Watching Jeff “The Dude” Dowd meander through ambling, frequently incoherent, minutes-long responses to questions about “The Big Lebowski” makes you realize why he was the basis for many of the titular character’s often-nonsensical, rambling dialogues.
It was Dowd, a Venice Beach-based film publicist, who was the inspiration for Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), an L.A. stoner whose days are spent accomplishing little more than bowling, drinking white Russians and smoking pot.
“The Dude character, by making him a stoner and underemployed, it liberates him from the everyday fears of having a job so he can be…what would be called a fool,” Dowd said of his onscreen doppelganger.
Indeed, the film’s Dude gets caught up in a Raymond Chandler-esque hard-boiled plot involving the kidnapped wife of a Pasadena millionaire, the millionaire’s conceptual artist daughter, a trio of German nihilists and other sundry characters in a narrative that is by turns detective story, Los Angeles paean and pure Coen brothers absurdism.
At the center of it all is the Dude himself. And the star of Saturday night’s showing of the film at Ebertfest was Dowd, who pranced into the Virginia Theatre to the strains of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a song that features prominently in one of “The Big Lebowski”’s famous dream fantasy sequences.
I first met Dowd at Lebowski Fest L.A. in 2009, and for the life of me I cannot recall precisely what we talked about so abstruse was his speech. I have a feeling last night’s audience felt the same way about his post-screening Q&A, in which Down leapt topics and subjects in digressions that were minutes long—often doubling back or losing the thread entirely.
Chaz Ebert and others on the panel seemed unsure how to keep Dowd on track, with the garrulous publicist diverging from the film to discuss the women’s marches, Mark Twain, O’Hare airport’s baggage policies, Pepsi’s supposed “lock” on Illinois, the furor over President Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” and even Nixon’s enemies list.
F-bombs were frequent and sprinkled liberally.
It would be futile to even attempt to recreate his various pathways of elocution (at one point I had to give my note-taking fingers a break), however, the insight he gave into his early interactions with Joel and Ethan Coen, and how much he and Dude Lebowski in fact diverge, ultimately proved illuminating.
Indeed, Dowd related crossing paths with the Coens in New York in the early ‘80s as the Minnesota brothers were attempting to raise funds for their first film, the noir-ish “Blood Simple.”
“I first got involved in ‘Blood Simple,’ which was passed on three times by every single distributor,” Dowd said, describing his crossing paths with the Coens then as “destiny.”
“The Coens would have been putting animals in wood chippers if they didn’t kill people in movies,” Dowd said, likely referencing a notorious scene late in the Coens’ previous film, “Fargo,” in which a crook’s body is so disposed of.
While Dude Lebowski’s mannerisms and take-it-as-it-comes modus operandi are indeed based on Dude Dowd, Dowd said Bridges brought much of his own sensibilities to the film role, including when it came to Lebowski’s wardrobe.
“The physicality was me,” Dowd said of the Dude’s ambling gait, reclining in chairs and abstract “yoga” routine. “Jeff Bridges was born two weeks from me…he’s a Dodgers guy, I’m a Giants guy.
“The spiritual [drive] was to make [The Dude] a smoking fool to tell it like it is,” Dowd added. “A holy fool, the jester in the king’s court that tells it like it is.”
Dowd said that Joel and Ethan Coen “pulled a fast one” on the audience by eschewing the traditional third-act showdown between the Dude and his friends and their bowling nemeses. Indeed, the film essentially has no third act at all, with the Dude and Walter (John Goodman) scattering the ashes of their friend Donnie (Steve Buscemi) to the winds and then going back to bowl once again.
“This is an existentialist third act, folks,” Dowd said. “Did you notice the Dude never bowls in the movie? There’s no cage match with Walter, the Dude” versus their enemies. “There’s no payoff.
“Have low expectations, including in the storytelling,” he said. “Enjoy the moments and the satire and the irony, but don’t expect a huge emotional [payoff] in the end.”
Dowd shared that no less than George C. Scott was approached to play the film’s “Big Lebowski,” a millionaire with the exact same name as the Dude—which sets the story in motion when the Dude is mistaken for him—but the role ultimately went to David Huddleston. Dowd related that Scott “didn’t understand” the script and passed.
He apparently wasn’t alone as “The Big Lebowski” was received tepidly at the box office and by critics—Roger Ebert among them—when it bowed in 1998. However, it later developed a cult following and inspired a festival featuring actors from the film, a bowling party and fans coming dressed up not only as characters but also as esoteric references from the film that are never even seen onscreen.
Dowd himself is known to attend, cheerily taking photos with fans and, as at Ebertfest, sharing “anecdotes” that are as confusing to follow as those he shared with me in 2009 in California.
“I don’t get paid to go to Lebowski Fest, but I do let them pick up my airfare and hotel so I don’t lose money,” Dowd said.