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

by Oliver Lyttelton
March 6, 2013 1:06 PM
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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. 

The Big Lebowski
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.

The Big Lebowski
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."

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  • CG | April 12, 2014 9:11 PMReply

    The Ladykillers is terrible if only because it's a re-make of a film that needed no re-making and features one the painfully unfunny Wayans clan - probably the worst Coen casting decision of their careers. Intolerable Cruelty is not good exactly, but it's probably a shade better than its reputation. It is eminently forgettable and fly-away slight, but in retrospect actually approaches a reasonable homage to screwball comedies past (neo-screwball?). Hudsucker Proxy is too arch for its own good (maybe even by a long shot), but it most definitely better than the two aforementioned films. It's a strange film, mostly because it's a very straight, period rendition of a kind of movie that was winking at the audience even at its time. The rigidity of its reconstruction is mesmerizing and a showcase for the production talents of the Coens, but this very fact, along with its failure to truly re-interpret/meld genre (unlike, say, Miller Crossing/Lebowski/Blood Simple et al), are also perhaps its biggest failing. While a film like True Grit (also a re-make, of course) played it pretty straight, there was a feeling of the Coens taking their characters and story seriously - it just seemed obvious that they were truly invested in creating another revisionist Western (Another Country is basically one as well). While the milieu of Hudsucker was no doubt close to their hearts, it ultimately reads (despite its many redeemable qualities) as a bit masturbatory... Ultimately The Ladykillers & Intolerable Cruelty are the Coens weakest films because they could have been made by a number of other directors. This is not the case with the rest of their films (save maybe True Grit, though as noted its much better than the other two)... Also, Woo peed on the rug... Also, Dude, Chinamen is not the preferred nomenclature...

  • Spoon | April 5, 2013 11:59 AMReply

    I was inspired by The Dude to make this doormat! It really ties the porch together...

  • Jimbo | March 8, 2013 3:22 AMReply

    I think 'Intolerable Cruelty' is worth reappraisal. To me, it's a super-fluent tribute to the screwball romances of old, by far one of George Clooney's best performances, and he and Zeta-Jones certainly do crackle in the requisite way. The supporting characters are all wonderful Punch-and-Judy-esque caricatures in the best Coens fashion and the plot every bit as deliciously bonkers as the Howard Hawks capers. Geoffrey Rush is also fantastically entertaining in his small role. I love it.

  • JD | March 7, 2013 4:00 PMReply

    I recently revisited all the Coen flms -- and Intolerable Cruelty/The Ladykillers do continue to be the reigning duds. As for Hudsucker, anyone who denies its greatness is simply wrong. Also: there's a new Blu-ray out!

    Another title for the Jesus/Lebowski sequel I've heard thrown around is The Second Coming, which is clearly what it needs to be called.

  • Chandler | March 7, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    Though the film takes its tone from Altman's spin of The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski is actually based on the title and plot of The Big Sleep. It's almost a point by point adaptation. Shame you left this fact out.

  • Martinis are for squares | March 7, 2013 8:45 AMReply

    I thought I was the only fan of Hudsucker. Good to know there's are least one more.

    I had the mailroom supervisor's orientation speech as my desktop picture for a while. It reminded me of my place in the corporate world.

    Oh, yeah. This is about Lebowski. I liked that, too.

  • William KIng | March 6, 2013 11:31 PMReply

    I would have written the ending such that the Strangers final words were..."And I met Walter
    in Nam. He worked as a postal clerk in Sai Gon the entire tour.

  • Bucky | March 6, 2013 11:17 PMReply

    netflix should pick this up now.

  • DeanOdin | March 6, 2013 3:34 PMReply


  • Twkeez | March 8, 2013 9:38 PM

    They have us working in shifts.

  • Overnight Failure | March 6, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    Does no one remember that Jeff Bridges and John Goodman also reunited in the Bob Dylan/Larry Charles movie 'Masked and Anonymous'? ...although they shared little screen time together, it's a little more than providing voices for a Direct TV commercial (the relevance of which makes more sense if you read the article about the reunion).

  • Dave | March 6, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    '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 decades, 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").'

    How can it be the 'last few decades' if it's only been eleven years since the fest started? Also, that's one hell of a long sentence!

  • wes | March 6, 2013 1:52 PMReply

    I support Ladykillers and even Intolerable Cruelty. I don't think they're their best, but I support them nonetheless. However, I am not a fan of Hudsucker. Everything else is pretty much genius.

  • P-DUB | March 6, 2013 3:46 PM

    I think there are a lot more supporters of The Ladykillers than there are Intolerable Cruelty, so I have to disagree with Oliver's opening. I think all of there films have fans but IC certainly has the least. I certainly prefer The Ladykillers. It's a very (VERY) minor work, but Tom Hanks' performance is wonderfully ridiculous and it has some hilarious moments.

    "I want that donut money!!" "You brought yo the waffle hut?!?!?"

  • Greg | March 6, 2013 2:56 PM

    Yes, all of this is correct.

  • Neil | March 6, 2013 1:33 PMReply

    Thanks for using "You Might Not Know" instead of the obnoxious "You Didn't Know"

  • yod | March 6, 2013 10:15 PM

    You're weird.

  • MC | March 6, 2013 1:13 PMReply

    The Nihilists didn't beat him up and piss on his rug at the beginning. It was Mark Pellegrino and "the Chinaman," which is not the preferred nomenclature.

  • RC | March 8, 2013 9:20 AM

    I just want to understand this, sir. Every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city, I have to compensate the owner?

  • CT | March 6, 2013 4:16 PM

    Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature

  • nice_marmot | March 6, 2013 2:30 PM

    Also, like I said, uh, Woo peed on his rug. This is not some guy who built the railroad!

  • nice_marmot | March 6, 2013 2:26 PM

    The chinaman is not the issue here!

  • jacque demolay | March 6, 2013 1:22 PM

    Thanks, MC I was just about to say something about that...

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