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Performing and Watching Disability in The Big Lebowski

“I’ve seen a lot of spinals, Dude. And this guy’s a fake!”

(Originally appeared in CINEJ Volume X Issue 2)

The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski is a late-20th Century American “cult classic.” But, the film is more than just a bowling, kidnapping, film-noir-homage comedy caper with Golden Age of Hollywood MGM-style musical numbers. Set in 1990, The Big Lebowski is infused with historical and cultural subtexts, such as President George H. W. Bush’s Americans with Disabilities Act, and the first Gulf War. Given that the medium of film records and replays performances by performers to be watched by an audience, this paper explores the richness of disability performance in The Big Lebowski, with some special emphasis on the importance, to both performers and audiences, of the watching of disability being performed. Not only do the actors create performances of various disabilities for the film’s audience to watch, but also, the characters themselves are performing their varied physical, psychological, and emotional disabilities for the edification and manipulation of their audiences—that is, the other characters.

The Player: “You don’t understand…the single assumption which makes our existence viable—that somebody is watching!” —Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead


Two legacies of President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s are alluded to in the 1998 cult classic Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski. One is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA,) and the other is America’s wars in the Middle East, which have disabled even more Americans. What can we learn about disability performance from watching such a movie? Other films of that time also addressed the question of “disability” and how it is performed by actors, including another bowling movie, the Farrelly Brothers’ Kingpin. The Farrelly Brothers even went so far as to employ disabled actors to play disabled characters in some of their films, including Kingpin.

While such movies are interesting for how the actors perform their characters’ disabilities for the movies’ real-life audiences, The Big Lebowski is especially interesting for how multiple characters also perform their disabilities for their in-movie audiences, the other characters. The deceptively comic plot is often driven by how those character-audiences observe and react to those performances. Furthermore, we in the external audience may also gain some deeper insight into each character’s personality and motivations by watching them perform their disabilities for others. These performances are the stuff on which Busby Berkeley dream trips—as well as empathy—are made.

Other disability-themed films tend to focus their attention on one specific handicapped character, who is seen to struggle more or less alone against their disability. For example, Roy, the protagonist of Kingpin, is a former professional bowler who has lost his bowling hand to some ruthless bowling hustlers. But, in The Big Lebowski, nearly every character performs a disability of one kind or another, building some otherwise unexpected empathy with the external audience, while driving and spinning the plot forward like an off-balance bowling ball that, no matter how much it wobbles and spins down the lane of narrative, nevertheless strikes out all 10 noirish pins in the end.

Much useful work is being done applying the lessons of performance studies to broader, “real world” sociologies. All the world is a stage, and all the people in it are, after all, players. “The notion that disability is a kind of performance is, to people with disabilities, not a theoretical abstraction, but lived experience” (Sandahl & Auslander, 2005, p.1). Yet, a performance studies perspective on disability studies may be an uncomfortable bridge for some to cross for the simple reason that studying disability performance requires closely watching disabled people perform their disabilities, which can be painfully awkward, even when the “performers” in question are full-time performance artists. Therefore, closely watching an engaging film like The Big Lebowski may serve as a helpful introduction to disability performance studies.

A Lebowski Watches a Lebowski

“Similarly, to think of disability not as a physical condition but as a way of interacting with the world that is frequently inhospitable is to think of disability in performative terms—as something one does rather than something one is” (Sandahl & Auslander, 2005, p. 10).

The film’s protagonist, an aging Baby Boomer “hippie” Vietnam War protester/draft resister known to his acquaintances as, “The Dude” (iconic actor Jeff Bridges,) becomes entangled in the troubled May-December marriage of one Jeffrey Lebowski, disabled Korean War veteran. Dude’s real name also happens to be Jeffrey Lebowski, and a case of mistaken identity by two stereotypical, intellectually challenged “goons” (Philip Moon and Mark Pelligrino) early in the film launches the plot.

“Where’s the money, Lebowski? Bunny says you’re good for it…Your name’s Lebowski, Lebowski, and your wife’s name is Bunny” (4:50). After roughing up Dude a little in his own toilet, the goons add insult to injury—one of them urinates on Dude’s prized vintage Persian rug that “really tied the room together” (7:55). Later, at the Holly Star Lanes bowling alley, Dude’s friend Walter Sobchak (the one and only John Goodman) encourages him to seek recompense from Bunny’s husband, “the millionaire” (9:10).

Dude’s first encounter with this “other Jeffrey Lebowski” is humorously reminiscent of Dude’s presumed stereotypical relationship with his own (never seen) father. The actor who plays the elder Mr. Lebowski, David Huddleston, was not paralyzed from the waist down, and his performance of a “spinal [injury patient]” is noteworthy in itself. But the performance by the character of his disability—and the reactions of his various in-movie audiences—is, perhaps, even more interesting.

