You’re a Lebowski. I’m a Lebowski. These days, pretty much everybody loves The Big Lebowski. But it wasn’t always the case. Since its initial release and modest reception in 1998, the Coen brothers’ oddball slacker-hero tale has enjoyed modern movie history’s most unusual (yet fairly inevitable) ascent to classic status. Here are 23 facts that might have eluded even the most accomplished Lebowski achievers.
In December of 2014, The Big Lebowski became one of 700 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” films preserved for future generations through the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The 2014 class of 25 films included the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Rosemary’s Baby, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Registry praised the “tale of kidnapping, mistaken identity, and bowling” for its exploration of “alienation, inequality, and class structure via a group of hard-luck, off-beat characters suddenly drawn into each other’s orbits.”
Think about the many things you love about The Big Lebowski: the performances, the musical sequences, the endless onslaught of brilliantly quotable lines, the Jesus. Strangely, the actual plot of the movie is secondary (or fifth-dary) to most people’s enjoyment of the movie. Do you remember what happens to the missing money in the end, or if there even was missing money to begin with? According to Joel Coen, they knew the plot would probably be a bit confounding to most viewers on the first watch, and they also knew that it probably wouldn’t matter. “The plot is sort of secondary to the other things that are sort of going on in the piece,” he said in a DVD extra for the film. “I think that if people get a little confused it’s not necessarily going to get in the way of them enjoying the movie.”
We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude: after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a 2009 interview, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”
In the rare interviews where the Coen brothers have discussed their inspiration for The Big Lebowski, they name-drop noir crime writer Raymond Chandler—in particular, his 1939 novel The Big Sleep. According to Joel Coen, Chandler novels “usually follow the main character as he encounters these different characters on a journey to uncover a mystery, or find a missing person, or whatever it may be in the novel. In this case, that was the model for this story.” But unlike hardboiled The Big Sleep protagonist detective Philip Marlowe, The Dude is dropped in “the most impossible of situations” and is “the person who seemed least equipped to deal with it.”
In true noir fashion, the lead character—in this case, The Dude, of course—is present in every scene in the movie. This includes the scene where Peter Stormare and the rest of the Nihilist crew are ordering pancakes in a diner, where Walter and The Dude’s van can be seen through the diner window in the background.
This may seem obvious to some, but it probably comes as a surprise to others. The title The Big Lebowski is a reference to the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski, and not The Dude. Jeffrey Lebowski is referred to as “the Big Lebowski” many times throughout the script, but in the movie, the only evidence that he’s the “Big Lebowski” comes when the Dude refers to him as such sporadically, just a few times throughout the film.
Most Lebowski diehards know that Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea pops up a few times throughout the movie as one of the ne’er-do-well nihilists trying to shake The Dude down for ransom money (his credited name is “Kieffer,” in case you were wondering). It’s worth noting that gives Flea a not-too-shabby cult classic film resume, considering his appearances in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the last two legs of the Back to the Future trilogy, and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. But they might not know that singer/songwriter Aimee Mann also pops up as a nihilist—indeed, the one who has sacrificed a pinky toe for the cause. Mann would play a major part in another now-classic movie that had a hard go of it at the box office the next year, writing music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.
When it comes to familiar faces from the Coen-verse popping up, The Big Lebowski just might be the ultimate Coen ensemble movie. Major players include John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Jon Polito, John Turturro, and Peter Stormare. Missing, however, is the Coens’ most frequent collaborator: Frances McDormand. McDormand, who has been married to Joel Coen since 1984, has had roles in eight of the Coens’ movies (most recently, 2016’s Hail, Caesar!). In 1997—more than 20 years before she won the Best Actress Oscar for Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (which was promptly stolen, but quickly recovered)—she took home an Oscar for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson in Fargo.
According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide: The Coen Brothers and the Making of the Big Lebowski about his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming commenced. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who,” including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine. The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous (but pitch perfect) veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.
It probably comes as no surprise, but you’re not the only one who loves The Big Lebowski. Actors Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, John Hawkes, Jane Lynch, Martin Starr, Eva Mendes, and Nick Offerman—plus directors Sam Raimi and Richard Kelly—have all name-checked it as one of their “Five Favorite Films” on Rotten Tomatoes. Rapper Talib Kweli is such a massive fan that, in 2013, he hosted a screening of the film at New York City’s IFC Center.
The Coens have repeatedly shot down anything vaguely resembling the idea of writing and directing a sequel, with Joel Coen flatly stating, “I just don’t like sequels.” Still, the rumors persist, and they reached a fever pitch in October of 2014 when unfounded claims that a sequel would start filming in January 2015 started swirling around the internet. However, in 2016, it was reported that John Turturro had begun filming a sort of spinoff that would feature his character from the film, the bowling-ball-licking, smooth-rolling, sex offender Jesus Quintana. It’s hard to believe, but Turturro’s legendary character pops up in just two scenes. Turturro (correctly) thinks the character needs more face time, and has been bothering the Coen brothers to revisit the character for years, or at least give him permission to go ahead and direct some kind of Jesus-centric spin-off. Currently titled Going Places, there is not a lot of information available on the film, though IMDb does note that it’s scheduled for release this year.
Turturro may be giving new life to his Big Lebowski character, but the actor wasn’t immediately enamored of Jesus. “The first time they showed [my scenes] to me, I was really embarrassed,” the actor told The Hollywood Reporter of The Big Lebowski in 2017. “I didn’t even get the movie when it came out. When I saw it, I thought [Jeff Bridges] was great, but it went over my head.” But Jesus ended up being a fan favorite character, and Turturro explained that the new film is “not a spinoff of The Big Lebowski. It’s much more sexual. You find out that he was framed [as a pedophile].”
