“Sometimes there’s a man... I won’t say a hero, cos what’s a hero? Sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about The Dude here, The Dude from Los Angeles. Sometimes, there’s a man... well... he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s The Dude. The Dude from Los Angeles,” says The Stranger, Sam Elliott’s laconic cowboy narrator, about Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. The Dude, an ill-kempt hippie burnout, keen bowler, and accidental detective played by Jeff Bridges.
Loosely inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler, ‘The Big Lebowski’ is a 1998 American crime comedy film written, produced, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It follows the afore-mentioned The Dude (“or Duder or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”), who is assaulted and has his rug vandalised as a result of mistaken identity, after which he learns that a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski was the intended victim. The millionaire Lebowski's trophy wife is kidnapped, and he commissions The Dude to deliver the ransom to secure her release, but the plan goes awry when the Dude's friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) schemes to keep the ransom money.
The Dude’s quest leads him to get mixed up with Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), a “strongly vaginal” artist first seen flying naked overhead on a harness; Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a snivelling sycophant; Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), a porn producer whose beachside bacchanals are funded by videos such as 'Logjammin'; and Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a rival bowler and pederast. Also, a band of nihilists, tittering avant-garde artists, the fascist Malibu police chief, and Saddam Hussein (as a bowling-alley clerk).
In the grand tradition of LA noirs like ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘Chinatown’, and ‘The Big Sleep’, The Dude mainly gets knocked around like a pinball until the case gets half-heartedly resolved. The Dude’s sidekick throughout his adventures is John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak, a short-tempered, well-armed Vietnam vet (and practicing Jewish convert) who tends to view everything through the prism of his war experience (“This is not ’Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”).
‘The Big Lebowski’ was written around the same time as ‘Barton Fink’ (with Jeff Bridges specifically in mind as The Dude in one of those roles so instantly iconic that it would be hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off). Joel Coen cited Robert Altman's ‘The Long Goodbye’ as a primary influence on their film, in the sense that ‘The Big Lebowski’ "is just kind of informed by Chandler around the edges." Ethan said, "We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling - like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that's why it had to be set in Los Angeles ... We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes." The use of the Stranger's voiceover also came from Chandler; as Joel remarked, "He is a little bit of an audience substitute. In the movie adaptation of Chandler it's the main character that speaks off-screen, but we didn't want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It's as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain."
The Dude was mostly inspired by Jeff Dowd, an American film producer and political activist the Coen brothers met while they were trying to find distribution for their first feature, ‘Blood Simple’. Dowd had been a member of the Seattle Seven, liked to drink White Russians, and was known as The Dude. The character was also partly based on a friend of the Coen brothers, Peter Exline, a Vietnam War veteran who reportedly lived in a dump of an apartment and was proud of a little rug that "tied the room together". Exline became friends with the Coens and in 1989, told them all kinds of stories from his own life, including ones about his actor-writer friend Lewis Abernathy (one of the inspirations for Walter), a fellow Vietnam vet who later became a private investigator and helped him track down and confront a high school kid who stole his car. As in the film, Exline's car was impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department and Abernathy found an eighth grader's homework under the passenger seat.
When the Coen brothers wanted to make ‘The Big Lebowski’, John Goodman was filming episodes for the Roseanne television program and Jeff Bridges was making the Walter Hill film ‘Wild Bill’. The Coens decided to make ‘Fargo’ in the meantime. According to Ethan, "the movie was conceived as pivoting around that relationship between the Dude and Walter," which sprang from the scenes between Barton Fink and Charlie Meadows in ‘Barton Fink’.
Dudeism, a religion devoted largely to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of the film's main character, was founded in 2005; also known as The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, the organisation has ordained over 220,000 "Dudeist Priests" all over the world via its website.
While the Coens were writing the screenplay, they had Kenny Rogers' 'Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)', the Gipsy Kings' cover of 'Hotel California', and several Creedence Clearwater Revival songs in mind. They asked T-Bone Burnett (who would later work with the Coens on ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’) to pick songs for the soundtrack of the film. He had a tough time securing the rights to Townes Van Zandt's cover of the Rolling Stones' 'Dead Flowers', which plays over the film's closing credits. Former Stones manager Allen Klein owned the rights to the song and wanted US$150,000 for it, far too much for the film’s budget. Burnett convinced Klein to watch an early cut of the film and remembers, "It got to the part where the Dude says, 'I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man!' Klein stands up and says, 'That's it, you can have the song!' That was beautiful."
Released on the heels of the Coens’ thriller ‘Fargo’, at the time their most widely embraced film (in terms of Oscar-worthy prestige, anyway), ‘The Big Lebowski’ was a disappointment at the U.S. box office and received mixed reviews at the time of its release. Over time, however, reviews have become largely positive, and the film has become a cult favorite, noted for its idiosyncratic characters, dream sequences (via cinematographer Roger Deakins), unconventional dialogue, and eclectic soundtrack. The film’s subsequent success on DVD - and the regular midnight screenings and Lebowski-fests that have popped up in the meantime - is a classic example of an impassioned cult resurrecting a film’s tarnished reputation.
Ardent fans of the film call themselves "achievers". An annual festival, Lebowski Fest, began in Louisville, Kentucky, United States in 2002 with 150 fans showing up, and has since expanded to several other cities. The festival's main event each year is a night of unlimited bowling with various contests including costume, trivia, hardest- and farthest-traveled contests. Dudeism, a religion devoted largely to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of the film's main character, was founded in 2005; also known as The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, the organisation has ordained over 220,000 "Dudeist Priests" all over the world via its website. Two species of African spider are named after the film and main character: Anelosimus biglebowski and Anelosimus dude, both described in 2006.
The Coen brothers have stated publicly that they will never make a sequel to ‘The Big Lebowski’. Nevertheless, in August 2016, it was reported that John Turturro would be reprising his role as Jesus Quintana in ‘Going Places’, a spin-off film, based on the 1974 French film of the same name, with Turturro starring, writing, and directing. The Coen brothers, although having granted Turturro the right to use the character, will not be involved, and no other character from ‘The Big Lebowski’ will be featured. The Dude will have to live on in the hearts of his legions of fans, achievers, spiders and Dudeists.