Reitman says that he was originally motivated to stage these performances because of his experiences doing so-called “table reads,” when actors gather before filming starts on a movie to read through a script together for the first time. It was such an entertaining experience when it was done in private that he thought it just might translate into a live performance as well, especially if he could manage to attract really talented actors. “What amazes me is to watch this group that hasn’t worked together, their chemistry is instant,” Reitman says. “It’s as if you took five great basketball players who have never played together and threw them a ball and started running plays.”
To select scripts and brainstorm with actors for the various roles, Reitman works with Elvis Mitchell, the former New York Times film critic who now works for Film Independent as curator of LACMA’s film series. Part of the criteria is to select movies that have relatively few locations and characters, although Reitman concedes that The Big Lebowski violates most of those rules. More important, though, is just to choose movies that exemplify great writing. “They all happen to be great scripts and stand on their own as dialogue to be recited and actors can find life in it,” Mitchell says about the lineup of the first season of live reads performed at LACMA. “You get to appreciate the writing of the material because you don’t have the elements of music or camera, and the audience gets pulled into the performance at hand.”
It probably never was going to be all that difficult for a director as acclaimed as Reitman to enlist actors to read these parts. But he insists that there are a host of factors that make it a compelling thing for them to make time to do — not the least of which is the fact that buzz around the live reads has been building with each performance, making it like a magnet to fans and actors alike. “It’s as much fun as you can have as an actor. There’s no rehearsal; you get to read the very best-written scripts in front of an audience that is thrilled to be there with other high-caliber performers,” Reitman says. “When else do you get that opportunity?” Besides the thrill of a live performance, which many film and TV actors don’t often get, the live reads are also solely about the actors. “On a movie set, there is a lot of pressure and a lot of money at stake,” Reitman says. “The timing and rhythm is controlled by the director — I can cut to and away from them when I feel like. Here, it’s in the hands of the actors.”
As the reading of The Big Lebowski unfolds, it’s clear that Reitman’s analogy about a team of all-star NBA players getting together for a pickup game is apt. Within about 10 minutes, any initial nervousness on the part of the actors has disappeared, and they seem to find their rhythm. What is especially interesting and intriguing is to watch and listen to something that is, on the one hand, completely familiar yet simultaneously different. “These actors take something we know and make it their own,” Mitchell says. Indeed, Wilson’s take on the Walter Sobchak character originally played by Goodman is recognizable but less blustery and intimidating; his lecturing and castigating of Lebowski and their fellow bowling partners is more weary than bullying. And Alexander’s role as the elder Lebowski is a departure from David Huddleston’s turn in the movie. “You know his Lebowski knows he’s a fraud and can’t keep it from anybody,” Mitchell says. “We are watching his delusion unfold.”
But what also becomes apparent is that the live read is a fundamentally different experience, for both the actors and the audience, from either a play or a movie. While there is the suspension of disbelief that is required for any audience to enter a fictional world created by the performers, it is not absolute. That may sound distracting, but it actually seems to enhance the experience. At one point, after Reitman’s sister delivers a particularly lurid line, he looks out into the audience and apologizes to his parents. “Sorry, Mom; sorry, Dad,” he says, eliciting a huge ovation. Later, Reitman is so mesmerized by what he’s watching that he forgets to read the next setup. At another point, noticing that Azaria hasn’t finished a piece of his dialogue, Rogen reaches over and turns the page of Azaria’s script.
These minor hiccups only serve to give the reading an altogether more intimate feel than a show that has a clear border between audience and performers. So, too, does the fact that the actors up on the stage don’t do anything to mask the pleasure they’re getting from watching their colleagues work. Time and time again, Rogen throws his head back in laughter as he watches Alexander or Wilson nail a line. Mitchell says that it’s such a rush for the actors that “they don’t want to go home” afterward.
John Bucher and his wife probably can relate. The couple arrived at LACMA at 4:30 p.m., three hours before the doors opened, to earn their place at the front of the ticket-holder line. A film buff who teaches at the L.A. Film Studies Center, Bucher says he was especially interested in seeing this particular live read because it is set in L.A. and includes a scene at the North Hollywood In-N-Out Burger, near where he lives. As the audience streams out the doors, Bucher says the live read exceeded his expectations. “If you love this film, this is better than a sequel,” he says. “This doesn’t take away from the original work. It’s an homage.”