Wednesday, March 6, 2013

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."

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