The Big Lebowski is, among other things, a movie about crazy people. Just about every character we meet is either totally off their rocker or still on their rocker, but teetering dangerously close to disaster. The Dude is an unemployed adult who appears to subsist entirely on White Russians and an occasional cheeseburger. His buddy Walter is an unhinged madman with violent tendencies and a fuzzy sense of right and wrong. Jeffrey Lebowski is a wheelchair-bound fraud with a taste for fast young women. Maude Lebowski is, well, just a piece of work, in general. And none of those characters are the one who cut off a toe in a failed attempt to extract a borderline cursed ransom. You get the idea.
But despite this collection of eccentrics and sociopaths, none of the film’s main characters — individually or as a collective — fascinate me more than another group of people: the regulars and paying customers in the bowling alley where so many of the classic Big Lebowski scenes take place. We’ll get into exactly why they fascinate me so deeply in a minute, but let’s set it up with this: It takes a lot to impress these people. A whole, whole lot.
Let’s start at the beginning and take them one-by-one.
What is happening here: The Dude’s rug has been peed on. He is upset and explaining it to Walter. After some back and forth, Walter yells, “The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude! I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand!”
So first of all, I choose to believe the guy sitting behind them is named Verne, but all the people at the bowling alley call him “Big Verne.” He’s a regular. Everyone loves Big Verne. We’ll start with that.
Second of all, look at Big Verne. There is a large Vietnam veteran sitting maybe 10 feet away from him who is engaged in a heated conversation about rugs getting peed on and is using non-preferred nomenclature for minority groups and Big Verne could not possibly care less. Like, think about that. Think about if you were at a bowling alley and someone in the next lane was telling a story about intruders peeing on his rug. That’s a good story! You’d probably at least, like, glance over in that direction, right? Especially if one of them started yelling. If that happened to me, I would eavesdrop on it and tell everyone I know.
Not Big Verne, though. He’s just lounging in his chair and minding his business.
What is happening here: During an argument about bowling, Walter pulls out a gun and starts shouting, “Mark it zero!”
You can only see a glimpse of the guy sitting directly behind Walter as Walter pulls a gun on Smokey for a minor rules violation, but trust me when I tell you that he is remarkably unconcerned for someone who is that close to a raving armed maniac. He should be diving under a table or scurrying toward an exit. But no, he sits there at that table for the entire scene, without even really looking up. As far as I can tell, there are three possible things going on here:
- He is drunk
- Walter does this so often that people are inured to it now
- He is really, really drunk
And it’s not just this guy who is very chill about Walter brandishing a firearm inside a bowling alley, because even though someone calls the cops on him and there are plenty of people in there who can identify him, he is right back there a few scenes later with no repercussions. The management of this establishment is almost recklessly lenient.
What is happening here: The Dude and Walter are discussing, among other things, Bunny Lebowski and Vladimir Lenin. At various points in their discussion, Walter shouts, “That f-ckin’ bitch!” and “I did not watch my buddies die face down in the muck so this f-cking strumpet, this f-cking whore…”
I realized something when I was re-watching The Big Lebowski for this post, and the thing I realized was that these three little old ladies in matching pink jackets are my favorite characters in the entire movie. Walter is right next to them losing all of his mind about war and strumpets and what have you, and they just keep right on bowling, completely unbothered. And this is the very next bowling scene after the gun thing! You know they’re aware of the gun thing, too, because if there’s one thing in this world you can be certain of, it’s that old ladies have all the gossip. All of it.
And if this wasn’t enough to impress you, well…
… that’s them in the background later in the scene, after the audience is introduced to John Turturro as Jesus and he is yelling at Walter about taking his gun away from him and sticking it in his rectum and pulling the trigger “until it goes click.” There’s a lot going on there! I mean, even before we get to the threats of violence. An aggressive, flamboyant man wearing all purple — who just licked a bowling ball! — should be enough to get the nervous attention of three women who are more or less the Golden Girls. But nope. Grandma got frames to roll.
I’ve been thinking about them a lot recently and I have decided that if some cable network chooses to do a Fargo-style series very loosely based on The Big Lebowski, it should start with these three ladies leaving the bowling alley after this scene and driving off in a huge pink Cadillac. Maybe they’re running a local organized crime operation. Maybe that’s why none of this is bothering them. I’m just spitballing here. But I would definitely, definitely watch that show.
What is happening here: Two things. The Dude is expressing his non-whispered concerns that the kidnappers are going to kill Bunny Lebowski (“Who gives a sh-t? They’re gonna kill that poor woman!”), and Walter, having just been informed that his bowling schedule will conflict with his religious belief, is yelling “Shomer Shabbos!” at the top of his lungs.
It’s important to note that the guy in the background here is basically the only background character at the bowling alley who ever acknowledges our main characters. And it’s also important to note that he does so not when the Dude is voicing his concerns about a kidnapping victim getting murdered, but when Walter starts yelling about the league bowling schedule. Priorities.
What is happening here: Ongoing non-whispered conversation, now taking place directly in front of the crowded counter area, about Bunny Lebowski getting murdered.
So let’s really break down what’s happening here: Walter, a man who has recently threatened someone with a firearm and who just spent a solid 30 seconds screaming about Judaism, is walking in close proximity to a crowded counter area with the Dude, a man who has been talking about his rug getting urinated on and some mysterious woman who appears to be in great peril, and the two of them are repeatedly using the words “kill” and “woman,” and exactly zero of the people they are walking past do so much as raise an eyebrow.
My new working theory is that everyone who frequents this establishment has warrants or is in witness protection, and in either case, doesn’t want to know anything.
All of these people
What is happening here: Jesus has found out about the schedule getting changed to accommodate Walter’s religion, and he charges up to them and begins shouting things like, “What’s this day of rest sh-t? What’s this bullsh-t?” and “I was gonna f-ck you in the ass on Saturday, I’ll f-ck you in the ass on Wednesday instead.”
Nope. No one even looks up from their coffee. It’s almost enough to make you think the Dude, Walter, and Donny are living in their own little world, or that the Dude is like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Walter is like Bruce Willis, and the reason no one reacts is because he’s secretly been dead the whole time.
I say almost because…
What is happening here: Walter and The Dude are in a diner discussing the severed toe they received that supposedly belonged to Bunny.
See, here is where that theory falls apart. Because shortly into Walter’s typically profane rant about severed toes and the relative ease which with he can acquire one, the woman working the counter at the diner interrupts him with what is really a pretty reasonable request.
It’s funny: Walter spent so much time ranting with little to no resistance that even a very polite “please stop swearing about severed toes in our restaurant” is almost jarring to him. It’s like watching a wild animal trying to survive outside its natural habitat. And it drives home just how fascinating those other people in the bowling alley are, because this particular spiel is like a soft six on the Walter meter and it causes a scene. They’ve seen him at a 10 — multiples times, one would assume — and just let it roll right off them.
All of which is to say this: I must know more about these people. I must know how they became this way. I’ll start by asking Big Verne. I know Big Verne has stories.