Disability is, naturally, associated with the word paralysis. But two words related to paralysis, catalysis and autolysis, are just as apt when discussing disability performance. Paralysis derives from para, “beside,” and lysis, “loosening.” The partial or complete paralysis on one side of the body that is often experienced by stroke patients is a good example.

Traditionally, paralysis is seen as disabling. But the antonym catalysis refers to an “energizing” or “enabling” power of loosening. The right kinds of therapies and other support mechanisms can do more than merely “correct” for a disability. They can liberate the disabled person beyond the “norms” of ability. The life and career of Helen Keller is a classic model. One wonders how unremarkable her life might have been had she grown up to be just another “normal” middle-class wife of the early 20th Century. The revolutionary methods employed by the child Helen’s tutor, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, had a catalytic effect not only upon life of the adult Ms. Keller, but upon our whole concept of “dis-ability.”

Autolysis refers to various forms of corrosive self-destruction or self-dissolution. Although this can be the result of rare medical conditions, most of us are more familiar with the emotional and psychological kinds of autolysis—addictions, suicide, and other compulsive, self-harming behaviors. Shame is often the catalyst for autolysis, and persons who are perceived as dis-abled by others, and themselves, often feel a sense of shame which all too often results in self-harm and self-destruction.

The question of whether paralysis (or any other disability) leads to catalysis, or to autolysis, depends on the individual—and perhaps more importantly, on the support (or lack thereof) the individual receives from others. The onset of paralysis suffered by young Franklin Delano Roosevelt could easily have led to autolysis. FDR’s early, stubbornly vain attempts to ignore his disability and appear to “walk” again might be viewed as autolytic. But then, he used all remaining his resources to establish a polio therapy center at Warm Springs, Georgia.

Some patients were able to recover some or all of their lost ability, but many of those who did not “recover” still felt that they had overcome their sense of being “crippled.” And FDR’s personal self-discovery that he could help others overcome their sense of being hopelessly handicapped had a powerfully catalytic effect on his political career that is still being felt by the world today.

Mr. Lebowski, “the millionaire,” is the most visibly and stereotypically handicapped character in the film. He is limited to a wheelchair, apparently paralyzed from the waist down. We learn through dialogue that Mr. Lebowski lost the use of his legs in combat during the Korean War. Dude’s bowling partner and best friend, Walter, is himself a Vietnam veteran with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological and emotional disability. In a film with impending war as a subtext, two important characters have been partly disabled by previous wars.

Dude is ushered into the operatically tasteful Pasadena mansion of Mr. Lebowski for their tête-à-tête. The film set interiors are Neo-classical in architecture, a cross between an old Roman temple and a mausoleum—a painstakingly created performance space (McAuley, 2010). Within it, Mr. Lebowski’s worshipful amanuensis, Brant (legendary character actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman,) is almost priestly in his devotion to his mentor and idol. He conducts Dude on a pilgrimage past a wall of icons, awards, and photo-op photos, reciting a litany of Mr. Lebowski’s purported “achievements”

Mr. Lebowski’s home office “set” paradoxically demonstrates a paradox observed by Carrie Sandahl in 2002: “What this space tells me is that while disabled people can be accommodated in the congregation, the sacred position from which one can speak is reserved for the adult able-bodied” (p. 23). However, no accommodation to Mr. Lebowski’s disability has been made to others within his private office. All the furnishings in the room are made for the able-bodied—except for the empty space behind the “normal” desk, which is soon filled by Mr. Lebowski’s motorized wheelchair.

After letting Dude wait alone momentarily within his sort of “Pasadena Oval Office,” Mr. Lebowski literally make an entrance. His performance space is carefully, and expensively, dressed with all the accoutrements of success and achievement; Mr. Lebowski, however, is dressed with the accoutrements of a disabled bourgeois—most especially, a motorized wheelchair. Desperate to present himself as a hard-charging “business achiever,” he drives his wheelchair something like a tank, bulldozing his way from one carefully posed mise-en-scène to the next. He bursts through the door, hurriedly bustling—on four wheels—across the room and takes up the power position behind his impressive mahogany desk. Deus in machina, as it were (12:00).

And of course, once Mr. Lebowski is parked behind the desk, his paralyzed legs are no longer visible to his audience. The desk thereby transforms the seat of Mr. Lebowski’s impotence into the seat of the empowered. He now presents an image indistinguishable from any “able-bodied” executive seated behind such a desk. The scene’s rich father versus spoiled, arrested-adolescent son dynamic is obvious and entertaining; what perhaps deserves deeper attention is the dynamic of the disabled person striving to “pass” as able by masking his disability.

Were Mr. Lebowski solely concerned with performing the role of able-bodied tycoon, he could easily have arranged to be already seated behind his desk when Dude was ushered in. Instead, he has staged his entrance, so that Dude can watch him “expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain” (Goffman, 1956, p.6). Later, Mr. Lebowski’s daughter, Maude, shares her own ironic insights into her father’s performance. “I know how he likes to present himself. Father’s weakness is vanity” (89:00). And he employs his well-rehearsed vanity to disguise his physical weakness.

