John Goodman receives SLIFF Lifetime Achievement Award

John Goodman reads a text message from Jeff Bridges to the crowd to open his Q&A at the Tivoli Theatre. Blurry photo by Jason Green.

The cold and drizzly weather did little to dampen the spirits of a crowd that began queuing outside the Tivoli Theatre more than two hours before the commencement of one of the highlights of the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival’s inaugural weekend, as the fest celebrated its 27th year by bestowing its Lifetime Achievement Award on legendary actor—and Affton native—John Goodman. The award was commemorated with a special event including a Q&A with the man himself, as well as a screening of his unforgettable turn as Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski, celebrating its 20th birthday this month.

(Your reporter had the common sense to wait out most of the rain drinking $3 White Russians at Hopcat across the street. No regrets.)

The line stretched far down Delmar before the doors finally opened, and the soldout crowd quickly overwhelmed the Tivoli’s concession stand. Once the crowd was settled in, we were treated to a highlight reel with footage from throughout Goodman’s career, stretching back to his role as Coach Harris in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds and running through crowd-pleasing big budget flicks (The Babe, Blues Brothers 2000), his many films with the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona; O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and the television role that made him a household name (Dan Conner on Roseanne).

Then came the man of the hour. Goodman received his award with a huge grin, then took his seat on the podium for a Q&A led by KTRS host John Carney. Goodman opened by reading a text message he’d received from Lebowski costar Jeff Bridges—a rare occurrence!—earlier in the week, which basically consisted of “I forgot what I was going to tell you…hmmm…shit,” which Goodman read theatrically to a response of uproarious laughter.

While Carney had collected questions from the crowd, they served mostly as fodder for a jokey, conversational interview that also stretched through Goodman’s entire career, though with an understandable emphasis on The Big Lebowski. Goodman was filled with a nervous, twitchy energy in front of the packed-in crowd, on one hand overwhelmed by the experience (he talked about pacing back and forth outside the theater during the clip show, stating “I just can’t stand the sound of my own voice”) but still quick with the quips throughout. One particularly sharp line involved a question about playing villains, where he stated—hilariously, and accurately—“Usually I play twisted geniuses with two-digit IQs.”

“Usually I play twisted geniuses with two-digit IQs.”

Interestingly, some of the best stories revolved around his role in 1994’s The Flintstones, commiserating about the damage to his feet and sweating in his “leather dress” of a costume. “I tried to drop out of [the film] about six months before…who knows why, I was drunk,” he joked. “Then Steven Spielberg called and threatened to take away my house.” After the laughs subsided, he said with pure sincerity, “I loved working with Rick Moranis, though. What a gentleman.”

Regarding Lebowski, Carney asked about John Turturro’s wickedly weird character, “The Jesus.” “[The Coen Brothers] wrote it, but he just took it over,” he answered, chuckling at the memory of the entire cast trying to stifle laughter as Turturro performed his scenes. He also related the story behind quite possibly the greatest “edited for television” change in cinema history. He was in an ADR session with the Coens to record replacement dialogue for the film’s many, many swear words (Carney congratulated him on the film’s record number of swears and Goodman jokingly bowed and clasped his hands in the air in triumph). When they came in with no specific idea how to sanitize the line “Do you see what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?”, Goodman, in a moment of pure inspiration, came up with the sublimely preposterous “what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps.”

Then, of course, came the movie itself. For the uninitiated, The Big Lebowski is a wild blend of farce, noir detective story, and chill southern California vibes. Bridges stars as The Dude, née Jeffrey Lebowski, a never-ruffled unemployed layabout who seems to do nothing but go bowling with his friends—the easily agitated Walter (Goodman) and perpetually confused Donnie (Steve Buscemi)—and lives his pacifist life smoking joints and drinking White Russians. Unfortunately, The Dude’s buzz gets harshed when he gets confused for the titular Big Lebowski (David Huddleston), a millionaire with the same name whose trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) owes money around town. Some thugs come to collect and pee on The Dude’s rug. This aggression cannot stand, man (the rug, you see, really pulled the room together), so The Dude sets off to get restitution, inadvertently getting dragged into a kidnapping case that ultimately involves a missing million-dollar briefcase, Lebowski’s postmodern artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), other gumshoes, flamboyant bowling sex offenders, sarsaparilla drinking cowboys, pornographers, nihilists, and more.

If that sounds like a lot of plot, it kind of is and kind of isn’t, in that the plot is less the point than the vibe of the characters and how they react to the increasingly preposterous situations they find themselves in. The primary interplay is between The Dude and Walter, one constantly living in the moment and simply reacting to whatever is happening in front of him, the other stuck in the past (Walter compares everything in his life to his stint in Vietnam and seems unhealthily hung up on his ex-wife) but always plotting and scheming to stay one step ahead (and usually failing miserably).

The experience was amplified by the presence of a crowd that was just as enthusiastic and in-tune with the film’s surreal joys as I was.

The Big Lebowski is that rare film that gets better with each successive viewing, with subtle jokes and character moments that reveal themselves over time and lines that go from a chuckle to laugh-out-loud funny as they become running jokes in your life. While I’ve personally seen the movie about a dozen times, this was my first time watching it in a theater, and I must say that the experience was amplified by the presence of a crowd that was just as enthusiastic and in-tune with the film’s surreal joys as I was. One little tidbit I caught in this particular viewing was one of The Dude’s weirder personality quirks: his tendency to get flustered and repeat things he heard someone else say in the previous scene. I’d noticed it before—the film is set at the onset of the Gulf War, and The Dude quite famously quotes George HW Bush’s line “This aggression will not stand” shortly after seeing his speech on TV—but I had never noticed just how prevalent it is. It’s such a subtle thing, but something that amplifies his character in a weirdly endearing way. It’s just another example of how sturdily constructed the film is, and what masters the Coens are at structuring their screenplays.

As great as Bridges and the rest of the ensemble are, though, it’s still Goodman who steals the show in every scene he’s in. Walter is a larger-than-life character, a guy who will pull a gun on a bowler that toed across the line or scream about watching his buddies die in the mud of Vietnam to give him the freedom to yell obscenities in a diner over breakfast if he so chooses. And yet, it’s the subtleties in Goodman’s performance that make Walter a character, not a cartoon. It’s the perfect, pregnant pause he gives when he finds out the villains they’re dealing with are not, as he thought, Nazis, but rather nihilists, pondering the situation before saying, “I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude. At least it’s an ethos.” It’s the little glance at his watch before he promises, with all the faux bravado he can muster, “I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock.” Every second of screen time Goodman gets in the film displays more evidence that the SLIFF board gave their award to exactly the right actor. | Jason Green

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