Feminism As Clarity: Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski

Warning: This essay contains spoilers

The Big Lebowski is my favorite film. I fell in love with it when I saw it for the first time on television in the summer of 2004; every time I watch it I find myself loving it more and more. The Big Lebowski (1998) was directed by Joel Coen and written by Ethan and Joel Coen and it is a dark comedy that employs a loose crime mystery narrative that isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the film; the characters—Jeff Lebowski aka “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges), Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) take center stage with all of their nuanced eccentricities as the plot unfolds in entertaining and sometimes pleasantly confusing ways. The Dude is an middle-aged pothead, Walter is a Vietnam vet, and Donny is their tag-along friend who may have been a surfer at one point in his life. The one thing they all share, though, is their love of bowling. For this essay, I want to focus on what I consider to be the fourth most important character of the film: Maude Lebowski, played by Julianne Moore.

I have come to appreciate Maude more and more over the years because I think her character in particular is rare in film, or to speak more bluntly, virtually nonexistent. Maude is the daughter of Jeffery Lebowski (a millionaire whom the Dude gets confused with, played by David Huddleston) and a feminist avant-garde artist. It is her feminist sensibilities that bring clarity to the film when it feels like the plot has become too ridiculous to understand due to the fact that the Dude initially thinks Bunny Lebowski (Jeffery Lebowski’s young porn star wife, played by Tara Reid) kidnapped herself in attempt to get more money from her husband, but then changes his mind when Walter takes his speculation seriously and attempts to rip off Jeffery Lebowski by stealing the ransom money. What I also love so much about Maude is the way Moore portrays her: intelligent, dry, and with a strong sense of integrity. Her character isn’t bitter or resentful; she makes it very clear that she and her father don’t approve of each other, but she intends to do the right thing, which is to find out (without police assistance) what happened to The Foundation’s money. What I also like about Maude is that she is the only character in the film with common sense. I want to look at two scenes in the film that highlight Maude as a character that brings clarity to the tangled up plot not only for the Dude, but for the audience.

The first scene with Maude happens after the main storyline has been established. Here is some context: Maude and her two male assistants come to the Dude’s apartment and knock him out in order to steal back a rug he stole from Jeffery Lebowski’s mansion after his rug was peed on by a thug who works for Jackie Treehorn (a well-known pornographer, played by Ben Gazzara). The Dude is visiting Maude at her place in order to find out what exactly is going on. Here is the scene along with some scene direction:

The ground is dark and there is splattered paint on it lit up by a distant spotlight. A female is singing using her breath. The Dude’s shadow appears around the paint splatters. Then the Dude appears. The camera shows a giant canvas slanted on the ground at the end of the room with two spotlights on it. The Dude walks closer; the camera gets closer to the canvas; on the canvas is a vague image of a female form. Suddenly, Maude comes flying in held up by ropes, soars over the Dude’s head, and splatters green paint on the canvas. She speaks to her two male assistants in a low voice in what sounds like Spanish or Italian as they lower her. An abstract painting sits on one side of the room and a ladder sits on the other.

Maude: I’ll be with you in a moment, Mr. Lebowski.

She lands on the ground and speaks in a low voice to her two male assistants. She hands one of them her paintbrushes. The camera turns back to the Dude who watches. Maude takes off her harness. She is naked and her back is turned to the camera which shows her and her two male assistants at a distance. It is mostly dark in the room except for the two spotlights over the canvas. One of her male assistants helps her put on a green robe. The Dude steps closer to the canvas.

Maude: [Turns to face the Dude and speaks in a loud voice] Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?

The Dude: Is that what this is a picture of?

Maude: In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, [The camera focuses on Maude’s face] which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable….Vagina.

The Dude: Oh yeah?

Maude: Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.

The Dude: Johnson?

Maude: Alright, Mr. Lebowski, let’s get down to cases. [Walks away from the canvas] My father told me he agreed let you have the rug, but as it was a gift from me to my late mother, it was not his to give. [Wipes her hands off on a rag] Now, your face. [Holds the rag out to the Dude who takes it] As for this kidnapping… [Walks away]

The Dude: Huh?

Maude: Yes, I know all about that [walks deeper into the room] and I know you acted as courier. Let me tell you something. The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

The Dude: [The camera shifts to the Dude who still holds the rag] Yeah, right, but let me explain something about the rug—

Maude: Do you like sex, Mr. Lebowski? [The camera is over the Dude’s shoulder as Maude approaches]

The Dude: Excuse me?

Maude: Sex—the physical act of love. Coitus. Do you like it?

