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Twenty five years ago, The Big Lebowski blew into theaters like a tumbleweed on an empty street.
Domestic audiences barely showed up, with the comedic detective tale only earning $18 million. Audiences gave it a B CinemaScore. Critics sniffed that it wasn’t as good as Joel and Ethan Coen’s last release, the Oscar-winning Fargo.
But that was just, like, their opinion, man.
“I thought it was going to be a big hit,” star Jeff Bridges tells THR, along with sharing some of his personal behind-the-scenes photos from the film’s set, many of which appeared in his 2003 book, Pictures. “I was surprised when it didn’t get much recognition. People didn’t get it, or something.”
Coming near the end of the indie cinema wave, Lebowski stood out among the decade’s quirky, quippy crime dramas with a detective tale that upended all the L.A. noir tropes. Its tangled mystery — loosely inspired by Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep — didn’t much matter. Its shaggy stoner hero, Bridges’ “The Dude,” was mainly focused on getting his rug back. When characters drew weapons, they were intentionally made to look ridiculous instead of Tarantino-cool.
“There was something attractive about having the main character not be a private eye, but just some pothead intuitively figuring out the ins and outs of an elaborate intrigue,” Ethan Coen once said.
When he first read the script, Bridges recalls his surprise at how well he related to the character. “My first impression was it was a great script and I had never done anything like it,” he says. “I thought the brothers must have spied on me when I was in high school.” Half of the Dude’s clothes came from Bridges’ own wardrobe.
That said, Bridges was a bit concerned about playing “this big pothead.” “My daughters were preteen, and I was concerned I would set a bad example,” he says. “Being a child of a celebrity, I know what that’s like for a kid.”
A hugely impressive supporting cast signed on that included John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Sam Elliott, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Tara Reid and Philip Seymour Hoffman. While the film’s dialogue might sound like it was the product of at least some improvising, Bridges says the actors stuck extremely close to the Coens’ script.
“I remember John and I being concerned about where each ‘man’ was, where each ‘fuck’ was — there was a music to it, and we wanted to make sure we hit all the notes,” Bridges says.
That said, while he cannot swear to it, he suspects the Dude’s “human paraquat” insult “might have just popped out of my mouth.”
The resulting film operated on a delightful vibe all its own and, ever so gradually, the film garnered more and more fans thanks to midnight screenings, cable and home video. More than one critic changed their mind about it, with Roger Ebert adjusting his review in 2010 from three to four (out of four) stars.
Superfans (called “Achievers”) have attended an annual Lebowski Fest since 2002, and the film even inspired a religion (Dudeism). Turturro made an unofficial spinoff, The Jesus Rolls, in 2020.
The film has also been a reliable generator of revenue for its studio. According to Universal, the past five years alone have seen Lebowski outgross its original domestic release in home viewing revenue (it has made more than $100 million total).
For its devotees, and for Bridges himself, there’s something about the film that, well … abides.
“I’m so happy to be in that movie,” Bridges says. “I pretty much dug it all, man. There’s an aspect of the Dude I aspired to — he’s authentic, isn’t he? He’s who he is, and that’s about it. He’s a lovely cat.”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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