Dude accepts Mr. Lebowski’s performance of ability and success at face value and proceeds to ask Mr. Lebowski to accept responsibility for the collateral damage that Mr. and Mrs. Lebowski’s offscreen financial shenanigans have inflicted upon Dude, to the tune of one soiled rug. Mr. Lebowski launches into a blustery rendition of his signature routine, on the theme, “I’m not Helpless, and Neither are You!” A one-man audience watching a one-man show, Dude disengages from the scene, lowering the curtain of his sunglasses over bloodshot eyes.

Mr. Lebowski’s performance bravely soldiers on, whether Dude is watching, or not. “I never blamed anyone for the loss of my legs,” he declares; whereupon, he promptly blames “some Chinaman in Korea!” Whereupon, Dude promptly scams Brant out of one of “the old man’s” rugs on his way out the door, with catalytic agency upon on the plot, and upon Dude’s role in it (15:00).

Mr. Lebowki’s rehabilitation

“The social-construction model locates disability within a society built for non-disabled people” (Sandahl & Auslander, 2005, p. 2).

The vast majority of movie and television characters are based on stereotypes, and Mr. Lebowski’s disability-denying song-and-dance is stereotypical of previous generations’ view of disability as a defect to be ignored and concealed, rather than a challenge to be met. The plight of millions of “disabled” Americas like Mr. Lebowski was long compounded by this lack of focus on being, or becoming, differently-abled, rather than on being dis-abled.

Subsequent to his combat injuries, Mr. Lebowski presumably endured many months of tortuous rehabilitation intended to adapt him to the life of a disabled man in 1950s America. That America was unforgiving of its wounded comrades-in-arms, whom they expected to deny their own disabilities and “go out and achieve, anyway!” After all, hadn’t their childhood President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, done exactly that? After all, hadn’t young Mr. Lebowski already survived the worst that Mars, the god of War, had meted out? Surely, overcoming the obstacles of civilian life would be as easy as falling out of a wheelchair.

In 1998, David Savran, writing about (Vietnam veteran) Lt. Dan’s “magic [prosthetic] legs” in the contemporary feel-good epic, Forrest Gump, describes how this myth “can perform its cultural work of reassuring the anxious white male subject only by magically restoring his imaginary wholeness and integrity, by convincing him that he is not castrated, that he does not love pain, and that he can triumph over his victimization.”

This antiquated “therapy” has apparently haunted Mr. Lebowski with the image of a disabled self, a debilitating realization to be avoided at all costs. His only recourse has been to bluff and deny his way through as “normal” a life as his wife’s fortune could afford him, rather than learning to be an effective agent in his own life. Instead of lifting him up by an “obstacle overcome,” Mr. Lebowski’s injuries have left him struggling in the quagmire of disabling vanity.

Perhaps, if Mr. Lebowski had suffered his paralyzing injury in a post-ADA America, his therapy might have guided him more toward catalysis, and less toward autolysis. But we, at least, if not Walter and Dude, must bear in mind that Mr. Lebowski’s character is a product not merely of his injury and his vanity, but also of his audiences—his society, his caregivers, and even his business “opponents.” If Mr. Lebowski has failed to truly “achieve,” maybe it’s because he has expended so much of his spirit performing his misguided opera of denial for all too many, all-too-approving audiences.

Mrs. Lebowski is differently abled

Exiting the Lebowski estate with his pilfered replacement rug, Dude encounters the much younger Mrs. Fawn “Bunny” Lebowski, née Knudsen (the incomparable Tara Reid,) a gifted sexual athlete who offers to perform one of her different abilities on Dude’s anatomy for a healthy fee. Should Brant choose to play audience to this performance, “…he has to pay a hundred.” Dude, so intrigued by Bunny’s engaging audition that he actually lowers his shades to make eye contact, excuses himself to “go find a cash machine” (16:25).

Hours later, Bunny is ostensibly kidnapped, and Mr. Lebowski reaches out to Dude for help. He first generously forgives Dude’s theft of the rug, then generously offers the promise of twenty thousand dollars cash, in exchange for Dude’s cooperation in handing off the one-million-dollar ransom demanded via fax machine. Dude generously agrees, then passive-aggressively “accepts” the covert help of Walter.

Mr. Lebowski reprises his soliloquy of narcissistic denial when he hires Dude to effect delivery of the ransom money in exchange for the kidnapped Mrs. Lebowski. “Funny—I can look back on a life of achievement. Challenges met. Competitors bested. Obstacles overcome. I’ve accomplished more than most men—without the use of my legs” (22:40). Mr. Lebowski, in his peroration to Dude, denigrates the kidnappers as “Cowards! Weaklings! Bums…Men unable to achieve, on a level field of play!” whom he implies have seized Bunny as some sort of prosthesis, a substitute for ability, a levelling of the field (24:10).

