At Lebowski Fest New York City, The Dudes come out in full force.
There are at least nine of them. Some are in bathrobes, others in bowling shirts. They all wear sandals. One man is dressed as a rug.
It really ties the room together.
Dedicated to the fandom of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, Lebowski Fest originated in Kentucky four years after the premiere. Founded by Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, it has since spread all over the United States, and even as far as London. The festival has inspired a documentary film, a cult known as Dudeism, and attracted a modest crowd to 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue on Saturday for a screening of the classic at the Gramercy Theater.
The line stretches around the corner. The house is full, not packed.
The doors open at 8 p.m. and the crowd enters, armed with smartphone tickets. There are some ladies in the crowd, but it is mostly male. Some women are in costume, most dressed as Valkyries from the film’s second act dream sequence. The men are overwhelmingly dressed as The Dude.
Some ladies are there on dates, others with a groups of men. After the screening ends, the men will explain why what they have just seen is funny to their dates. Before or after the show, the women don’t say much.
Of course, unlike Coen Brothers classics like Raising Arizona, Fargo, or True Grit, The Big Lebowski is as dude-centric as it is Dude-centric. The film only passes certain elements of The Bechdel test, and then just on technicalities. Although Julianne Moore gives a powerful performance as Maude Lebowski, her character’s slut-shaming of Tara Reid’s character, Bunny Lebowski (aka Maude’s stepmother and a porn artist), pits the film’s only major female characters against each other in a classic madonna-whore dichotomy.
Pay careful attention, though, and the Coens reward the Lebowski audience with an appearance by real-life porn artist Asia Carrera, who appears onscreen with Bunny even as Maude derides her career choice. Carrera is a true genius who taught at a university at just 16 and has written extensively about her intellectual and pornographic pursuits.
At the Gramercy Theater, a woman dressed as Maude Lebowski looks fierce as Cover Me Badd, the musical opener, takes the stage. The band opens the show with a decent rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” from his critically underappreciated album New Morning and the movie’s title sequence. When the music gets going, the woman in the Maude costume rocks so hard her wig comes loose.
The film’s action centers around Jeff Bridges as the main character, Jeffrey Lebowski, known as The Dude. The Coens based the character on a producer they knew from Los Angeles named Jeff Dowd, and Bridges personalized the hero with items from his own wardrobe and some of his own lingering ’60s mannerisms. Bridges’ Lebowski is a self-described radical, but he is often perceived by others within the film’s universe as a bum. The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston), a millionaire with whom The Dude shares a name, calls him just that when a random visit from hired goons first brings the two men together.
Like many of the Coens’ esoteric movies, Lebowski sends The Dude on a hero’s quest: one part hard-boiled detective, one part spaghetti Western. The film opens on a tumbleweed blowing through the twilight streets of Los Angeles and closes with a cowboy soliloquy. In between, The Dude is sometimes helped, but mostly hindered, by a dizzying array of quirky characters.
No excessively masculine hero of a traditional cowboy detective story, The Dude is a different kind of man. Just like the tumbleweed pictured in the movie’s opening sequence, The Dude is unattached, and his desires are easily satisfied with alcohol or marijuana, no matter what direction the wind takes him. The Dude is at his happiest when he has a few minutes of solitude and rest to get high and listen to whale sounds. The crowd cheers at Lebowski Fest when he appears onscreen.
The Gramercy has prepared for the screening by keeping White Russians pre-mixed behind the bars. That is, of course, all Lebowski drinks, so that is all his adherents drink. There is one other mixed cocktail available, called “The Purple Jesus,” but the bartender has to double-check the ingredients—vodka, creme de cassis, and Sprite—the first time someone orders it.
Played by John Turturro, Jesus appears in purple regalia in The Big Lebowski. The crowd cheers louder for him than anyone when he appears onscreen. He is an aggressively male, exaggeratedly Latino pedophile who mocks The Dude’s quest. In the movie, Jesus is one half of the Coens’ attack on Roman Polanski and his ’70s classic Chinatown; the other is Ben Gazzarra, who plays the extortioner/porn mogul Jackie Treehorn and physically resembles Polanski.
Right before the screening starts, costumed Dudeites are summoned to the front of the Gramercy Theater and an honorary prize by way of audience approval is awarded to a woman dressed as the Folgers Coffee can (purchased at a local Ralph’s Supermarket) that plays a key role in the film’s ending for Theodore Donald Kerabatsos, aka Donny (Steve Buscemi), one of The Dude’s best friends.
The Dude’s other associate is the converted Jewish soldier of fortune, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), and among the Gramercy crowd several Walters are wandering about. Goodman portrays the character of a Vietnam vet with all the lingering anger of a soldier who never got to fight, and Walter spends most of his screen time in The Big Lebowski trying to turn the movie into a cross between Magnum Force and Apocalypse Now.
There are seats in The Gramercy, but not nearly enough for the crowd. They don’t mind. With an attitude mirroring that of their hero, viewers sit in the aisles and on the floor as the lights come down and the movie plays.
Lebowski was poorly received upon its release, barely making back its budget in North America. Critics compared it unfavorably with Fargo, for which the Coens had won an Oscar the year before. And yet The Big Lebowski has inspired a culture that other of the Coens’ more popular and critically acclaimed features did not. That may be partially because The Big Lebowski is their most nihilistic presentation. Little moments are portentous of grand sweeping changes, and big, dramatic moments are meaningless to all but the few involved.
That is thrown into stark relief as the theater empties on Saturday. A man and a woman, each dressed as The Dude, are among the last to leave. On the way home, they discuss the movie, but their conversation veers into reminiscences of hallucinogenic trips and friends from another time.
They ride the train to the end of the line, then disappear into the crowd.
Author's Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the actor who portrays The Big Lebowski as Charles Durning. That part is played by David Huddleston.