Producer: Joe Davis
To most, The Big Lebowski means bowling balls, White Russians, and a carpet, Jeff Bridges, the Coen Brothers, and a brilliant cast of ne’er do wells. But Sam Elliot’s role as “the Stranger” – you may remember him better as the narrator – in the Big Lebowski is the star of the show in the voiceover world.
Into the Charmingly Unusual World of The Big Lebowski through the Back Door
We enter the twisted tale of The Big Lebowski through Oscar and Emmy nominated legend Sam Elliot’s rich, rugged chuckwagon n chaps vocal delivery. Setting the scene through a disembodied twang and skillful characterization, Elliot paints a picture of smoky, starlit campfires, wild open planes, and cowboy hats. “Way out west there was this fella,” He pontificates. “Fella I wanna tell ya about, a fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski.” The camera pans over the rough, raw dirt, and a tumbleweed rolls into view. We, the intelligent audience, get comfy with this introduction. The romance of Americana. We know it well, and we know Elliot. He’s going to mosey us on into the wild, wild west. Our cozy narrator with a deep voice and a plain-spoken way is setting the stage. We foresee tragedy, drama and at least one horse silhouetted by an orange sky.
So when the camera pans up to an unexpected but familiar coastal city of lights, we experience a record (and head) scratching moment. Why is Sam Elliot taking us to present-day Los Angeles? The tumbleweed is there, still rolling, but through the city, the very modern city, all the way to the beach. And cowboy Sam Elliot is still narrating, about heroes, about The Dude, when he suddenly loses the thread. “Wow, lost my train of thought here,” he says, going beyond breaking the fourth wall and taking us on a mental meander into the proverbial green room.
That classic bait and switch intro hints that what follows will be no ordinary story. Without telling us directly, the narrator warns us to expect the unexpected. And to reinforce that, in the next few minutes our hero, the title character gets his head dumped in a toilet.
The Big Lebowski’s Plot, sort of
The Big Lebowski is kinda hard to describe, (man), it’s a meandering tale of surreal proportions. The plot itself has been dubbed by the Coen brothers as “sort of secondary.” Broken down to its basic fundamentals it’s not a western at all but a film noir, private eye buddy crime comedy homage wrapped in a surrealist drug deluge and quest for a “rug that really ties the room together,” a million-dollar phone book, and a girl who may or may not have kidnapped herself.
Rounding out The Big Lebowski’s cast of frustrated anti-clichés we have The Dude, “His Dudeness, Duder, or uh El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing” aka, Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), and his bowling team. Consisting of downtrodden footstool Donny, (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman) a Vietnam vet whose role is to remind everyone that he’s a Vietnam vet. There’s Jeffree Lebowski (David Huddleston), who is not The Dude, but is an egotistical billionaire philanthropist who doesn’t believe in handouts…and his daughter, Maud Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the noir femme fatale feminist artist who controls the finances and wants a baby. There’s also a nihilist or three, a part-time porn star part-time trophy wife, and a carpet that ties it all together,
Sam Elliot as The Narrator
Our classic American cowboy narrator who knows everything about everything, dubbed “The Stranger” is omniscient, breaks the fourth wall to talk to us, and chats to his protagonist. His narration and appearance in the film have led to fan theories that speculate his purpose and symbolism. By turns, he is the representative of America, the specter of The Great Generation, American manliness, the audience (a more traditional approach), The Dude’s father, God, an angel, an unbalanced man who thinks he’s a cowboy in the ’90s, and a figment of The Dude’s imagination
The Coen Brothers: On the Narrator and The Making of a Cult Classic
In Making of the Big Lebowski the Coen Brothers explain that they actually wrote the role of The Stranger with Sam Elliot in mind, one of the greatest compliments writers/directors can ever give an actor. “We really wrote that part for Sam, because we liked his voice, he can really hit that lower register.” So much so that the entirety of the character was built off the voice, and when Sam asked for a bit more insight in his laid back, cool way: “What am I doing here boys,” the brothers “didn’t have anything to tell Sam, we didn’t know either, but it didn’t hurt his performance any.” Reportedly the script itself listed the narrator as “Sounding not unlike Sam Elliot,” and “Looking not unlike Sam Elliot.”
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would say that the narrator needs to know what’s going on, but given the style of the movie, and the offset slight backward storytelling this might be the hundredth time. Sam Elliot as the narrator delivered an exceptional performance under…er… trying conditions. Was he one of the characters in the movie? Yes, no, who knows? It depends on your interpretation, and that’s where the intrigue lies.
After his role as the Stranger (narrator), Elliot began to log a lot more voice-over credits in animation, documentaries, and in ads. You hear him telling the 30-second stories for Coors beer, various big truck brands, Biden’s 2020 campaign, even Smokey Bear.
Ode to the Dude
It’s hard to believe it, seeing as it’s become such a studied cult classic, but when The Big Lebowski, was released in 1998 it was met with practically barren theatres and lackluster reviews. While “that’s just, like, your opinion, man” many of those opinions rolled back and TBL has gone on to confound analysis, spawning thousands of articles, forums, and threads in fan theories. As well as establishing the “slowest-growing religion in the world,” Dudeism (which honestly sounds pretty harmless and chill), and an annual festival, Lebowski Fest.
Obligatory Best Lebowski Quotes
Small disclaimer. I have fallen prey to the endless quoting affliction that overcomes anyone who has been in recent contact with The Big Lebowski. I apologize, but also like, whatever man, “The dude abides.”
“This Is Not ‘Nam. This Is Bowling. There Are Rules.”
“You Want A Toe? I Can Get You A Toe.”
“Goodnight, Sweet Prince.”
“I am the walrus.”
“Am I wrong?”
“You’re like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know…”
“There’s no reason- here’s my pint, dude, there’s no f***ing reason…”
Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice artist, whose TV and film narrations have been heard on Discovery, Netflix, the major networks, in IMAX, the Smithsonian and the White House.