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Ellen Barkin’s Bite

One of America’s best actresses just won’t take it easy

Ellen Barkin

Ellen Barkin in a scene from the film 'The Big Easy.'

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

No one can take a punch like Ellen Barkin. An emotional punch, that is. In her first film, Diner, her husband (Daniel Stern) berates her for filing a James Brown LP under “Rock & Roll” instead of “R&B,” and her tart mask of defiance cracks, her lips press together, and her eyes roll up in a vain attempt to hold her face in line. And in a scene from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, when her husband (David Strathairn) tells her he’s leaving, she winces, and one fears for an Instant that her features will fly to all corners of the room.

That face, with its lopsided grin, wide-set eyes, and crooked nose, has been described many times. It’s a face that has been broken in by life: every emotion seems to twist and buffet it.

To watch that face express pleasure is marvelous. In the wonderfully daft new thriller The Big Easy, Barkin plays a prim, by-the-book assistant district attorney who’s seduced by a cocky New Orleans police lieutenant (Dennis Quaid). Although the film won’t be released until the end of August, their sex scene is already famous:

“I’m not very good at this,” Barkin cries, turning onto her stomach. “I’m nervous. I can’t relax. I’m very embarrassed.”

Quaid grins rakishly, says, “Relax, cher,” and reaches under her skirt.

“Stop that!”

“What?”

That!!” Holding on to the bedpost, Barkin gasps, her features frozen in astonishment, but after the first shock of his touch wears off, she lets the bliss play over her face; soon she and Quaid are kissing and yanking at each other’s clothing and laughing like children. Little is removed, but it’s one of those rare sex scenes that don’t come off as generalized panting and posing — the giving and receiving of pleasure is palpable. It changes the way we watch the movie, the way we watch Barkin. For the rest of The Big Easy, we’re totally plugged into her.

It would be premature to call Ellen Barkin the best actress in America, but few who have seen her work would argue that she hasn’t the smarts and the talent to be just that, and soon. If Hollywood executives didn’t prefer their actresses to be conventionally, symmetrically beautiful — not to mention compliant (or, at least, less of a pain in the ass for producers than Barkin tends to be) — she’d be working as often as she wanted on whatever kinds of projects she chose.

But Barkin is not conventionally pretty (hers is an eye-of-the-beholder beauty) and certainly not a star, a fact that bothers her not because she wants limos and parties and throngs of screaming fans but because she wants better parts and less hassle once she gets them.

Although she works only every nine months or so, each appearance registers, even in films that don’t. Tender Mercies, Daniel, Buckaroo Banzai, Harry and Son and Desert Bloom didn’t burn up the box office, but Barkin has a shot at a bigger audience with The Big Easy, a thriller that’s closer to the Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell comedy His Girl Friday than to Beverly Hills Cop. In November, she’ll be seen in Mary Lambert’s Siesta, a dreamy, surreal portrait of a daredevil obsessed with her mentor (Gabriel Byrne). It features Julian Sands and Jodie Foster (with cameos by Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen and Grace Jones), not to mention Barkin on a tightrope and, for the first time in a movie, Barkin in her birthday suit.

Face to face, Barkin’s features are even more arresting than onscreen, and she’s dressed to show off her lithe, athletic body (she works out a lot). She can also be wickedly funny and candid; donning a pair of thick glasses, she admits she can’t see a thing while she’s making a movie: “Without contact lenses you get this squinty thing going, and everybody thinks you’re concentrating.”

She lives in Greenwich Village, in a cavernous loft divided by curtains instead of walls. The kitchen is well-stocked with health food; she notices me eyeing her grains and says, “Oh, God, am I going to have to read about the bags of millet?” Barkin says she quit drinking (“It makes me look bad”) and doesn’t eat meat, but that doesn’t stop her from taking a sip or Armagnac and sampling some sweetbreads at dinner. “I like anything that’s organ oriented,” she says. “Oh, God, what a quote. I can see it now.”

Barkin moves easily from talking about Henry James and Jane. Austen to a dismissal of the “hip sulkiness” that even good American actors tend to cultivate. She’s hard on all French actresses except Nathalie Baye. “They have no personality, those French girls, no spark,” she says. “You’d think if you stuck them with a pin, they’d maybe pop their lip out a little further.” She’s sharp, all right — even her name suggests noise, defiant self-expression. She has a lot to prove.