The Dude: I was talking about my rug.

Maude: You’re not interested in sex?

The Dude: You mean coitus?

Maude: [Bends down] I like it too. [Stands up and holds a remote to her chest] It’s a male myth about feminists that we hate sex. It can be a natural, zesty enterprise. However, there are some people—it is called satyriasis in men and nymphomania in women—who engage in it compulsively and without joy.

The Dude: Oh no?

Maude: Oh yes, Mr. Lebowski. These unfortunate souls cannot love in the true sense of the word. Our mutual acquaintance Bunny is one of these.

There are a few things I want to point to in this scene. This is the scene where Maude establishes herself as being feminist, but her interpretation of feminism is interesting. It seeks to validate feminism as an exploration of female desire over feminism as perceived female hang-ups related to masculine assumptions about what a feminist is. This is crucial for a couple of reasons: 1. It clarifies what feminists are actually about (true intimacy between women and men as equals) and 2. In a more general sense, Maude serves as a brilliant counterweight to the masculine forces at play in the film (the male characters and their assumptions about what is happening plot-wise). The Coen Brothers made an excellent move not just by including a feminist character in their film but by employing her as a reliable point of reference. Maude can be trusted. What I also want to highlight in this scene is how Moore portrays Maude. There is a certain level of innocence Moore brings to this character that helps to make her trustworthy. As a feminist, she is not jaded or cynical toward men, but she is unapologetically honest, and she is interested in sex as an act of love, which she upholds as a pure act. Her interest in the purity of sex reflects the purity within herself as a woman-centered artist. What is also interesting to note in this scene is the fact that Maude is testing the Dude specifically to see what kind of man he is: Is he misogynist? Is he repressed? Is he sex-crazed? Since the Dude seems to be completely unaffected by Maude’s humorous interrogation about his views on sex, she finds him to be trustworthy.

The next scene I want to talk about is what I would classify as the climax of the film. Here is some context: after meeting with Jackie Treehorn, the Dude was drugged and dumped off. Upon entering his apartment, he discovers that the entire place has been trashed by Treehorn’s goons. The Dude trips over a piece of wood he nailed into the floor in a ridiculous attempt to keep people from breaking in. He turns over on his back and Maude enters the room wearing the Dude’s robe, stands over him, says, “Jeffrey…love me,” and takes the robe off. This scene takes place after Maude and the Dude have sex; Nina Simone’s “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” plays in the background.

The Dude and Maude are in the Dude’s bed. The camera hovers above the bed. The Dude smokes a small joint and his arm is around Maude.

Maude: What do you do for recreation?

The Dude: The usual: bowl, drive around, the occasional acid flashback. [Puffs on his joint and then starts coughing. He gets up, busts into the bathroom as the light comes on.]

Maude: [Calls out] What happened to your house?

The Dude: [There is the sound of water] Oh, Jackie Treehorn trashed the place. He thought I had your father’s money.

[Maude props herself on pillows against the headboard. The Dude walks out of the bathroom.]

The Dude: He got me out of the way while he looked for it.

[The Dude picks up a shirt and smells it.]

The Dude: Cocktail?

Maude: No, thanks. It’s not my father’s money. It’s the Foundation’s. [She bends her legs up to her chest under the covers.] Why did he think you have it? [She bends both of her legs up to her chest.] Who does?

The Dude: Oh, Larry Sellers. This high school kid. Real fuckin’ brat.

[Maude sinks lower and twists her body back and forth on the bed. The Dude pours alcohol into a glass just outside of the room where he is still visible.]

The Dude: This is a very complicated case, Maude. Lotta ins, lotta outs. Fortunately, I’m adhering to a pretty strict drug regiment to keep my mind [Starts to pour Half & Half into his glass, but sniffs it first] limber. I’m very fuckin’ close to your father’s money.

[Maude is on her back, legs against her chest.]

Maude: I keep telling you it’s The Foundation’s money. Father doesn’t have any.

[The Dude sips his drink and walks back into the room.]

The Dude: What are you talking about? He’s fuckin’ loaded.

Maude: No, no. The wealth was all mother’s.

The Dude: He runs stuff…

Maude: [On her back, holding her bent legs] We did let him run one of the companies briefly, but he didn’t do very well at it.

The Dude: Oh, he’s you know…

Maude: He helps administer the charities now [Moves her body from side to side] and I give him a reasonable allowance. He has no money of his own. I know how he likes to present himself. Father’s weakness is vanity. Hence the slut.

The Dude: Do you think that he…what is that, yoga?

