On a surface level, Barton Fink, written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is about a pretentious young New York playwright (John Turturro, in an admirably strange performance) and his tarnished career in Tinseltown during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age.
The title character is signed to a lucrative contract with a major Hollywood studio after his first play is a hit with Broadway critics (“a celebration of the common man”).
“They tell me you know the poetry of the streets, Barton,” barks crass, fast-talking studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner, perfectly cast), “That would rule out westerns, pirate movies, Bible movies …”
A shy, soft-spoken geek with oversized glasses and an Eraserhead-style haircut, Barton is obviously a misfit in his new environment (although it is hard to imagine this guy fitting in anywhere)
Living in the seedy Hotel Earle while trying to get a toehold on his first screenwriting assignment, a B-movie set in the world of wrestling, Barton suffers an almost terminal case of writer’s block. In desperation, he reaches out to fellow screenwriter W.P. Mayhew an alcoholic Southern novelist (played with deranged spirit by John Mahoney) and develops a lethal crush on Audrey (the always superb Judy Davis), Mayhew’s sympathetic and long-suffering secretary/playmate.
As fellow Coenheads know, the boys’ films can take some sharp and unexpected turns. So it is not giving away anything to say that it takes a bizarre and horrifying event to jumpstart the young writer’s imagination and get his creative juices flowing again.
Unlike, say, Fargo, Burn After Reading, and/or The Big Lebowski, 1991’s Barton Fink is not as immediately accessible as other flicks in Joel and Ethan’s ouevre.
To help you fully appreciate this willfully idiosyncratic film a little explanation may be necessary.
For example, the character of Barton Fink is said to have been inspired by Clifford Odets, a New York City playwright who got his first big break on Broadway and later moved to Hollywood.
The Coens supposedly based W.P. Mayhew on Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner, who, like Mayhew, was a Southern writer who loved booze and hated Hollywood. (Although most of Faulkner’s screen work is uncredited, his name appears in the opening credits for two of director Howard Hawks’ film noir classics: To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.)
And if you accept that Mayhew was modeled after Faulkner, it would seem natural that the character of Audrey is based 0n Meta Carpenter, Hawks’ secretary, script girl and (later), author of a memoir detailing her longtime love affair with Faulkner.
The character of Jack Lipnick is rumored to be a goof on Harry Cohn, whose career as a powerful studio boss is the stuff of Hollywood legend. And not in a good way.
As for the Hotel Earle, it is reputedly inspired by the infamous hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Not surprisingly, knowledgeable film biz types loved this film. It was a hit at Cannes where it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the ’91 festival. (Turturro was awarded Best Actor honors). Lerner picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy Award judges. (The film also earned Oscar noms for art direction, set decoration and costumes.) John Goodman, cast as Barton’s next door neighbour, Charley Meadows ( Charley seems to be a good-natured insurance salesman but I could be wrong) earned a Golden Globe nomination (Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture)
Vintage film buffs should like the weird spins on old movie cliches. David Lynch fans may appreciate the film’s vividly creepy sense of atmosphere.
Still, viewers accustomed to more standard forms of storytelling may be confused by the Twilight Zone-on-acid plotting (the pic is an odd choice for Netflix) and smug inside humor. Joel and Ethan draw from their seemingless bottomless bag of cinematic tricks to produce some nifty visual tricks but without any emotional resonance or really likeable characters the pic has a cool, detached quality.
Like a stereotypical Hollywood starlet, Barton Fink has a great body but no heart.