5 Things You Might Not Know About The Coens’ Cult Classic ‘The Big Lebowski’

5 Things You Might Not Know About The Coens' Cult Classic 'The Big Lebowski'
5 Things You Might Not Know About The Coens' Cult Classic 'The Big Lebowski'

Aside from perhaps “The Ladykillers” (and even that film features a great Tom Hanks performance, at least), it’s hard to find at least one Coen Brothers movie that doesn’t have passionate supporters that declare it the best thing the directing duo ever made. From debut “Blood Simple” to the recent megahit western “True Grit,” every Coen picture has its advocate (this writer has an unconditional adoration of their 1994 commercial disaster “The Hudsucker Proxy,” for instance). But none of their films are more beloved than “The Big Lebowski.”

Inspired in part by Robert Altman‘s version of Raymond Chandler‘s “The Long Goodbye,” the film is a noir-of-sorts, focusing on The Dude Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a Californian slacker whose life mainly revolves around his bowling team with demented Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman), and the unloved, ignored Donny (Steve Buscemi). But after having his beloved rug pissed on and being beaten up, he becomes embroiled with his namesake, millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), whose trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) has seemingly been kidnapped. 

It’s a torturously complex mystery that can match anything that Chandler ever wrote (not least when the other Lebowski’s daughter, performance artist Maude, gets involved), but as ever with the Coens, it’s less about the destination than the journey, and what an astonishingly funny, quotable, strange journey it is. The film, a disappointment to critics at the time after their more respectable Oscar-winning  “Fargo” a few years earlier, but now a firm cult favorite, was released fifteen years ago today, on March 6th 1998. And as such, it felt like a good time to round up a few things that you might not know about the making and legacy of “The Big Lebowski.” Take a look below. 

1. All the central characters were inspired by real-life figures
While the central roles were generally written for the actors who took them (indeed, the film was penned soon after “Barton Fink,” but was delayed because Jeff Bridges and John Goodman were already committed to “Wild Bill” and “Roseanne” respectively), they were inspired not by the stars, but by real-life figures. Famously, The Dude was partially based on producer Jeff Dowd, who the Coens got to know during the making of their debut, “Blood Simple.” Dowd had been a political activist, part of the so-called Seattle Seven, during the Vietnam War, who did brief jail time for contempt of court in 1970 (a background that the Dude shares). But the plot that the Coens’ hero becomes embroiled in was inspired by someone else: script consultant and Vietnam vet Pete Exline. Exline befriended the pair during the shooting of “Barton Fink,” and as Ethan tells in the book “The Making of The Big Lebowski“: “We were over at Pete’s house, which was…kind of a dump. Uncle Pete was in a bad mood for some reason. So we complimented him on the place, and he told us about how proud he was of this ratty-ass little rug he had in the living room, and how it ‘tied the room together.'” This germ of an idea was added to when Exline told them of how he and his ‘Nam buddy Lewis Abernathy (also a movie industry figure; he’s a friend of James Cameron, who cameoed in “Titanic,” and directed horror sequel “House IV“) had their car stolen, only to find the homework of the kid responsible in it. This fired the brothers up, but they found further inspiration for The Dude’s pal Walter in another Hollywood friend: John Milius, writer of “Apocalypse Now” and director of “Conan The Barbarian.” Ethan explains: “We met John when were in L.A. making ‘Barton Fink.’ He’s a really funny guy, a really good storyteller. He was never actually in the military, although he wears a lot of military paraphenalia. He’s a gun enthusiast and survivalist type. Whenever we saw him, he’d invite us out to his house to look at his guns — although we never took him up on it.” Meanwhile, The Dude’s baby mama, Maude, was inspired both by artist Carolee Schneemann and Yoko Ono.

2. Some of the cast were actually reluctant to make the film, including Jeff Bridges
Ordinarily, the Coens have little problem attracting actors. And given that “The Big Lebowski” was their follow-up to the wildly acclaimed, Oscar-winning “Fargo,” you’d think that they would have no problem locking down a cast. And at a reunion screening in 2011, some of the actors related that they did indeed jump at the opportunity, with Julianne Moore saying, “I loved the language. I read the script, and I thought ‘OK, I know how [my character talks, I can figure this out.'” Meanwhile, John Goodman said it was the most fun he ever had making a film. But Steve Buscemi wasn’t so sure, telling the audience, “I remember thinking that I didn’t want to play this part. I couldn’t figure why anyone would want to be this guy.” And Jeff Bridges apparently was wavering too. John Turturro says that when he first heard about it, “The Coens kept telling me they weren’t sure it was going to happen, they didn’t know if Jeff would do the film.” And Bridges concurred, saying, “I think the brothers will tell you that I was pretty resistant in the beginning – you know, they had to drag me to the party.” But ultimately, he signed on, and like Goodman, had the time of his life (most of the Dude’s wardrobe belonged to Bridges himself), saying “Boy, I’m glad I went to that party, man. And they’re the best. They really know how to do it, getting all the right cooks together in the kitchen, man.”

