1) What Condition My Condition Is In
The first time I saw The Big Lebowski was in college with a group of my friends; we figured we weren’t real college students unless we’d seen it. I was having a good time and then, about twenty minutes in, I sat forward. Donny (Steve Buscemi) first appeared onscreen—after getting that graceful opening strike—and something stirred inside me. I was startled by the feeling—I’d never felt anything like that before. I gazed into those big, soulful eyes and I wondered.
The Big Lebowski loves the average—and even below-average—human being. The first sequence at the bowling alley plays like a synchronized swimming routine, a ballet made up of rows of untidy, out-of-shape-looking people. Instead of chiseled jaws, we have doughy cheeks and paunchy stomachs. And the camera adores them: they’re beautiful.
Walter (John Goodman) has clearly been damaged by war—his outbursts are played as part of the film’s weird humor but underneath there’s knife-sharp truth. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a complete mess, unwilling—and probably unable—to go anywhere with his life, but somehow pretty okay with that. And Donny? Donny is a bit of an enigma. He mostly listens, but everything he hears has to ruminate in his brain before he can come to a proto-understanding of it. By then the conversation around him has already moved on.
Donny is by no means The Big Lebowski’s most important character. It’s the Dude’s movie, whether he wants it to be or not, but Donny’s purpose is to give the film its heart. You like Donny; you know he’s probably a mess but you don’t want him to die and when he does, he’s missed. This is a film about empathy for the human soul. A soul that is unkempt, perhaps even slovenly, but no less deserving of compassion.
2) I Got It Bad
The second time I saw it was about a year after that with a different group of friends. Donny spoke one line in that bewitchingly nasal voice and I felt the same stirring as before. Halfway through the movie, I realized what it was.
This was love.
When you sit down to watch a Coen Brothers movie, there is a part of your brain that’s aware that you’re not going to see exactly what you expect. Who would have foreseen a retelling of The Odyssey, set in the 1930s Deep South and speckled with folk songs; or the tale of a murderous hitman, operating out of a cozy Midwest town? H.I. McDunnough is a complete disaster of a person, but you still want him to have the chance to be a father. Llewyn Davis can’t seem to make the right decisions, steamrolling every opportunity he’s handed, but despite everything the viewer can’t help but have pity for the guy. The Coens play around with conceptions and misconceptions, altering deceptive perceptions and creating strange situations where the viewer can’t help but feel empathy for unexpected characters. I never expected to fall deeply in love with a character played by Steve Buscemi, but here we are.
Why do Walter and the Dude keep Donny around? Because he completes them.
3) His Eyes are a Blue Million Miles
The third time I saw The Big Lebowski was just this last summer, alone, on my laptop, and I recognized that what I feel for Donny is not just love, it’s adoration. I want more than anything to protect this small, wiry, bug-eyed man, and that’s a powerful emotional response to get for a character who has maybe fifteen short lines to himself (most of those repetitions of other lines belonging to other characters).
Donny exemplifies that almost impossible to describe vibe that the Coen Brothers have in most, if not all, of their films: a quiet melancholy, not underneath but entwined with the humor, that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You laugh at all of Walter’s shut-the-fuck-up-Donny’s, but within that laugh there’s a pang of something deeper. When the Coens are at their best, what they create is not tragedy, not comedy, but something right there in the middle.
Donny hardly exists outside of the bowling alley and the parking lot where he eventually meets his end. He lives and dies in that space, doing what he loves. His pleasures are simple: he likes bowling and In-N-Out. He’s just this guy who tries really hard but never seems to get anywhere, and in this way he ends up becoming the soul of the film: another one of those quintessential Coen characters who seems disposable but whom the story would never be able to do without. He is inept yet dogged, spacey yet caring, shy yet unable to resist speaking his moral view, and when he dies you feel the loss alongside Walter and the Dude.
Theodore Donny Kerabatsos is love, personified.