- ‘Young Hussy’ in the wrestling screenplay of Barton Fink.
If the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre might be described as an extended frolic through the archives of film history, it is also a re-examination of the classic themes of 1940s Hollywood and, above all, the notion of what it means to be a man. Having come of age as filmmakers just after the Reagan years, it is unsurprising that the Coens tend to take up fake masculinity, phony toughness and cowboy acting more than anything else. Like the ‘Gipper,’ the era harked back to the conceptions of manhood formulated during Hollywood’s Golden Age, with a new breed of self-sufficient over-achievers ruthless in their pursuit of capital and status – a model of manliness that tends towards Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko. Yet throughout their work, the Coens have been skeptical of rugged individualism and its flipside, patronizing chivalry.
If You Were a Man
In the Coens’ grisly, absurd faux-noir debut, Blood Simple, both male leads – Marty (Dan Hedaya) and Ray (John Getz) – are destroyed by their attempts to match up to norms of virility: the former’s neurotic machismo leads only to prolonged humiliation and fatal bitterness, while the latter’s misplaced effort at “being a gentleman” saddles him with the bloody burden that breaks him. Each, in his way, is a self-unmade man whose insecurity sets in train the events that consume him. Raising Arizona offers a comical but comparable instance of such proud self-harming, when Hi (Nicolas Cage) jeopardizes his job by punching his foreman for suggesting wife-swapping. Hi’s actions are unappreciated by his wife Ed (Holly Hunter):
ED: You’re a grown man with responsibilities… Where does that leave the three of us? Where does that leave our entire family unit?
HI: With a man for a husband.
ED: That ain’t no answer.
HI: Honey, that’s the only answer.
ED: That ain’t no answer.
HI: With a man for a husband.
Soon after, Hi justifies his return to armed robbery by noting in casually Reaganite terms that “I come from a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types” – an ironic echo of the President’s “Morning in America” campaign.
“We used the word ‘manly’ a lot in reference to Miller’s Crossing,” recalled cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld in a bonus featurette on that film’s DVD. Fargo also builds its narrative around competing notions of masculinity. Can it be coincidence that Mamet regular William H. Macy was cast as Jerry Lundegaard, the disastrous salesman who competes with his pack-leader father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell) for control of the ‘deal’ that is his wife’s staged kidnapping? Meanwhile, the weedy Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) has a combustible inferiority complex (“I guess you think you’re, you know, like an authority figure in that stupid fucking uniform, huh, buddy?” he snaps at a parking attendant. “King Clip-On Tie there, big fucking man, huh?”). His bullish refusal to forfeit his share of a family car costs him not only the $920,000 he’s stashed away in the snow, but also his life. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? Everett McGill (George Clooney) is chronically anxious about being unmanned while away from home, rightly perceiving his status as “paterfamilias” and “the king of this goddamn castle” to be threatened. The Man Who Wasn’t There is no more or less than the excavation of a misanthropy so ingrained as to have passed through disdain into utter indifference; other characters are repeatedly moved to ask Ed, in consternation as well as anger, “what kind of man are you?”
The Coens’ No Country for Old Men is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel whose characters are consumed and often destroyed by the determination to act like “real men.” Its climactic exchange sees the central character – a decorated Vietnam veteran – questioning his status as “a war hero,” considering whether his father was “a better man” than himself and suggesting that he is “not the man of an older time they say I am. I wish I was. I’m a man of this time.” In each of their films, then, the Coens offer case studies in the pursuit of manliness as a hiding to nothing, a vain, shallow and frequently hypocritical exercise in hubris that leaves one at best embarrassed, at worst dead.
One of the Boys
The Big Lebowski’s discrediting of traditional models of masculine authority begins with the Stranger’s opening narration. The Western form – the genre of the man’s man – is progressively compromised and bastardized from the opening lines of the film (“A way out West there was a fella…”) until we’re left with a lazy man sniffing half-and-half in an L.A. supermarket. The narrator himself quickly descends from folksy omniscience into arch-inanities such as “sometimes there’s a man… Wal, I lost m’train of thought here…” More than this, the content of the Stranger’s speech, so far as it’s possible to discern, is a radical rejection of the very concept of heroism – “what’s a hee-ro?” – in favor of “the man for his time’n place. He just fits right in there.” Rather than the exceptional character who stands against the tide of corruption or the noble iconoclast of the Great American West, we are asked to credit the reed that bends with the wind, the easy-going drifter, the tumbling tumbleweed. Certainly, the Dude is pretty hard to shock: think of the nonchalant, noncommital “huh!” with which he greets his reflection in the Big Lebowski’s Time magazine mirror, news of Quintana’s pederasty or the sight of Maude’s splatter-art. The Dude is also consistently averse to confrontation, opting out of aggressive situations by walking away or other means. During times of stress or impending violence – when Treehorn’s thugs shove his head down the toilet or the Big Lebowski rants at him on their first meeting – the Dude simply puts on his shades.
