The Coen Brothers‘ ability to create amazing, ultra-memorable secondary characters with only a few lines of writing is something that all screenwriters can learn from. Consider the giant sea of utterly forgettable characters you’ve seen on-screen in your lifetime. Characters that had pages and pages and pages devoted to them, yet left you feeling like you’d just chewed on a bucket of plastic.
The contrast between these identikit characters, and the exceptional creations birthed by the Coens in THE BIG LEBOWSKI is stark, and all the more amazing for the compression of the writing – the incredible ability to say a lot with a little.
When creating secondary characters there is an important balancing act for screenwriters to create memorable and unique characters, but not to give them too much space in the screenplay or let them detract from the main characters.
We’ve compiled a list of the best secondary characters in one of the Coen Brothers’ most loved films THE BIG LEBOWSKI, to give screenwriters in-depth examples of how to tackle the challenge of creating distinctive secondary characters.
1. Jackie Treehorn
Jackie Treehorn is the character who sets the whole story in motion. His two hired accomplices who attack the Dude’s home and demand the money owed to Treehorn by Lebowski’s wife, create the inciting incident that propels the story forwards.
The accomplices mistake in attacking the wrong Lebowski establishes the central premise of the story, in which an extremely laid-back yet lovable slacker called the ‘Dude’ becomes embroiled in a ransom case that he has nothing to do with. The Dude then has to approach the real Lebowski and attempt to sort out the confusion.
Despite the Dude’s attempts to clear his name, explaining
‘I am not “Mr. Lebowski”. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing’,
…he is unable to extract himself from the mess created by Treehorn.
Jackie Treehorn acts as the overarching villain who must be dealt with before the Dude’s life can go back to normal. Rather than remaining an aloof and nondescript villain, the Coen Brothers give Treehorn a number of unique character traits in order to make him a complex and intriguing character. Treehorn is shown to be a wealthy pornographer and loan shark, at one point telling the Dude that
‘people forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone’.
Treehorn’s peculiar style and behaviour prompts the Dude to conclude that Mr. Treehorn “treats objects like women, man”; a statement that resides in the minds of the audience as a summary of Treehorn’s character.
2. Jesus Quintana
Jesus Quintana is a remarkable character whose dialogue is as eccentric as his appearance. Despite only having a few minutes of screen time, he manages to bring a sense of excitement and competition to the bowling scenes.
As a competitor to the Dude’s bowling team, Jesus’ confident appearance is as important as his bowling skill. His character introduction focuses largely on his peculiar physical traits and attire, such as his tight all-purple clothing, his one red long fingernail, finger brace and hair net, to name a few.
Jesus’ physical appearance is important in intimidating the Dude’s team, as are his peculiar mannerisms such as his desire to lick the bowling ball before sending it down the aisle. Jesus is significant for his bold persona and his confrontation with the Dude’s bowling team.
Jesus refers to himself in the third person and uses the English pronunciation of his name rather than the Spanish, making his confrontational approach all the more memorable when he declares
‘You said it, man. Nobody f**** with the Jesus’.
Although Jesus does not have a great impact on the plot, the detour taken to introduce his character is an important example of how the Coen Brothers make the most of every opportunity to create a three dimensional character. The Coen Brothers’ ability to make each minor character unique and complex has been praised by the actor John Turturro who has since expressed a desire to create a spin-off for his character, saying:
‘If I can get the permission I need, I’d like to return to that role… I have an idea, I want to do like a sequel where Jesus gets out of jail and drives a school bus. They like that idea! Because the guys that drive school buses, they never check them out. And you can just see the Jesus [grinning, bobbing his head] drivin’ the school bus’.
Brandt, the real Lebowski’s personal assistant, plays an important role in the story by acting as a mediator between Lebowski and the Dude. Brandt’s character is important in representing the position of the real Lebowski, and in ultimately alerting the Dude to the villainous ways of the real Lebowski side.
Brandt stands out from some of the other secondary characters due to his dialogue and professional manner. Brandt tries to maintain a manner of calm and is disciplined in his speech, as opposed to the foul language and rising tensions between the Dude and the real Lebowski.
Brandt provides an interesting contrast to the extreme characters around him. For instance, the way in which he tries to laugh off and underplay Bunny Lebowski’s proposition for the Dude, saying
‘Ah hahahahaha! Wonderful woman. We’re all, we’re all very fond of her. Very free-spirited’
…is a defining character trait.
