Partying down with the rude Dude
In her Festival Life column, ALEXANDRA GILL writes that the inspiration behind The Big Lebowski is a
force to be reckoned with
By ALEXANDRA GILL, The Globe and Mail
September 10, 2002
The first time I saw The Dude, he was moonwalking to Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. It was 2 a.m. on Saturday night and we were at Shanghai Cowgirl, a diner on Queen Street, where a festival party had spilled over from a club next door.
I had no idea who this maniacal dancing bear of a guy was (think John Goodman on acid). But he and the vivacious blonde on his arm certainly looked like they were having the time of their lives.
"The Dude is the only guy I'd ever let step on my feet, spit on me and spill his drink all over my dress," Kiki Buttignol told me later. "He's hilarious." (Ms. Buttignol is, of course, the daughter of Rudy Buttignol, chairman of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.)
About an hour later, I bumped into The Dude at Bistro 990. We started chatting, and before long, he was going on about the bidding war for his rug on eBay.
Uh, what rug?
"Have you ever seen The Big Lebowski?" he asked, referring to the offbeat comedy by the Coen brothers. The film stars Jeff Bridges as a pot-smoking refugee from the sixties who gets sucked into a complicated kidnapping mystery when thugs mistake him for someone else and urinate on his rug.
"That character's based on me -- The Dude."
The Dude suggested I look him up in Brave Films, Wild Nights, the book written by Maclean's film critic Brian Johnson to celebrate the Toronto International Film Festival's 25th anniversary in 2000. "There's a whole chapter about me," says The Dude.
Well, there are only three pages on this character, also known as Jeff Dowd, but they certainly are juicy. Especially the yarn about the hotel manager who compensated him for a night of "swinging off the rafters" in his hotel room by zapping his $1,800 minibar bill into oblivion, or so the story goes.
"The hard currency of a film festival is buzz," Mr. Johnson writes. "And the most notorious buzz merchant to haunt the Toronto festival is Jeff Dowd."
The Dude's official title is producers' rep. He's the guy who championed The Blair Witch Project and put such movies as Chariots of Fire, The Black Stallion and Hoosiers on the map. He started his career at the Seven Gables Theaters, a Seattle chain with a talent for test-marketing movies Hollywood didn't know how to handle. He also co-directed the Seattle International Film Festival, helped Robert Redford create the Sundance Institute and has been a fixture at the Toronto festival for as long as anyone can remember.
"Roger Ebert likes to talk about discovering films," Mr. Johnson explained to me yesterday. "Roger Ebert doesn't discover films. He goes to people like Dowd and says 'What do you got?' "
The Dude's renegade tendencies go back to 1970, when he was a member of the Seattle Seven, a group of activists charged with conspiracy to destroy federal property after an FBI-infiltrated antiwar demonstration got ugly. The charges were dropped, but The Dude was convicted of contempt of court for unfurling a Nazi flag across the judge's desk.
"He really typifies the good old days of the festival," Mr. Johnson says. "He's a maverick. And in an industry that is increasingly homogenized, he's a rare breed."
"Hey Dude. Can I send you a script?" It's the Canadian Film Centre's festival barbecue on Sunday and The Dude seems to know nearly half of the several thousand guests milling around the grounds. The other half wants to know him.
The Dude doesn't have a film to flog this year (although he does recommend highly Paul Justman's Standing in the Shadows of Motown). He's here to finish a documentary about his life, tentatively titled The Real Lebowski.
Most people say The Dude's a legend.
But one entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles scoffs openly. "Why are you doing a story about him? He's a publicity whore." Yeah, obviously a good one.