Turturro isn’t the only one whose opinion of The Big Lebowski softened over time. When you’re a cult classic, initial confusion just comes with the territory. As such, Lebowski—the ultimate cult classic—was hardly met with the near-universal acclaim it receives today when it was released in 1998. Roger Ebert didn’t hate, hate, hate it, giving it three out of four stars upon its initial release, but he didn’t praise it as an all-time great either. It wasn’t until 2010 that Lebowski entered Ebert’s pantheon of “Great Movies” when he awarded it a perfect four out of four stars. Ebert wasn’t the only critic who changed his mind over time. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star initially wrote, “It’s hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo.” But in 2011, he wrote a piece chalking his original poor review up to “festival fatigue,” and saying, “It may just be my favorite Coen Bros. film, and I’m generally a fan of the Coens.”
The Big Lebowski was a total slouch at the box office, making an anemic $5 million over its opening weekend, and barely covering its $15 million budget at the domestic box office. But since its initial release, the movie has been nothing short of a cash cow, selling incredibly well on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray.
There are several Easter eggs throughout The Big Lebowski for fans of the full Coen filmography. Steve Buscemi’s character Donny, who famously can never get a word out without Walter telling him to “shut the f**k up,” is the polar opposite of Buscemi’s character Carl Showalter in Fargo, who chatters nonstop to his near-wordless crime accomplice played by Peter Stormare. One of the only reasons Stormare opens his mouth in Fargo is to mention his desire to find a “pancakes house.” He never ends up getting the chance in Fargo, but his nihilist character orders them in The Big Lebowski. It’s also Coen lore that Buscemi’s dead body has ended up in smaller and smaller parts throughout their filmography, finishing up as a corpse in Miller’s Crossing, a disembodied leg in Fargo, and ashes in The Big Lebowski.
In the film, it’s eventually revealed that Bunny Lebowski, Jeffrey Lebowski’s trophy wife, is named Fawn Knutson, and was born in Moorhead, Minnesota before running away to Los Angeles. But in the script, Bunny’s real name is Fawn Gunderson, and thus shares a surname with Fargo heroine Marge Gunderson, implying a possible relation. Moorhead is also notably a twin city of Fargo, North Dakota, sitting directly across the North Dakota-Minnesota border.
“Do you have to use so many cuss words?” It’s surprising that Lebowski is a film that gained much of its following via post-theater cable television airings, considering “f**k” is uttered 260 times throughout, making it one of the most f-bomb-laden feature films ever made. However, even the edited-for-cable versions have gained something of a cult following for their, shall we say, creative word replacements. One version that aired on Comedy Central famously featured Walter bizarrely screaming, “Do you see what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps?” in place of a much more straightforward profanity.
According to the Coen brothers, The Dude is based in part on Jeff Dowd, a film producer they met while working on their directorial debut, 1984’s Blood Simple. Dowd, who also goes by “The Dude,” was 1/7 of the “Seattle Seven”—seven members of the Seattle Liberation Front that helped organize a 1970 Vietnam War protest at downtown Seattle’s federal courthouse and were charged with “conspiracy to incite a riot” after the protest turned violent. John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak also had a real-life, Hollywood inspiration: writer and director John Milius, who had a hand in the making of Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now, Jaws, and Conan the Barbarian. Milius, who sports glasses, a beard, and a figure similar to Walter’s, claims to be obsessed with the Vietnam War. But unlike Walter, he was never actually able to serve: After attempting to enlist in the 1960s, he was turned down due to his chronic asthma.
In 2014, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann cited the movie in a legal decision on a freedom of speech case. Lehrmann noted that it’s common knowledge that prior restraint, or censorship prior to an expression taking place, has been largely rejected by “the Supreme Court, this Court, Texas courts of appeals, legal treatises, and even popular culture.” A footnote attached quoted Walter Sobchak’s claim that “the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint.”
The Coen brothers’ indications that The Big Lebowski is about little more than oddball characters crossing each other’s paths has led to some interesting and creative analyses regarding what it all really means. Some of the more interesting takes have included Lebowski as a “a parable of Global Capitalism,” a “modern adaptation of Albert Camus’ The Stranger and an illustration of the philosophy of Absurdism,” and even The Dude as “a contemporary Jesus,” with the essay’s author noting, among other things, the similarity in hair styles. Oh, and did we mention Lebowski birthed a religious movement called Dudeism, which “preaches non-preachiness,” “practices as little as possible,” and shares common ground with the laid back ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism? Because it did.
The Dude’s rug is, in many ways, the driving force behind The Big Lebowski from start to finish. The notorious Lebowski rug was such a central part of the film, the Coens even participated in an interview with Floor Covering Weekly while promoting the movie. In a DVD extra, Ethan Coen notes that producer Joel Silver thought the film should end with The Dude getting his rug back, but the Coens never followed through.
From the Sons Of The Pioneers’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” to The Dude’s hallucinatory, vaguely pornographic odyssey set to Kenny Rogers’s “Just Dropped In,” the T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack is one of the many reasons Lebowski is an enduring classic. Former Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein even offered up the rights to the song “Dead Flowers” gratis. Initially, Klein wanted $150,000, but so adored the scene where The Dude talks about hating “the f**kin’ Eagles,” he waived the licensing fee. The Eagles crack apparently ended up causing some friction when Jeff Bridges later ran into Eagles member Glenn Frey. “I can’t remember what he said exactly,” Bridges said, “but my anus tightened a bit.”
Mr. Lebowski’s not-so-humble Beverly Hills dwelling is known as Greystone Mansion in real life, and has popped up in The Muppets, The Prestige, Rush Hour, The Social Network, The Dirty Dozen, and, perhaps most notably, in the music video for Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).”