Maude: [Sliding her body from side to side] It increases the chances of conception.

[The Dude spits out his drink.]

The Dude: Increases?

Maude: Well yes. What did you think this was all about? Fun and games? I want a child.

This is a bit of a subdued climax, but it is the moment in the film just before the Dude realizes who actually stole the money: Jeffery Lebowski. However, the reason I’m pointing to this part of the scene is because it is important to understand that Maude is the one that helps him realize this. Once again, she brings clarity to the situation. Throughout the entire film, the Dude and Walter represent opposite ends of the issue: The Dude is convinced Bunny is innocent; Walter believes Bunny is guilty. And yet, they can’t seem to figure out where the money is. At this point in the film, both the Dude and Walter believe a teenager has it because they found his homework in the Dude’s car after he stole it from the bowling alley and took it for a joyride—with the “ransom money” still in the backseat of the car. However, neither the Dude nor Walter even consider the fact that Jeffery Lebowski would steal the Foundation’s money, not until Maude explains to the Dude that “He has no money of his own” and that “The wealth was all mother’s.” So, it is not only revealed that the only person who ever had the money was Jeffrey Lebowski, but that the money has a feminine source: Maude’s mother.

I also want to point to another little narrative thread that solidifies in this scene and operates as another kind of climax: the fact that Maude wants to have a child. This is only briefly hinted at, especially when Maude insists the Dude see a doctor to make sure his jaw is okay and the doctor asks him to pull down his shorts. Here, another part of the narrative becomes clear: Maude not only wants a child, she wants a child that was conceived through “the physical act of love” with a man who does not want to be a father so that she may be the primary parent. The Dude fits both qualifications perfectly: he has no hang-ups about sex and he has no interest in being a father. This is another place where Moore amps up Maude: through the act of intimacy. Maude speaks to the Dude using a low, affectionate voice. She is the opposite of aggressive, but she is proactive as she shifts her body around in an attempt to achieve conception. She asks him questions about his life, she is nonjudgmental (for the most part), and she helps him figure out exactly what happened to the money. Here, Moore does an excellent job portraying Maude as a  feminist who employs love and intimacy as the main elements for conceiving a child.

I applaud the Coen Brothers for utilizing a feminist character in such masterful ways. This is part of what makes The Big Lebowski such a spectacular film. In general, it is still difficult to find movies that make feminist characters central actors within a major plot. I also think that Julianne Moore is a really masterful actress because she operated from a different place mentally in such a way that allowed her to bring to life a feminist character that is very sharp, very pure, and very entertaining. It feels like she went with her instincts about what a feminist is rather than choosing to pull from the stereotypical perception of feminists and this is exactly what makes Maude work in the film. As a feminist character, Maude is very different, but very authentic, and she serves a vital role not just in terms of plot, but how sex is explored as a larger concept within the film.

With all of that being said, I want to take some time to discuss an interview I came across when I was doing some light research for this essay. After the film came out, Moore did a short interview with a woman named Bobbie Wygant, whom I had never heard of until I found this interview. Apparently Wygant is a well-known film critic and has been interviewing actors/actresses/directors for decades. However, I found this interview to be not only utterly terrible, but also incredibly revealing. Let me give some background information: Although in more than one interview Wygant claims to be Texan, she is actually from Lafayette, Indiana. Since the late 1940s, she worked for NBC 5, based out of Fort Worth, Texas, which I assume is what she considers to be perfectly acceptable criteria for claiming her Texas roots. She graduated from Purdue University with majors in media broadcasting and psychology and she is also a founding member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA) which was formerly known as the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA). In 2000, that organization gave her a Critics Choice Award; in 2014 she won the Gracie Award for Outstanding Reporter/Correspondent from the Alliance for Women In Media. Before I talk more about Wygant and the Moore interview, I want to give a little more information about the CCA. According to Wikipedia, “…members are professional entertainment journalists and ‘working critics whose reviews are broadcast on a regular basis to a wide audience, either on television, on radio, or (in special cases) on the internet.’ It also lists the qualifications for becoming part of the organization:

Radio film critics “must be heard in at least five markets in addition to their primary radio station, unless their primary outlet is in a major city” such as New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis, and Toronto….Internet-based critics must be “well-known print critics as well, or among the few internet critics whose reviews are read by a large enough audience,” are “easily accessible on their site,” and “identified as the site’s primary critic.”