Ellen Barkin was born thirty-three years ago in the Bronx. When she was six, her family moved to Queens, but in spirit, she’s never left her first neighborhood; her conversation is both pugnacious and fluid, like that of a Jewish aunt gone punk. In school, where you were either a “hitter” or one who got hit, she was a hitter; deposited in honors classes, she’d ignore her brainy classmates and hang out with what her brother, George, calls “more experienced individuals.”

In seventh and eighth grades, Barkin was teased a lot. “She would get me to beat up the ones who called her flat chested,” says George. “I’d have to do yeoman service.” In ninth grade, Mother Nature corrected the problem, and Barkin says she became a nicer person. Her twin obsessions remained boys and clothes, but she nurtured a secret ambition to act.

Barkin chose to attend the New York High School of Performing Arts. “My Fame school,’ she says. “They were very mean to me. I guess I didn’t fit into their mold.”

What were they looking for?

“A straighter nose, possibly. I mean that. They just told me basically I should try to search my soul very deeply and find something else I could do.”

It wasn’t as if she were the only kid they, picked on. “It was genocide,” she says, “but everybody would drop out. People would have nervous breakdowns.” She hung on and did her class work but was cast in only one play. To her parents’ horror, she quit Hunter College after half a day and spent the next two years as a waitress in Greenwich Village. When she returned to school, she chose a double major in theater and ancient history so she wouldn’t have to tell people she was studying acting. “I didn’t do a play until I was twenty-six,” she says. “I never did a play in college. Never.”

She avoided doing a thesis production. “It had something to do with my not being matriculated the last six months,” she says. “I probably just didn’t want to be in that play. I wasn’t ready. . . . This way I just studied acting for about eight years. I wanted to be as secure as I could possibly be in that area. I wanted to know that I knew what I was doing.”

Her first break came by chance. A man sitting behind her at the theater asked what she did. “I’m an actress,” she told him, unprecedentedly. He was a director. The encounter led to her first audition and her first play. “I don’t know if I would have forced myself to do anything. Maybe I would have found something else to do. I’m not terribly ambitious or driven.”

Barkin did a few TV movies and a useful stint on Search for Tomorrow, then was offered the part of a steely TV-news assistant in Barry Levinson’s Diner. She had played only “bad girls” up to that point, but for Diner she asked to read for a different kind of role; that of a neglected wife. The film, with its loose, ingratiating small talk, was a surprise hit, and Barkin’s performance won her reviews most young actresses would sell their souls for. After that, the offers of bad-girl parts stopped coming; she went on to play wounded women in Tender Mercies, Daniel and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (her favorite performance).

Barkin is drawn to vulnerable characters, partially because of her looks but also because the roles are challenging. “There’s a lot more you can do with somebody with a big problem than with someone who’s strong and self-assured,” she says. “I don’t think you always have to be telling some gut-wrenching secret, but you must spend two hours exposing yourself. It’s something you don’t get to do in life. You’re taking this great opportunity to say, ‘I can do this now, and nobody’s going to take advantage of me or attack me because of it.”‘

She also believes that she’s filling a void. “Those are the women who are neglected on film,” she says. “And the ones who need the most attention. They’re hardly ever portrayed — and hardly ever portrayed honestly. I like people to feel it’s not so bad as opposed to ‘Why don’t I just blow my brains out ’cause I’ll never look like that girl on the cover of Cosmopolitan.”‘

Encouraging women to be strong, even as they’re pushed around, is a task for which she’s well suited. After all, she’s still something of a hitter on movie sets.

“I fight for what I want,” she says. “I don’t respect actors who don’t, and I don’t feel safe acting with them. The harsh reality is that the actor really is the last one to be considered. That’s the way moviemaking is set up. Because if the camera breaks down, they have to wait to fix the camera. But if you break down emotionally, they sure don’t have to wait for you to fix you.”

These days, her reputation tends to precede her. Jim McBride, the director of The Big Easy, says, “When I first met her, I told her I heard she was a pain in the ass, and she said, ‘Only about the movie, and you can ask any director.’ She’s right. She is a pain in the ass, and only about the part.”