These two early confrontations establish the Dude as uninterested in competing with either macho or materialist conceptions of manliness. The Big Lebowski, meanwhile, conforms to another ostentatiously self-aggrandizing type familiar from other Coen films: like Marty in Blood Simple, Nathan Arizona and Barton Fink’s Jack Lipnik, he goes to considerable lengths to display the trophies of his accomplishments, “the various commendations, honorary degrees, citations of merit, et cetera” that Brandt insists the Dude examine (but not touch). “Achiever” is the key word here, mentioned on no fewer than four of the Big Lebowski’s plaques and mementos.
During the Dude’s second visit to the Lebowski mansion, when the old man is in highly theatrical “seclusion” in his Great Room, the Big Lebowski’s pompous, combative conception of manhood is explicitly laid out, and equally explicitly contrasted with the Dude’s utter lack of interest in engaging with – let alone proving himself worthy of – any such type. In a brilliant bit of business played with the perfection of vocal pitch and timing characteristic of Jeff Bridges throughout the film, the Dude seems to be picking something out of his teeth as Lebowski holds forth – perhaps a stray bit of weed?
LEBOWSKI: Funny. I can look back on a life of achievement, challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome. I’ve accomplished more than most men, and without the use of my legs. What– What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
DUDE: Ah, I, I don’t know, sir.
LEBOWSKI: Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?
DUDE: Mm, sure, that and a pair of testicles.
LEBOWSKI: Joking. But perhaps you’re right…
DUDE: You mind if I do a jay?
Although he’s understandably keen to hold on to that all-important “pair of testicles,” the Dude’s nonchalant conception of “man” as a mere biological category rather than an ethically-loaded identity points to a suggestion that runs throughout The Big Lebowski, and indeed the Coens’ work in general: that real men are in fact women. Or, to put it another way, while the men bluster around trying to prove themselves worthy of the name, it’s the female characters who thrive and get things done, adopting conventionally “manly” behavior as the occasion demands.
In Blood Simple, for instance, Abby’s (Frances McDormand) simple common sense is enough to make her the last person standing, while in Raising Arizona it’s the female member of the central couple, a uniformed police officer called Ed, who sets the agenda – a fact noted by Gale when he provocatively asks her husband “who wears the pants around here.” Male characters are often subtly emasculated in such ways, as in the scene in The Man Who Wasn’t There in which Ed Crane shaves his wife’s legs while she bathes and smokes. In Barton Fink, Audrey (Judy Davis) appears to be the only character actually capable of producing creative work; she’s so powerful that after her death her severed head serves as Barton’s muse. Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, on the other hand, achieves maximum efficacy without any detriment to her status as wife and mother-to-be. Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers are both stories of women overcoming male presumption.
Like Jerry Lundegaard before him and The Man Who Wasn’t There’s Big Dave (James Gondolfini) after him, the Big Lebowski is a sort of trophy husband, dependent on his first wife’s capital for his own comfortable status. “The wealth was all mother’s,” Maude reveals. “I give him a reasonable allowance. He has no money of his own.” The real Big Lebowski, in other words, was Maude’s mother, who even appears to have disinherited her husband. The great lengths to which he goes to project an image of worldly masculinity is plainly rooted in a profound sense of inadequacy; in the screenplay, the climactic scene in which Walter lifts him out of his wheelchair concludes with an exchange that didn’t make it to the screen. “Stay away from me, you bullies!” the Big Lebowski blubs, still sprawled on the floor. “You and these women! You won’t leave a man his fucking balls!” (That pair of testicles again…)
The Dude, like Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, is reduced to the status of sperm donor, good for procreation and little else. The coldly efficient – not to mention unilateral – fashion in which Maude obtains the Dude’s stud services is the very antithesis of romance, but utterly typical of her status as the film’s real pack leader. Alone amongst the characters, she knows what she wants and gets it, as well as taking responsibility for the Lebowski family name and the Urban Achievers. The metaphor is literalized in the opening credits of the Dude’s drugged-out dream sequence, when a pair of bowling balls and a pin are set up to resemble male genitalia before being demolished. But even in his fantasies, the best the Dude can do is administer a bowling lesson to a strong woman with very big horns, and indulge in a little wide-eyed scopophilia.