There is something called the Bobbie Wygant Archive on YouTube. The channel includes tons of interviews Wygant gave over the years. After watching the Moore interview, I started watching other interviews to get a better pulse on her interviewing style. Here is what I found. When interviewing Angela Bassett for Contact in 1997 she asked her if she’d ever been to the White House; when interviewing Christian Slater for Bed of Roses in 1996 she spent most of the interview talking to him about his fan mail; when interviewing Sean Patrick Flannery for Powder in 1995 she referred to them both as Texans (Flannery was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana and was raised in Houston and therefore has a better claim for being a Texan than Wygant does) and spent most of the interview talking about the process of putting on the white paint for the film; when interviewing Brad Pitt and Edward Norton for Fight Club in 1999 she asked them if fight clubs exist. During an interview with Jeff Goldblum for Independence Day in 1996, she made this statement: “I don’t want to give too much away, but for years I have been saying that the final destruction of the world will be, you know, computers all getting a virus, and you know, just shut down the world.” At no point in any of the interviews does Wygant ever address the films themselves in terms of plot or character or how these films interact with social, political, or aesthetic concerns. Because these are short interviews, it would seem that this would make Wygant want to use that time more productively; instead, she chose to give interviews that feel like they are in the vein of web series like Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis or On Cinema at the Cinema (which both satirize the film industry through the interview and film review formats); however, these interviews are no joke: they are utterly serious.

When interviewing Julianne Moore for The Big Lebowski, Wygant did ask a few decent questions: she asked about the dance scene with the Dude and Maude and she did ask Moore what it was like to work with the Coen Brothers versus other directors to which Moore gave good answers. However, this is how she chose to begin the interview: “Julianne, I was just saying that the last time I saw you, you were with child and now you have this little boy.” Then she proceeds to ask her this question: “So was he [born] before or after this film?” Another subject Wygant seemed more interested in rather than the character of Maude or the film as whole was Moore’s experience with working with her husband: “When you were making The Myth of Fingerprints directed by Bart—the man in your life—that had to be a good experience, but did you feel a certain pressure that you wouldn’t feel with some other director?” Here’s another question along the same vein: “Did you ever talk with Frances McDormand about working with her husband?” Aside from the fact that these questions are irrelevant to The Big Lebowski, they feel inappropriate not just because they are personal, but because they utterly disregard the integrity of what it means to be a legitimate actress in the film industry. They feel outdated, a little offensive, and downright patronizing.

And yet, Moore, being the intelligent woman that she is, was still able to give excellent answers. When Wygant makes the comment, “You get some of the juiciest roles….and yet, when one would just meet you and talk with you, they probably wouldn’t see you for those roles which is a tribute to your acting skills,” this is her response:

….one of the great things about gaining experience in the business is that you do have a kind of a, you know, you have a history, so people can sort of look at your work and they say, “well, she’s done this and this and that, so maybe she can do this other thing,” so I think that eventually it does aid you when you’ve got kind of a repertoire to draw from.

This is how Wygant responds to Moore: “So they look at the work rather than the interview.” Moore answers by saying, “Yeah, because you really can’t tell from meeting somebody what they can do. I think sometimes you just need to see some stuff that they’ve done in the past.” Moore is able to transcend Wygant’s condescending-sounding compliment about Moore being a surprising choice for “the juiciest” (risky) roles (like Maude) by explaining to her how the film industry works: an actor/actress’s work speaks for itself. And yet, what is most egregious about this interview isn’t the terribly dismissive and off-topic questions, but the implications behind the interview itself: as a female critic interviewing a female actor, Wygant missed an opportunity to highlight the fact that Moore played one of the few true feminist characters to ever exist in film history. Obviously at the time Wygant and Moore couldn’t have predicted that The Big Lebowski would become a major cult classic, but it seems safe to say that Maude Lebowski should have immediately been recognized as an iconic female character in a strong feature film. Wygant especially should have noticed this considering the fact that she had been working as a critic in the film industry for decades; Maude should have stood out to her as revolutionary. And yet, she never once mentioned the character’s name or asked Moore one question about how she went about preparing for the role, or what it was like to play a feminist avant-garde artist in a Coen Brothers film. The closest viewers can get to anything remotely like that is by listening to Moore answer Wygant’s question about what it was like working with Coen Brothers:

…their scripts are so precise and detailed and it was really a pleasure because they’re so prepared that it’s easy for you to bring your own stuff to the table and everybody kind of knows what’s going to happen and what they want….it was very relaxing, actually [laughs] because it’s also present in the script….I had more dialogue in just a couple of pages in this movie than I’ve had in lots of other films. In most movies you just have a line or two of dialogue in a scene….here, I had all this exposition, so I was terrified that I’d mess it up.

October 24, 2022