Brandt’s professional businessman-like manner adds a different dynamic to the ransom proceedings and helps to move the plot along. Brandt is a character who attempts to be diplomatic, speaking to the Dude in a direct but polite manner –
‘Mr. Lebowski is prepared to make a generous offer to you to act as courier, once we get instructions for the money.’
Brandt is also important for trying to get the Dude to commit to the mission, by relentlessly repeating ‘her life is in your hands’ in order to scare and guilt the Dude into cooperating.
4. Bunny Lebowski
Although Bunny has rather few lines, she plays a central importance in terms of the plot. Her appearance, in particular the green nail varnish she uses, is a recurring image in the film. Bunny has a lot of different connections with the other secondary characters and her character is used largely as a vehicle to complicate the plot and further interweave the web of secondary characters.
Bunny’s apparent kidnapping sets in motion the main storyline focused on different parties trying to attain the briefcase of ransom money. This storyline allows the Dude to meet Maude Lebowski, which in turn facilitates Maude in achieving her goal of conceiving a child.
Bunny is a good example of a character whose position changes throughout the story. She is initially introduced as being the real Lebowski’s young trophy wife. However, it is later revealed that she is infact a porn star working for Jackie Treehorn and is friends with the nihilists, who use her excuse for making an unplanned trip as an opportunity to try and seize the ransom money themselves.
Bunny is therefore an important catalyst character who sets the main ransom money plot line in action and facilitates connections between the large group of characters in the film.
5. The Nihilists
The German Nihilists are a unique group of ex-musicians who have a significant effect on the plot. The Nihilists serve to complicate the plot by pretending to have kidnapped Bunny themselves, in order to demand the ransom money from the Dude.
The Nihilists act as a red herring, as it eventually revealed that they are friends with Bunny and therefore are unlikely to have kidnapped her. The Nihilists poorly thought-out kidnapping and ransom plan is amusing for the audience to watch, particularly as they take the situation to unnecessary extremes.
For instance, the severed toe that is supposed to be Bunny’s is somewhat unnecessary, as it fails to convince the Dude or get the Nihilists their ransom money. The comically over-exaggerated German accents as well as the Nihilists lack of understanding about the rules of ransom is particularly entertaining, as it leads to exchanges such as :
‘Nihilist: Ve vant ze money, Lebowski.
Nihilist #2: Ja, uzzervize ve kill ze girl.
Nihilist #3: Ja, it seems you have forgotten our little deal, Lebowski.
The Dude: You don’t HAVE the f****** girl, dips***! We know you never did!
[the Nihilists, stunned, confer amongst themselves in German]’
The fact that the Nihilists are so unaware that they are no longer threatening is also amusing, and allows the Dude to have the upper-hand for once. The relentless desire of the Nihilists to try and renegotiate, even after Walter has declared ‘these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of’ draws out the humour of the situation.
Their desperation to at least get something is especially laughable, as they state ‘Okay. So we take ze money you haf on you, und ve calls it eefen.’ Walter having to explain the rules of ransom to the Nihilists is a particularly memorable moment, as he states
‘ No, without a hostage, there is no ransom. That’s what ransom is. Those are the f***** rules.’
6. Knox Harrington
The enigmatic video artist Knox Harrington has one of the smallest secondary roles. He introduces himself as ‘just a friend of Maudie’s ‘ and reveals little else about himself. His most startling character trait is his uncanny laugh that he repeats throughout his scene with Maude and the Dude.
Knox’s laugh provides comic relief in the otherwise serious scene in which Maude and the Dude try to discuss the details of the kidnapping. Knox’s laugh echoing in the background serves to repeatedly interrupt Maude and the Dude’s discussion.
Knox represents one of Maude’s art crowd and is meant to give the audience a greater taste for Maude’s artist background. Knox is also important in alienating the Dude, both by his repetitive inappropriate giggling and through his bond with Maude, as by the end of the scene they are both laughing uncontrollably with the Dude looking on in confusion.
It is important that Knox knows all about the Dude, but the Dude does not know anything about Knox, as it further demonstrates the Dude’s alienation and unawareness of his surroundings. Knox curiously tells the Dude ‘ So you’re Lebowski. Maudie’s told me all about you’, while the Dude asks ‘Who the f*** are you, man? ‘
Knox’s alignment with Maude also extends to his tone, as he is equally abrupt and direct. Knox’s brevity of speech and curtness also adds an element of humour to his short scene, as after he asks the Dude if he would like a drink he adds ‘ The bar’s over there ‘, indicating that the Dude, despite having just made himself comfortable must serve himself.
