' Cinema Romantico: Countdown to the Oscars: When The Dude Was Elected President

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Countdown to the Oscars: When The Dude Was Elected President

In the early moments of The Coen Brothers' cult phenomenon "The Big Lebowski" we find our hero, Jeffrey Lebowski, or, as he is more commonly known, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), draped in his usual armor of bathrobe and jelly shoes, purchasing a carton of milk with a check for his beloved white russians, and as he writes the check he catches a glimpse on a nearby TV of then President George H.W. Bush discussing Saddam Hussein and how "this aggression will not stand." It does not merely set up the movie's time and place but, unbeknownst to itself, foreshadows the fact that two years later Jeff Bridges would go on to portray President Jackson Evans ("His ideas are changing the world") in "The Contender".

Now tell me, in all honesty, is there another actor who could play both The Dude and The President and convince us entirely of both? Jeff Bridges is poised to take home his first Oscar this Sunday but I still feel the deftest trick in his career of many deft tricks were these two performances, both completely different, both perfect.

(Is it merely coincidence that President Evans' Chief of Staff was played by Sam Elliott and that The Narrator of "The Big Lebowski", essentially The Dude's own Chief of Staff, was played by....Sam Elliott?)

"The Contender", written and directed by Rod Lurie, focuses on Senator Laine Hansen (Joan Allen, magnificent like Bridges - they were both nominated for Oscars) who is in line to be President Evans' Vice President as the current VP has just passed away. But it won't be that easy. Republican Representative Shelley Runyon (a fantastic Gary Oldman) is heading up the confirmation committee and he does not think highly of Hanson. Thus, in time honored political fashion, he orchestrates the leak of explicit sexual photos of the college-aged female Senator, photos she flatly refuses to address. There will be back and forth. A lot of it.

I recall watching this movie in the theater and as I exited listening to two conservative republicans behind me bemoaning the film's "agenda" and how it "told (them) exactly what to think." At the time I recall being quite angry but the more I pondered it the more I realized they encapsulated Lurie's point. (Apparently they had already forgotten the worst act in the entire movie was committed by a democrat - that is, the Virginia Governor, Jack Hathaway, played by William Petersen. And, by the way, watching this movie in the wake of Rod and Patti Blagojevich just adds so much more to Hathaway. His wife is so going on a reality tv show a few months after the end of the movie.) This is politics and in politics people only see what they want to see. Right?

There is a moment when an eager young representative from Delaware named Webster (played pretty darn well by Christian Slater) approaches Runyon about being part of the committee and explains he would be a good fit because of his "objectivity" and Runyon admonishes him by saying, "Your constituents want you for your subjectivity." Oh, baby, do they ever.

"The Contender" is all about power plays. Endless power plays. Everything with Evans is a power play, illustrated time and again so wonderfully in the way he tries to force food on everyone he meets. In a squirmish sequence with Webster the President wields a shark steak sandwich like a weapon, decrying the young representative for not "breaking bread" with the Commander & Chief.

Bridges is just so slick, beaming a smile that menaces with its civility. He'll act concerned about your petty problems until they get in his way. (His line "It's a god damn shame about the muenster" is exactly what Jerry would have said in "Seinfeld" in the same situation.) He's so cool, so in control, even as you can clearly see him calcluating, such as when he finally makes mention of the sex scandal directly to Hanson and an instant after having done so goes off track for just a moment in regards to a colleague's birthday and the need to get him a present. Absent minded? Nah. He wants to make her sweat just that much more.

The only instant in which he loses his cool (and it is the only scene in which we ever see President Evans sans suit and tie or, at the very least, shirt and tie), he really loses it, blows his stack, comes unglued, his control relinquished for the briefest of moments and then he says the movie's single most vital line: "I'll die before Sheldon Runyon checkmates me."

Sure, sure, the President gets the big speech at the end where he calls for an end to bi-partisanship and all that ra-ra, sis-boom-bah crap but you have to take that speech in context with the aforementioned line. Especially when during the speech the President directly calls out Runyon and sends Runyon skulking for the exit. Noble and honorable? Or is it all just a means to checkmate Runyon?

I can't recall such a Presidential portrait of our nation's President. Not Presidential as in Washington crossing the Delaware but Presidential as in always "on", always polished, always thinking a few steps ahead and two dozen other directions once. You want to like the guy, you want to eat a little shark steak with him, even if you know full well he's gonna make you choke to death on that same shark steak....figuratively, of course.

(Is it merely coincidence The Dude's living room is highlighted by a photo of President Richard Nixon bowling and that in "The Contender" there is a brief scene of President Evans....bowling?)

As The Dude, however, Bridges performs an impressive 180. Willed too often to improbable action by his friend, Walter (John Goodman), a vet and a blowhard of the highest order, whatever control The Dude has over his life only hangs on thanks to the kindness of the universe. He is idiotically mistaken for a different Lebowski, a millionaire Lebowski, whose wife has apparently been kidnapped so a ransom demand can be made. Thus, like a bermuda-shorted Phillip Marlowe, The Dude will traipse his way around a trippy Los Angeles, investigating, so to speak, and now trying to get that which is his - namely, his rug ("it really tied the room together").

Where President Jackson Evans is all about absolute control, The Dude seems to have relinquished control long ago. Existing in a perpetual fog of vodka and kahlua, "adhering to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep (his) mind limber", he shuffles about, place to place, person to person, convening with his own version of a slacker cabinet, his confusion to the various absurd situations never turning to fear. Most men would quake in the presence of a chattering woman (Julianne Moore) showing off her gigantic painting of the "female form" but with The Dude this barely registers ("Is that what this is a picture of?"). That obliviousness works as a fantastic shield. In a sense he turns into a far more surreal and funny version of Bill Murray's "The Man Who Knew Too Little". Another P.I., hired for reasons I will not disclose, at one point professes to The Dude just how much he admires his work.

And despite the plethora of random Coen-esque twists somehow it all works out for The Dude. (One might argue the death of Steve Buscemi's Donny is tragic but, really, is it? Is Donny not better off on the other side? Think about it.) The Dude, as he says, abides. Perhaps President Jackson Evans withstands? Both men, albeit by radically different means, get that for which they set out in the first place. President Evans wants his swan song and The Dude just wants to drive around and blare Credence. Both men embody opposite spectrums of the American Dream - ultimate power and doing nothing.

Besides, can't you see President Evans, a year or two later, finding himself embroiled in a sex scandal and yelling at a nosy reporter, "She's not my special lady! She's my f---in' lady friend!"

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