The ransom note itself is more than a simple document testifying to the perilous state of Mrs. Lebowski’s existence. It is also a document testifying to the performative artistic process of reading the day’s generally menacing headlines, then cutting up those messages (the work of web offset artisans) with shears into constituent letters and syllables. These amputated symbols are then reassembled graphically, using art supplies like construction paper and paste, into a collage whose sum is greater than its parts in its menacing of a specific woman and her rich husband—once it has been published on the private printing press of Mr. Lebowski’s fax machine, that is. After all, if the target audience never views it, then a ransom note is nothing more than a sticky wad of grim confetti. It would have been much easier for the kidnappers to simply send a typed note. Perhaps it is the implied performance of the creation of the ransom note that endows it with such dangerous energy.

Walter’s PTSD and anger issues as disability

As Alessandra Mondin wrote about performance artist Bob Flanagan, “It might seem a discourse tainted with the overcoming narrative of disability, but instead one may see Flanagan using pain against pain in order to function” (Mondin, 2016, p. 45). And in yet another scene in the bowling alley, we see Walter perhaps doing just that—using one kind of pain to shield himself from another kind of pain.

Walter, Dude’s loyal if inconvenient bowling partner, has been shaped by his own combat experiences. His inferred high ability to perform in violent circumstances seems to enable him to succeed in his career as a private security professional. Yet, these acquired warrior’s abilities often perform as disabilities in other areas of his life. Walter’s explosive temper clearly interferes with most of his interpersonal relationships, within and without the world of bowling.

However, in certain circumstances, a strategic performance of his PTSD often results in a successful achievement of a covert goal. Reliving the pains of war has also become a convenient way of avoiding other emotional pain, like Walter’s divorce and alienation from his first and only wife, Cynthia.

In later scenes, Walter reveals that he “converted” to an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect “when I married Cynthia” (96:27). This would necessitate Walter undergoing painful circumcision of the penis—as an adult. Audiences inside and outside the movie can only speculate as to what effect—either paralytic, or catalytic—such a traumatic conversion experience must have had on Walter’s character, or what damage such a potentially debilitating trauma may have wreaked upon his and Cynthia’s conjugal bliss. But, in any case, Walter and Cynthia have been childlessly divorced for some time.

The Holly Star Lanes bowling alley is a performative space on par with Mr. Lebowski’s Pasadena White House. On the lanes, with “a league game” at stake, Walter arrives late, bearing a small dog container containing Cynthia’s small dog (16:40). Dude accidentally provokes Walter’s defenses by criticizing Walter’s pathetic sycophancy toward Cynthia, narrating his perception of Walther’s actions: “You brought your ex-wife’s dog bowling?”

As he quibbles with Dude over the semantics of “brought it bowling,” Walter’s eyes scan the Holly Star Lanes for a less painful trigger toward which he can direct his “Triggered Post-Traumatic Soldier” performance. The smell of athlete’s feet and aerosol cans hangs in heavy anticipation.

“Over the line!” Walter suddenly, and a bit ironically, bellows, ostensibly in response to what he perceives as a foul committed by a rival bowler, Smokey (a cameo appearance by pioneering Americana tunesmith Jimmie Dale Gilmore.) But, of course, Dude has crossed the line of Walter’s emotional defenses, as well. When Smokey refuses to admit the foul and change the score sheet, Walter pulls a pistol from his bowling bag and threatens Smokey with it. “You are entering a world of pain,” Walter informs Smokey, with believably deadly calm (18:00).

We in the movie audience may wisely infer that Walter has simply transferred his pain onto a convenient distraction; but for Smokey, a loaded combat-issue Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol pointed directly into his face by a raging hulk of a man known to have killed his way home from Vietnam is no mere theoretical abstraction. It is a confrontation with the very real possibility that Walter is about to perform, on his captive audience Smokey, that very role which resulted in the original traumatic stress that created Walter’s ongoing postwar disorder. Even Dude is unable to smooth over the crisis (18:00).

Smokey believes Walter in the part of a triggered “crazy fuck” who does “give a shit about the rules,” and who will shoot someone over a petty infraction of those rules. In fear for his life, Smokey changes the score sheet, and Walter “puts the piece away.” And yet, audiences both inside and outside the movie can’t help but wonder how strategic this catastrophizing of a toe slip may have been.

“This is a league game, Smokey,” is the closest Walter gets to apologizing. But, to whatever extent Walter’s violent outburst against Smokey may have begun as an “act,” nevertheless, it seems as though once he gets into the role, Walter is involuntarily swept away on his own very real PTSD.

