Under normal circumstances, it would almost certainly be considered unprofessional, even amateurish. As the group of actors sitting — literally sitting, in high-backed director chairs, never taking a single step — on the darkened stage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) begin their performance, there are any number of obvious mishaps. Almost immediately, a gray-haired actor stumbles over his lines, laughs and has to start over again. Later, when he says that he “lost his train of thought,” he looks into the audience and reminds them that the phrase is actually in the script. Amazingly, the star of the show can’t seem to stop gazing at the other actors and guffawing as they perform their lines. And then there is the director, who, far from being unseen and unheard, is sitting alongside the performers onstage and constantly chiming in.
Instead of being outraged and heading for the exits, the audience in the sold-out 600-seat Bing Theater is borderline ecstatic at all that is transpiring in front of them. Indeed, before the first line (“Way out west there was a fella”) can even be completed, there is a deafening roar of pleasure. And those who are inside the auditorium — where half the seats, in true L.A. fashion, seem emblazoned with “Reserved” signs — consider themselves lucky. A full hour and a half before what some would consider a train wreck of a $10-per-ticket show gets under way, the line for standby tickets (rarely available) stretches from LACMA’s breezy, outdoor entryway all the way out to the street.
Clearly, there’s nothing normal about either the performance or the audience reaction to it on a beautiful evening in Los Angeles. Which is more or less what Jason Reitman, the Oscar-nominated director of Juno and Up in the Air, was shooting for when he created the so-called “live read” series that brings together well-known screen actors to do dramatic readings of iconic films in front of exceptionally enthusiastic live audiences. “It’s a chance to see actors you only see on-screen read dialogue everyone loves,” he says. Since the series began last fall, Reitman, whose job it is during the performance to read the setup and description in the screenplays, has staged readings of such classics as The Princess Bride, The Breakfast Club and The Apartment, attracting marquee actors like Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Terrence Howard and Natalie Portman.
On this night, Reitman has assembled yet another all-star cast to do a reading of The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult classic about Jeff Lebowski, a schlubby middle-aged slacker who is mistakenly targeted first by two thugs in a case of mistaken identity and later by a group of heavily German-accented nihilists to pay a ransom. The lines outside LACMA — composed of people hoping to get tickets as well as those who already have them and want to be first in the door — are a testament to the enduring popularity of the film nearly a decade and a half after its original release. Not only are both lines teeming in the hour leading up to the doors opening, but they are also filled with people in some way paying homage to the film and its characters. Especially popular is a T-shirt that’s a riff on the famous stylized “Hope” image of then Senator Barack Obama (the image was popular during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign). Instead of Obama, the shirts show Jeff Bridges, the actor who played Lebowski (or, The Dude, as he is known in the film), and “Hope” is replaced by “Abide” — a clever inside joke for anyone familiar with the movie.
One of the things that Reitman has done to turbocharge interest in the live-read series is to wait until the last minute to announce the full cast. The lines outside are abuzz with his choices, which were announced on his Twitter feed. In the lead role, that of The Dude, is Seth Rogen, who was so eager to participate that he flew into L.A. from New Orleans, where he was prepping a movie. Also on board is Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander, in the role of the other Lebowski; Rainn Wilson from The Office, who takes on John Goodman’s role as the seething Walter Sobchak; Hank Azaria; Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks and Reitman’s sister Catherine. There is even one original cast member from the movie. Sam Elliott, the gray-haired actor who stumbles briefly at the start of the reading, reprises his role as The Stranger and is greeted with the largest ovation by the crowd when he’s introduced.