3. The Dude’s hatred of The Eagles helped the film land a Rolling Stones record for the soundtrack.
As much of a legacy as the film has, it’s almost matched by the film’s soundtrack, which along with “O Brother Where Art Thou,” has to rank as the Coens’ most memorable. Regular collaborator Carter Burwell provided a score (and the hilarious Kraftwerk pastiche “Technopop (Wie Glauben)” for the nihilists), but for the first time, the Coens enlisted music legend T-Bone Burnett to put together a selection of soundtrack cuts to go with the movie (almost all of which are diagetic, at least by the time they’ve played out). The film helped to popularize tracks like “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rodgers & The First Edition, and the relatively obscure Bob Dylan track “The Man In Me,” but one potential stumbling block came with Townes Van Zandt‘s cover of the Rolling Stones‘ “Dead Flowers,” which the filmmakers wanted to use over the closing credits. The publishing rights to the song were held by former Stones manager Allen Klein, who initially demanded $150,000 for the track. But Burnett managed to persuade Klein to watch the film, and when Dude says “I hate the fucking Eagles, man!,” Klein stood up and immediately granted the filmmakers the rights. Still, the line came back to haunt them in other ways: Bridges later said that he was confronted by Eagles frontman Glenn Frey. “He gave me some shit,” Bridges said. “I can’t remember what he said, exactly, but my anus tightened a bit.” Despite Burnett’s crucial contribution, he refused to take a Music Supervisor credit, not liking the idea of having supervised anyone or anything; instead, he’s listed as Music Archivist. 

4. The film hasn’t just spawned a long-running festival, but also a bona-fide religion.
Famously, the cult has grown so large around the movie that it’s now the center of a festival dedicated entirely to the film. Starting off in Louisville, Kentucky in 2002, four years after the film’s release, Lebowski Fest generally involves a bowling night, a screening and a garden party, and has, over the last few years, spread to New York, Las Vegas, Austin, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Boston, London and L.A. (where Bridges himself made an appearance one year, performing his own version of Bob Dylan‘s “The Man In Me”). But the film’s following doesn’t stop there. In 2005, Thailand-based journalist and Lebowski-super fan Oliver Benjamin set up Dudeism, a religion/philosophy/lifestyle inspired by the central character of the movie. Officially called The Church Of The Latter-Day Dude, it’s inspired by the way that The Dude lives his life, mixing elements of Taoism (minus its more metaphysical elements) with Epicurean philosophy. The religion (which might sound like a joke, but is taken seriously by many) includes Epicurus, Laozi, Buddha, Christ (another long-haired bearded guy in sandals, though not jellies, it should be said), Walt Whitman and Mark Twain as among their ancient prophets, and has spawned its very own holy book, The Dude De Ching. So far, the church has ordained 160,000 ministers, and you can do the same and find out more about it on their website. Bridges himself approves. The actor just published a book, “The Dude and the Zen Master,” with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, and at a Q&A, when asked what the Dude himself would thing of the growing church, he said “He’d be flabbergasted. And he would dig it.”

5. John Turturro still hopes that a sequel/spin-off focusing on his character, Jesus Quintana, might come to pass.
For a character who barely gets five minutes of screen time, Jesus Quintana, the aggressive, bowling superstar pederast played by Coen veteran John Turturro, is one of the most memorable in a film positively stuffed with unforgettable figures. And for a few years now, word’s been circling about a possible sequel/spin-off to the movie focusing on the Jesus. Back in 2008, Turturro told ESPN: “We hope to make a sequel. I can’t talk about it, but it comes down to Jesus in the jumpsuit.” Apparently called “100 Minutes of Jesus,” the idea appears to be very much Turturro’s baby, as the Coens said in 2009 that they’re not wildly interested: “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.” But the actor was only a couple of years ago still talking it up, telling the AV Club that he’d written an outline, which the Coens liked. Turturro told the site, “The only reason I wanted to do it was so that people will stop asking me questions about ‘The Big Lebowski.’ Because people are obsessed with the movie and obsessed with that guy.” But he acknowledges the Coens’ lack of interest saying, “They wouldn’t do it. It would have to be something that maybe I’d have to do. Maybe they would help me write it or something.” So for now, the closest we may get to a sequel is probably the Direct TV commercial below that reteams John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, who played Walter and Donny, as the voices of an animated chicken and egg. But there is one other potential Coens sequel that does seem to be a more serious prospect: a “Barton Fink” follow-up called “Old Fink,” which Joel described back in ’09 as “…another 1967 movie [much like ‘A Serious Man‘]. It’s the summer of love and [Fink is] teaching at Berkeley. He ratted on a lot of his friends to the House Un-American Activities committee. We told Turturro this is one sequel we’d actually like to make but not until he was actually old enough to play the part. He’s getting there.”

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