Dude, however, is a harsh critic of Walter’s scene with Smokey. “Take it easy, man!” Even his review of Smokey is condescending and patronizing. “He’s fragile. He’s very fragile” (19:10).

Walter, in turn, seeks to moderate and control Dude’s affect by giving him “notes” on his own performance. “You’re being very un-Dude.” Walter concludes his defense by reminding Dude of the ultimate outcome. “And we do enter the next round robin. Am I wrong” (19:30)?

In spite of his partial confession to exaggerating his outburst in order to “win” a crucial match, Walter’s disability, if not always his performance of it, is painfully and undeniably real. The dysfunctionality of his coping mechanism—that well-worn performance of rage—is equally real, and equally painful, for Walter, and for everyone around him. It is not hard to deduce the root cause of Walter’s divorce from Cynthia. Later, we learn that another audience—perhaps, Walter’s true intended audience—has also been closely watching Walter’s scene with Smokey.

Jesus Quintana responds to Walter’s performance

Dude and Walter’s first scheduled opponents in the next round robin are a similarly Mutt-and-Jeff mismatched pair, Liam O’Brien (James G. Hoosier) and Jesus Quintana (John Turturro in a role-defining hairnet.) Walter explains to Dude that Jesus is a convicted sex offender, doomed to forever identify himself to his community as a “pederast.” Denied legally and morally acceptable opportunities to perform his sexual role in life, Jesus apparently sublimates his crippled desires into over-achieving on the Holly Star’s perfectly level lanes of play. He has even conditioned himself to enjoy the taste of lane oil sensually licked from a bowling ball.

In a film rich with MGM-style musical dance dream sequences, Jesus performs his own signature “Deviant Flamenco of the Lanes” ballet for the benefit of Dude, Walter, and Donnie (Steve Buscemi, proving once again that there are no small parts.) This includes a rudely phallic (if braced with metal) finger gesture of competitive dominance (25:00). Several other fingers are festooned with championship rings.

As he exits stage right, Jesus directs an address to Walter on the consequences of Walter employing one of his violent outbursts during their upcoming match. “If you try any of your crazy shit with us, you flash a piece out on the lanes,” Jesus will respond by confiscating Walter’s short arm, and then using it to perform a sexually lethal act within Walter’s anatomy. Jesus has fairly clearly alleged that Walter’s pistolet-à-tête with Smokey was a deliberate ploy to “psych out” future opponents; Jesus’s post hoc performance aggressively projects the suggestion that he was not intimidated by Walter’s show (29:15).

Coincidentally or not, Walter later engages in another passive-aggressive ploy. Playing on his self-proclaimed status as a “Shomer Shabbos,” an ultra-orthodox Jew, he menacingly insists that the upcoming match with Quintana and O’Brien be rescheduled (39:30).

This time, it is Jesus Quintana who irrationally catastrophizes an otherwise innocuous accommodation. He bursts onto the scene and launches into what seems to be his own “triggered trauma survivor” performance. Like Walter, Jesus’s affect and behavior rapidly spiral out of all control once his own traumatic memory is triggered. His histrionic threats of sexual revenge (101:00) against Walter are profanely reminiscent of the kinds of violent assaults Jesus implicitly suffered during his “six months at Chino [State Prison]” as a child abuser (26:50). To many audiences, Jesus’s unresolved pain may be as alien and unrelatable as Walter’s, but its real-world consequences are as universally felt, and as equally tragic.

Walter reviews Jesus’s outburst with Dude-like equanimity. “He’s cracking,” Walter explains, and thereby, perhaps, explains something more (101:09).

Maude’s feminism as disability

“. . . feminist theories all too often do not recognize disability in their litanies of identities that inflect the category of woman…Like disability studies practitioners who are unaware of feminism, feminist scholars are often simply unacquainted with disability studies’ perspectives” (Garland‐Thomson, 2005, p. 2).

Dude receives a message on his answering machine from Maude Lebowski, the daughter of Mr. Lebowski, confessing to having robbed Dude of the rug he just scammed out of her father. We—along with Dude—learn that Maude Lebowski might be called a feminist performance artist, in the sense that the performative process of creating her paintings and sculptures is at least as important as the finished artifacts themselves. It could even be said that her finished works primarily serve as monuments testifying to the performances involved in their creation.

Dude enters Maude’s performance-artist studio/theater in media res: Maude, nude, flying high above on a trapeze of some sort (which is manned by a brace of non-verbal flunkies,) flings streams and splatters of paint over a canvas that looks suspiciously like a Persian rug, squeaking like a Valkyrie Jackson Pollock, all set to the tune of performance artist Meredith Monk’s “Walking Song” playing on Maude’s Hi-Fi (43:00).

