Who else but Jeff Bridges could convince a theater full of drunk (and stoned) movie fans that now was the perfect time for a little spontaneous inward meditation?
A very special edition of Lebowski Fest descended on Manhattan Tuesday evening – a hotly anticipated red-carpet reunion of the key Big Lebowski cast members staged at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom and livestreamed across the Internet, all in honor of the new Big Lebowski Limited Edition Blu-ray. But it’s a safe bet that those who were tuning in via computer screen experienced something quite different from those who made the trek to midtown, traversing midtown dressed as The Dude.
Just about anyone wandering New York’s 34th Street would have seen the party already in full swing curbside – the Jeffrey Lebowski and Walter Sobchak impersonators who lined up outside the venue, wrapping around a full city block. Many passed the time by swapping their favorite lines from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult comedy, always in search of subtler, smarter, more obscure references. These were clearly the most devout of the Dude diocese – the ones who had traveled hours for the chance to see their favorite bowling trio back in action.
(PHOTOS: The High Art of Stoner Cinema)
Yet what quickly became apparent once the sextet of stars took the stage (from left to right: T-Bone Burnett, John Turturro, Julianne Moore, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi) was that this party really wasn’t about them. Slowly but surely, the gathered Lebowski fans started something of a revolt, as they continuously chipped away at the formality of the on-stage discussion. Over the course of an hour, great fans gradually asserted themselves as rude guests.
Which isn’t to say that there was not adulation to spare. The first two stars introduced to the house were T-Bone Burnett (the film’s music archivist) and John Turturro, and the cheers that erupted from the Hammerstein floor quite obviously took Turturro by surprise. Here was a crowd that loved The Jesus, that could probably recite each and every line of Turturro’s role in the film, that had been waiting hours to let the star know just how much they appreciated his over-the-top antics. That reception paled, though, in comparison to the avalanche of shrieks that accompanied John Goodman, and the reverence with which thousands chanted “Duuuuuuude” as Jeff Bridges took the stage.
Still, it proved ironic that by the time any of the stars actually started talking, the night was already on the decline. Moderator Clark Collis of Entertainment Weekly, a self-proclaimed Lebowski fanatic, came prepared with a nice balance of questions – some backstage inquiries, designed to stoke playful anecdotes, and a few conceptual jabs, aimed at reviving the film’s characters and storyline.
Buscemi broke the ice by recalling his initial reaction after reading the part of Donny, Lebowski’s lovable loser: “I don’t want to play this part!” he remembered thinking, after processing the film’s earliest (and most abusive) scenes. But by script’s end, Buscemi said, he realized that Walter and Donny were akin to Skipper and Gilligan. Turturro recalled reading his minor role, as a maniacal pedophile bowler: “I read it and thought: ‘It’s very small,’ but they said: ‘Yeah, but you can do something with it.’”
(LIST: Top 10 Quotable Movies)
Bridges paid tribute to the creative vibe Joel and Ethan Coen brought to the set. Recalling not only his time on Lebowski, but also his turn in True Grit, Bridges said the Coens embrace a hands-off approach, encouraging the actors to bounce off one another. Such improvisation and chemistry was key to the Dude-Walter-Donny scenes that punctuate Lebowski’s kidnapping subplot.
Collis gradually convinced the actors to put themselves back in the mindsets of their Lebowski characters, to consider where this motley crew would be today. Goodman scored a zinger, when he brainstormed the future for shell-shocked war veteran Walter: “He tried to join the French Foreign Legion but they made him work on Shabbos…now he raises pigeons.” Moore, after a long pause during which the audience urgently reminded her that Maude was pregnant, said that of course she would be raising her child. He would now probably be at boarding school. Turturro sold the punchline when he said his reformed pedophile would now probably be a school bus driver. As for The Dude, Bridges pondered: “He’s giving massages. He’s become a masseuse… and he really enjoys that.”
Buscemi, of course, couldn’t participate in the question – his character died at the end of the first film. “I couldn’t believe Donny died!” Buscemi said, prompting some of his co-stars to run through a popular theory among Lebowski fans who believe Donny does not, in fact, exist; he is merely a figment of Walter’s imagination.
(LIST: Top 10 Movie Sidekicks)
That sort of fanatical devotion among fans to the source material was evident throughout Tuesday’s Lebowski Fest. As the questions dragged into the second half hour, with the stars recalling moments when rabid Lebowski fans caught up with them on the street – at first proudly boasting that they had seen the film a handful of times but now citing dozens, if not hundreds, of viewings – the audience started to revolt. There were times Tuesday when so many White Russian-guzzling fans were screaming from the rafters (“get a job sir!” “way to go Donny!” “You’re out of your element!”) that I could not hear the words being said by the VIPs on the stage.
After 15 minutes of persistent interruptions, that’s when Bridges interrupted Collis and tried to calm the crowd by informing them that the stars couldn’t actually hear all the snippets of dialogue being shouted from all corners of the venue. Instead, he tried to calm the euphoria, asking the crowd to follow him in a meditative hum. The Achievers obliged, and for a moment all came to a halt. Then a woman screamed from the middle of the orchestra: “It really tied the room together!” Lebowski Fest erupted back into applause – and shouts.
Indeed, by the end of the hour-long discussion, it became clear that a good number of fans would have been perfectly happy if the whole Q&A had been excised entirely – if they could have given the actors a standing ovation, and then dimmed the lights, all watching the movie together. There was little interest here of listening to actors wax philosophical or nostalgic; fewer fans applauded John Turturro’s idea for a sequel, or Jeff Bridges’ interest in a prequel, than John Goodman’s outright rejection of the concept. “It’ll never happen,” he said, and these Lebowski fans seemed just fine with that.
(LIST: Top 10 Offbeat Fan Followings)
After attending other events like this – the marketing-saturated Comic-Con, the insular Star Trek conventions – what I loved most about Lebowski Fest was the purity of the crowd’s passion. All they wanted Tuesday night was to share their favorite lines of dialogue, to perfect their impressions, to chalk up another viewing with those who know the dialogue so well they can laugh before each and every punch line. The Lebowski community has taken this film and made it their own, embracing and absorbing a work in ways that most filmmakers can only dream about. And as a first-time attendee, I found it fascinating to witness the balance of power shift during the gala Q&A; Lebowski may have started with Bridges in a robe, but now it lives on in all the variations of The Dude that circled 34th Street.
The livestream told one story, but the view from inside the theater told another: Fans might have initially showed up to see a red carpet, but really they stayed to hang out near the bar, with all the other smiling Dudes who were kicking back the vodka, reminiscing about their favorite film and sneaking occasionally to the periphery to light a joint. Forget the fact that the Dude would never have paid this kind of money for a drink.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Movies