7. Malibu Police Officer
Despite his small role in the film, the Malibu police officer is a very memorable character. The appeal of the character lies in his unconventional and unexpected demeanour. Although the idea of a villainous or uncooperative police officer is hardly a novel idea, there is a uniqueness to the tone of this character’s dialogue, which makes him stand out.
The calm and steady voice with which he delivers his lines is in stark contrast to the unpleasant content of his words. The officer’s initial composure when delivering his lines:
Mr. Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town. You don’t draw s**t, Lebowski. Now we got a nice, quiet little beach community here, and I aim to keep it nice and quiet. So let me make something plain. I don’t like you sucking around, bothering our citizens, Lebowski. I don’t like your j***-off name. I don’t like your j***-off face. I don’t like your j***-off behavior, and I don’t like you, j***-off. Do I make myself clear?
…adds another level of intrigue to his performance.
The officer’s violent outburst of throwing a coffee mug at the Dude’s head and kicking him to the ground, is then somewhat unexpected. The officer’s shocking behaviour together with his repeated bad language and complete lack of sympathy for the Dude leaves the audience with a memorable and bold performance.
The character of Smokey has a very small but nuanced role in THE BIG LEWBOWSKI. His character is particularly interesting and memorable due to his stark contrast to Walter Sobchak.
Smokey acts as the perfect foil to Walter, exacerbating his anger over the small details in the rules of bowling. Smokey’s character and his beliefs are in direct opposition to Walter, with him being a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam and an all together more calm character than the gun-wielding and violent Vietnam veteran Walter.
Smokey’s confrontation with Walter shows how a secondary character can be used as a catalyst to highlight the emotional composition of a more major character. For instance, their confrontation is important not only for how it introduces Smokey, but for the way in which it enhances the audience’s understanding of the more dominant character Walter.
The fact that Smokey supposedly goes over the line when bowling provides the opportunity for one of Walter’s most memorable rants, including the lines
‘You mark that frame an 8, and you’re entering a world of pain’
and ‘ Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!’
Walter clearly highlights the differences between himself and Smokey, also drawing upon the central theme of Vietnam that separates the two characters ideologically. Walter’s exaggerated response to Smokey’s small and disputable transgression also provides an opportunity for comedy, with memorable lines such as
‘ Smokey, this is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules. ‘
9. Maude Lebowski
Maude is one of the secondary characters with the largest roles in the film. She has a very distinctive way of speaking as well as clear motivations and a direct manner of approach. She not only stands out as a character in her own right, but she is also extremely helpful to the Dude in assisting him to track down the real Lebowski’s missing money.
Maude is a strong female character with a background as an avant-garde artist and feminist, asking the Dude questions such as
‘Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?’
She explains her intervention in the Dude’s life clearly and bluntly by leaving him a message saying ‘Jeffrey, this is Maude Lebowski. I need to see you. I’m the one who took your rug’. Maude is also one of the only characters who is willing to give the Dude any truthful or helpful information with which he is able to make progress in the ransom mystery.
Maude’s efficient manner also highlights how laidback the Dude is, creating an important contrast between the two characters. This contrast is particularly notable when Maude is explaining to the Dude the unlikely scenario that the Nihilists captured Bunny as they are friends, with the Dude responding in a round-about semi-incoherent ramble:
‘This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Luckily I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber.’
10. The Stranger
The character of The Stranger, played by Sam Elliot, is an interesting take on the traditional narrator figure. There is a playful irony in calling the narrator The Stranger as it is one of the characters the audience is most familiar with due to his regular narration.
The Stranger narrator plays a special role in the film as he not only carries out the typical narrative functions at the beginning, middle and end of the film, but he also interacts with the main character in unexpected moments. For instance, The Stranger also encounters the Dude at the bar in the bowling alley, to offer him some advice on his predicament.
The Stranger as narrator also does not employ a typically impartial or objective tone. The narrator provides subtle judgements on the Dude’s character and his situation. The Coen Brothers skilfully create humour in his lines as he calls attention to some of the inconsistencies in the story, but in a jovial, colloquial and light hearted way. His comments such as
‘Now, “Dude” – that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. And a lot about where he lived, likewise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so darned interestin’.’
reinforce that the Coen Brothers’ aim to foreground character rather than plot, as they explain that they wanted to write a story that
‘deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant’.
The Coen Brothers elevate the role of the narrator by making him an interesting character in his own right. His thick Texan accent and laid back style is in keeping with the ‘Dude’ himself, making him a perfect fit for the story. His description of the main character helps to acclimatize the audience to the tone of the story, as The Stranger explains
‘Sometimes there’s a man. I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? Sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talkin’ about the dude here, sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there, and that’s The Dude’ .
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