Dude takes in this ballet of mechanically supported ability with the same studied and cannabis-shaded passivity he had aggressively aimed at her father. In the throes of her Peter-Pan painting ecstasy, Maude manages to eject some collateral art onto Dude’s face, before descending to the floor and dismounting the apparatus. Maude (actress Julianne Moore wearing a prosthetic derrière,) now ex machina, is enrobed by the speechless flunkies (Carlos Leon and Terrance Burton.) She invites Dude to watch a recording of her stepmother Bunny performing her own extra-ordinary abilities in the independently Hollywood adult video epic, Logjammin’ (45:35).

Maude reviews Bunny’s differently abled on-screen performance as “compulsive, and without joy,” while passive-aggressively quoting reviews of her own performance art. “My work has been commended for being strongly vaginal.” Upon the finer aesthetic distinctions between Bunny’s “vaginal work” and her own, Maude does not elaborate. She does, however, imply a distinction between the sexual performance of Bunny, the “compulsive fornicator,” and her own “natural, zesty enterprises” in the genre of “coitus.”

That distinction comes down to Maude’s passive-aggressively defensive self-identification as a “feminist,” a socially and politically charged label that can sometimes “simultaneously devalue women who depart from the mandates of femininity by equating them with disabled bodies” (Garland‐Thomson, 2005, p. 8). A “myth about feminists” that Maude takes pains to dispel in her own neo-noir pas de deux with Dude. She even arranges for Dude to visit her doctor, “A good man, and thorough,” from whom she later receives a report on Dude’s own potential procreative abilities (48:10).

However natural and zesty Maude’s “physical acts of love” may be, many of her paintings/collages nevertheless feature the juxtaposing of sexual forms with images and sculptures of amputation and sexual mutilation, including a giant painting of a pair of dressmaker’s shears. Dude himself is haunted in his dreams by these oversized scissors, which he fears will be used by the cement-headed Uli (Peter Stormare in rare form) and his pair of twice-nothing Nihilist clods (lanky Torsten Voges wearing visual aids, and foreshortened musical performer Flea) to carry out their threat to “cut off your Johnson” (56:08)! In 2000, Carrie Sandahl observed: “In mainstream literature, film, and theatre, disability often serves as a metonym for emasculation” (p. 97). And, vice-versa? Is emasculation always a debilitating handicap?

Maude and Dude finally discuss the case. Maude suggests to Dude that Bunny has no doubt kidnapped herself, in an attempt to scam one million dollars from the Little Lebowski Orphan Achievers Fund. She offers Dude a 10-percent finder’s fee if he can recover the money—for her.

But, what is Maude’s disability? While Dude is engaged in viewing Maude’s work, she asks him, “Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski” (43:55)? This may imply that the acts upon female forms being performed in the photographs, and implied in her sculptures, are to be interpreted as resulting from this postulated discomfort. If so, then the performance of similar acts upon female forms by Maude as implied by the sculptures may in turn imply a similar discomfort on Maude’s part with her own female form.

This reading of her work raises an interesting question: as a woman and feminist (apart from her performance as artist,) does Maude perform the role of a fundamentally passive, even crippled, female form on whom others perform their own sexually violent psychological disorders? Or the role of something or someone more dynamic, more assertive, even aggressive? If the former, then Maude is perhaps performing her womanness as a disability; if the latter, then perhaps she is performing womanness as a response to her disability.

In either case, Maude’s works certainly enable her audience to encounter pain. (Ahmed, 2002). But, what about those (presumably many) occasions when there is no live audience—whether mute, stoned, or compulsive—to watch Maude perform her art?

In the classic 1931 horror film adaption of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, directed by Great War combat veteran James Whale and produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr., Dr. Frankenstein fervently desires to literally play God. His father, his mentor, and his fiancée all reject him in this role. So, he pastes together a new “man” from scavenged and amputated body parts to witness his “God” performance, and hopefully, even fall down in worship. Dr. Frankenstein succeeds in animating his cobbled-together Creature (an uncanny performance by Boris Karloff, rather like a marionette struggling blindly to pull its own strings—a bundle of prostheses imbued with a loose, primitive “will,”) but is sorely disappointed by the Creature’s reaction to his performance.

Maude’s living room/studio/operating theater is populated mostly by a mélange of figures made from deconstructed female mannequins and dressmaker’s dummies. Some of the mannequins have been dressed; some are wounded or mutilated; some appear to have been emphatically un-dressed (62:00). This body of work amounts to more than a simple collection of objets d’art. Each immobile figure visibly implies a performance of art-making which has resulted in its finished form. The creation of each creature, the performance of the role of traumatized artist, is at least as important as the damaged creatures themselves. And it might be worth remembering that the mannequins were originally crafted by skilled artisans engaged in the eternal process of commodifying female beauty.

A reading performed on one particular figure may suffice. It is a dis-armed mannequin of a female torso wearing a brassiere. This performance—by an entirely static, inanimate performer—of wearing the bra is perhaps reminiscent of performance artist Mary Duffy, but it also implies certain previous performances.