A Brief Social History of Dudeness
Plainly, the Dude is not the type of man to be concerned with status or material aggrandizement. His rather mild reaction to having his home invaded by the nihilists – “this is a private residence, man,” as if there were some simple confusion that might be cleared up easily – suggests that the Dude’s home is not really his castle. “Now ‘Dude,’” the Stranger mulls in his introduction. “That’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from…” The fact that ‘Dude’ is a proudly worn badge of identity rather than an imposed label of belittlement or shame is one of the earliest signs that we’re not in the Wild West after all, but in more-or-less contemporary California. Having come into circulation in the 1870s to denote a man conspicuously concerned with look and dress, in pioneer country ‘dude’ had pejorative connotations of effeteness, incompetence or unfitness. The ‘dude’ was the opposite of the manly hero, the outsider, often from back east or the city, incapable of dealing with the rough real-world situation.
Cinematically speaking, this kind of dudeness was one of the earliest forms of clownery: 1898’s Some Dudes Can Fight and the 1903 Edison silent comedies The Dude and the Bootblacks and The Dude and the Burglars offered a dandified butt. The tradition continued with the comic short The Dude Cowboy (1912) and on to The Dude Ranger (1934), about an Easterner who inherits a ranch. The idea of the ‘dude ranch’ – a resort version of the West catering for city slicker tourists – informed Disney’s 1951 short ‘Dude Duck,’ which cast Donald Duck as a vacationer. Dean Martin’s drunk was called the Dude in Rio Bravo (1959) and Lee Marvin spits the term at Jimmy Stewart throughout The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Such regrettable associations reached as far as Yorkshire and Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings (1964), in which the speaker of “A Study of Reading Habits” bitterly notes his own resemblance to “the dude/Who lets the girl down before/The hero arrives.” In this context, it is indeed a name few would self-apply.
By the late ’60s, however, the term had taken on another meaning, a cordial, even affectionate surfer slang usage. According to Ron Rosenbaum’s playful excavation of the term in his essay “Dude, Where’s My Dude?”, this process of reclamation drew upon the qualities of civility and gentlemanliness implicit in the word prior to its adoption as an ironic insult. When, in Easy Rider (1969), George Hanson asks “What’s ‘dude?’ Is that like ‘dude ranch?’” Captain America explains that “‘Dude’ means ‘nice guy.’ ‘Dude’ means ‘a regular sort of person.’” This could well have been the era when Jeffrey Lebowski formally assumed the title. (In an exchange from the screenplay that didn’t make it into the movie, the Chief of Police of Malibu asks whether the Dude is “some kind of sad-assed refugee from the fucking ’60s,” to which he replies “uh-huh.”) Over the next few years, movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Wayne’s World (1992), along with animated TV shows such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996) and The Simpsons (from 1989), enshrined its use as emblematic of affably airheaded, non-conformist youth culture. By the end of the century it was elevated to headline status in Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000).
The ‘dude’ type, then, is established in firm counterpoint to that hard-headed, egotistical pursuer of capital and status, Reaganite man. Dudeness is a way of being a man that privileges sociability over industry and civility over self-furtherment. It is a fundamentally good-natured mode. In a 2004 American Speech article, Scott F. Kiesling identifies it as a signifier of “the small zone of ‘safe’ solidarity between camaraderie and intimacy” that male friends can occupy without raising eyebrows; a term of endearment, in other words, an expression of a love that need not speak its name. From such a perspective, ‘man’ is less a mode to strive after than an all-purpose form of address, applicable to anyone and everyone from a 15-year-old boy to a Chief of Police. (The Dude adopts this usage well over 100 times over the course of the film.)
This is not to say that our own Dude has no ego. He has a tendency to refer to himself in the third person, and shows a hint of nonchalant pride when telling Maude and Brandt about his ’60s activism. Nor does it mean that he is altogether lacking in the attributes becoming a conventional man’s man: he angrily confronts Da Fino (Polito) when he feels Maude’s safety is in question (“stay away from my fucking ladyfriend, man!”). When it comes down to it, he sticks his neck out for justice. Rather, it’s that he has rejected conventional codes of masculinity in favor of his own terms, except for a camp appreciation of their surfaces. “I dig your style too,” he tells the Stranger, good-naturedly deflecting what could have been seen as a pass, “got a whole cowboy thing goin’ on.” As the film’s signature track by Bob Dylan has it, “The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen/But that’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine.” In the Big Lebowski’s mind, this non-conformism makes the Dude a bum, but there’s little doubt which of them is better equipped to deal with outrageous fortune, the “strikes and gutters, ups and downs” that constitute life as it’s lived. Even in the old West context, a dude’s outsider status could be a boon. The Allied Artists comedy The Dude Goes West (1948) concerns an intellectual Easterner who, in between pratfalls, offers some salient probing at the normative conceptions of women, Indians and bad guys. The Dude might be ‘the wrong man’ in more ways than one, but he isn’t a phony, and that makes him nigh-on unique in his world. Excused from the tiring, vain, arbitrary business of being a man, he can concentrate instead on being human.
This is an edited excerpt from BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski, published by The British Film Institute. Please consult the published book for references and notes. Click here to learn more about the book.