greek philosophies such as Epicureanism and Stoicism.
Although many of its followers incorporate elements of the movies into their lives - such as bathrobes, sunglasses, White Russians, bowling and tapes of whale sounds - Benjamin says what's more important in Dudeism is not necessarily being The Dude, but embracing his equable approach to life. "We truly believe that The Dude represents a practical philosophy of self-betterment and a force for harmony and peace in a fractured world," he explains. "Of course, that's just, like, our opinion, man."