As a mannequin, it required the artist, Maude, to perform the putting on of its bra (63:00), so that the mannequin could then, by itself, perform the wearing of the bra. That is, the mannequin, by being passively dressed by Maude, has performed the disability of paralysis, and Maude, the artist, has performed the role of caregiver by putting on the bra for the mannequin.

If Maude is aware that “feminine cultural practices such as foot binding, clitorectomies, and corseting, as well as their less hyperbolic costuming rituals such as stiletto high heels, girdles, and chastity belts, impair women’s bodies and restrict their physical agency, imposing disability on them” (Garland‐Thomson, 2005, p. 17), then what does it mean that Maude—a performance artist—puts the bra on the mannequin?

Furthermore, the mere existence of brassieres also implies a cultural belief that the female bosom is a loose appendage that requires bracing, control, and concealment. The bra itself is supposed to be hidden under other clothing. But, what of the role of “Armless Woman Wearing Bra” being performed by the mannequin?

To a viewer who did not watch Maude put the bra on the mannequin, another reading is possible. Perhaps the mannequin woman has put on the bra, herself, before the loss of her arms. Or perhaps she, or someone else, has removed a sweater or blouse or dress, thereby revealing the wearing of the bra, thereby revealing the hidden prosthesis, thereby revealing the disability.

How important to these readings of unseen, putative performances is the fact that the mannequin has no arms? The mannequin has been manufactured with detachable arms. Who removed her arms? Maude? Surely, it is within the power of the creatrix Maude to endow her creature with arms. And if she did, could Maude infuse those arms with life, with agency, with the ability to put on and take off gendered clothing? Female figures taking off any and all manner of clothing has been a popular performance art since time immemorial. Yet, Maude was careful to ensure that Dude watched her mute, male amanuenses put her robe on her.

Maude is keenly aware of the appraisals of her critics. But, what of her fans? She has constructed for herself an audience of symbolically, sexually (or otherwise) mutilated womyn, for whom she could perform as Creatrix, thereby creating herself as a creature of her own creation. Who does one become, when one performs for the mirror only? A reality-enabled, real human being thriving by means of affirming mutual support and empowering self-discovery? Or, a frustration-doomed fantasy painted in the gaudy palette of corroding vanity?

The toe

In film noir, “an incidence of disability also often serves as inciting incident or point of crisis in the drama. (David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have given a name to this device: ‘narrative prosthesis’)” (Sandahl, 2002, p. 19). The plot will later reveal that life has imitated Maude’s performance art. A female toe, complete “with nail polish!” has been amputated with shears by a member of Maude’s studio audience, with the intention of coercing the payment of the ransom money. The significance of this artistically disembodied toe will be hotly debated by Dude and Walter in a diner (53:10). Walter clairvoyantly envisions a scenario in which the bloodied toe described by Dude was that of another woman, amputated with “pinking shears” and prosthetically substituted for Bunny’s intact appendage. Dude, whose guilt over passively cooperating in Walter’s plan to embezzle the ransom money clouds his detective’s judgment, is unconvinced.

Audiences both inside and outside the movie eventually learn that Maude’s old acquaintance, Uli, who is also Bunny’s costar in the “[vagina] picture,” has persuaded his doormat of a girlfriend, who is so unstrung by her gender that she doesn’t even have a name, let alone sufficient agency to order her own pancakes (95:05), to “give up her toe” (102:10), in order to pass it off as one of Bunny’s. The loss of even a single toe can be not only traumatic, but will also require extensive rehabilitation in order to avoid a partial disability for the “nine-toed woman” in question (a haunted Aimee Mann.)

Yet, Uli’s act is somewhat more comprehensible when one watches the Lebowskis through his eyes. Don’t all the Lebowskis live in one or another paradise of idle luxury? Uli and his friends, presumably post-Cold-War East German immigrants, have catalytically observed the paralytic corrosion of Bunny’s marriage to Mr. Lebowski. What other reading could they perform, other than to conclude that a minor (or, even, affected) disability is the ticket to wealth in an America where the streets appear to some to be paved with compensation gold? Dude himself concluded that Mr. Lebowski is the person who should “compensate me” for his tangentially soiled rug (9:47).

Walter vs Mr. Lebowski

In his first scene with Mr. Lebowski, Dude fulfilled his part of the performer/audience bargain. By performing the role of the passive-aggressive Arrested Adolescent, Dude validated Mr. Lebowski’s performance of the Sternly Able Father. Dude’s attitude toward Mr. Lebowski could even be seen as an inverted form of “applause,” since Dude’s disrespect acknowledges that a respect has been earned. Walter, on the other hand, presents Mr. Lebowski with a problematic audience.

Similar to the way Dude’s viewing of Mr. Lebowski’s first performance had been prejudiced in a certain way by the fawning tribute performed by Brant, Walter’s critique of Mr. Lebowski’s paralysis play is no doubt colored by his foreknowledge that Mr. Lebowski is a bona fide business and professional fraud. “I’ve seen a lot of spinals, Dude. And this guy’s a fake!” Walter declares ominously (98:00).

Once again carried away on his own impulses, Walter lifts an unwilling and frightened Mr. Lebowski out of his chair. Assuming that Mr. Lebowski can really stand and walk, Walter sets him loose. Mr. Lebowski painfully falls to the floor, and for once, Walter is painfully embarrassed.

Ironically, Walter’s challenge to Mr. Lebowski to stand up and walk—or at least, appear to walk, as FDR did—can also be seen as a form of approbation of Mr. Lebowski’s well-rehearsed performance as a man who has made himself “whole” by disdaining all pity, even self-pity. This is drama, after all, and although a popular “cult classic” comedy, The Big Lebowski is also a tragedy in many ways. Mr. Lebowski’s tragic flaw is perhaps his convincing performance as a not-disabled, disabled man. That is, his denial of his physical handicap could perhaps be said to be his disability. By pretending, by performing the role instead of living it, he has denied himself the opportunity to really live.

It is not Walter who has reduced Mr. Lebowski to floundering on the floor helplessly. It is Mr. Lebowski’s own false performance of feigned ability. One might even say that he has discriminated against himself. Even in pain, weeping face-down on the rug, in the depths of his humiliation at the misguided hands of a fellow wounded warrior, Mr. Lebowski’s performance remains consistent in one respect—the dog, sensing Mr. Lebowski’s very real pain and grief, tries to kiss away his tears. Stubbornly disdainful of pity, Mr. Lebowski brusquely waves the dog, and sympathy, away.

Real-life spinal injury survivors and their caregivers among the movie audience might critique Mr. Huddleston’s portrayal of a paraplegic blowhard more finely than we. Danny Murphy, a wheelchair bound actor, ably played a disabled villain in the contemporary bowling movie Kingpin. Yet, perhaps, the inevitable phoniness of an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character could be defended as adding to the overall phoniness of the character. And of course, it would be difficult and probably dangerous for an actor like Mr. Murphy to play the scene where Walter picks up Mr. Lebowski and, in tragicomic anticlimax, dumps him on the floor.


In the end, Donnie suffers that ultimate unloosening which must inevitably come to us all, cradled in the courageous arms of Walter, within sight of a handicapped reserved parking space. The only attempt at a healing touch made in a movie featuring a surprising number of violent assaults. Yet, the trail of disability performances enriching this enduring film has led their reluctant audience, Dude, to the solution of the mystery, as he explains to Walter: “The million bucks was never in the briefcase…You threw out a ringer for a ringer” (95:50).

And the key to cracking the case lay in Dude’s recognition of the essential phoniness corrupting Mr. Lebowski’s performance of the role of the un-dis-abled disabled veteran. A phoniness unavoidably endowed to the character by the actor David Huddleston, who, nevertheless, overcame his obstacle of an intact spinal cord to captivate his devoted audience with a timeless performance of hapless pathos.

Ahmed, S. (2002). The Contingency of pain. Parallax, 8(1), 17–34.

Garland‐Thomson, R. (2005). Feminist disability studies. Signs, 30(2), 1557–1587. 

Goffman, E. (1956). The presentation of self in everyday life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.

McAuley, G. (2010). Space in performance: making meaning in the theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Mondin, A. (2016). Fighting pain with pain: Bob Flanagan/Sheree Rose and Catherine Opie. Graduate Journal of Social Science, 12(1), 40–65. 

Sandahl, C. (2002). “Considering disability: disability phenomenology’s role in revolutionizing theatrical space.” Journal of dramatic theory and criticism, 0(2), 17–32. 

Sandahl, C., & Auslander, P. (Eds.). (2005). Bodies in commotion: disability and performance. University of Michigan Press. Retrieved from 

Savran, D. (1998). Taking it like a man white masculinity, masochism, and contemporary American culture. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 

Stoppard, T. (1988). Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern are dead. London; Boston: Faber and Faber. 

Whale, James. Frankenstein. Universal Pictures, 1931.

3 thoughts on “Performing and Watching Disability in The Big Lebowski”

  1. This was a fresh take on a movie I’ve seen about 50 or more times. I recognize some of the topics discussed here from listening/watching listening, but it was good to get the more detailed version in this essay. I especially liked the section on Walter; there’s much more to that character than the obvious, and you really brought out the some of nuances of Goodman’s performance. I also “had not considered that” Bunny can be thought of as performing a disability. Thanks for posting this.

    1. As a side note, I got my doctorate at Brandeis, where some of the major scholars in Disability Studies began to formulate some of the basic questions in that field.

      Also -> “had not considered that” – my attempt at quoting Brandt from memory, but most likely, a misquote ha!

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