As written, the part of Anne Osborne was the usual subordinate heroine, but she was the love interest, pursued instead of dumped by the hero, with a chance to be funny and aggressive. Barkin wanted to play that kind of character for a change and fought Constantly to make it richer. “Ellen was being a good actor, trying to make sure that everything she did made sense for her character,” says McBride. “Every once in a while I’d throw a curve at her, and she’d straighten it out. She’s combative, that’s her style. But I like it. I came from New York. That’s how you take care of things. You yell and scream.”

There was a lot of screaming over the sex scene, which the producer feared would be offensive to women. In fact, it was the scene that had initially attracted Barkin to the film — the one that suggested the story’s potential for giddy, offbeat relationships. “Everything was traded off for that scene,” she says. “And Jim shot it on the last day, so it was his way or the highway.”

McBride wanted Barkin to play it with her clothes off (“I’m always up for a little skin,” he says); the actress insisted it would be more exciting if she kept them on. “She was right,” says McBride. But Barkin agreed only reluctantly to the close-up of her face by the bedpost and begged everyone to leave the room before she’d do it. “I was hysterical,” she says. “But everyone was very respectful. I think Dennis was a little horrified when I pulled his pants down. We hadn’t practiced that, and I know he got mad at me. I understood him completely. If, in the middle of a scene, someone just ripped my blouse off, I’d say, ‘Excuse me. Cut.”‘

McBride and Quaid had to fight to get Barkin in the movie at all; McBride remembers the producer saying she’d be cast over his dead body. Barkin spent much of her free time hanging out with Jim Jarmusch, who was directing Down by Law in the same city. (She has a fiery cameo that’s the best thing in that picture.)

Conflicts and crises do tend to dog her. A friend, actress Joyce Hyser, says, “Ellen is highly professional, and she ends up with a lot of people who are not. When she works, she gives 100 percent, and she’s very vulnerable and extremely sensitive. If she expects a prop to be in a certain place during a scene and it isn’t there, she comes off looking bad, because she ends up throwing a fit and acting like a cunty little actress.”

Though she’s a bit pained by it, Barkin acknowledges the description. “Because you’re in the middle of acting,” she says, “you’re not controlling your emotions on any level, so if something goes wrong, you’re still in that land. If you’re expected to be open and vulnerable in the middle of scenes and a light falls on your head, you’re not going to act mature. The whole point of acting is to respond with your gut. . . . But I’m learning to pick my fights more carefully.”

She might have to. “She’s gotten a terrible reputation,” says Hyser. “I was at a dinner one night with a couple of studio executives. They were casting a movie that Ellen would have been perfect for, and somebody said something like ‘Ellen Barkin, she’s so great,’ and this guy went into this tirade about how difficult she is to work with and she holds everything up. I went crazy, because it’s so unfair. Most great actresses have a reputation for being difficult. Debra Winger — you mention her name to most producers and directors, and they just start shivering. But she’s a star.”

Barkin stresses that she’s not a prima donna. She isn’t late for work, and she doesn’t lobby for close-ups. Actors tend to like her. “She’s very smart and very giving,” says Quaid. “She’s always challenging you to put out who you are. She’ll challenge your personality, your intellect, your wit.” Gabriel Byrne, the Irish actor who played love scenes with her in Siesta, put it more poetically: “She generates a storm outside scenes; you think she’ll bring the storm into scenes. But it’s like being in a quiet room, acting with her, like closing the door on a storm outside. She’s completely free of the angst and torture so many actors struggle with.”

Barkin has always fancied herself an outsider, at odds with the establishment, and she hates the routines in Hollywood — auditioning for roles at cocktail parties, suffering fools gladly. Going to Europe to film Siesta provided an escape. But the shoot proved physically and mentally grueling. Although Barkin worked closely with director Mary Lambert, the financing was never secure, and as an Evel Knievel type, she took constant physical risks. She remembers that when the original producers saw her get injured one day, they were heard to say, “Let’s get the fuck out of here, Ellen just got hurt.”

“Unnecessary insults were laid at her feet,” says Lambert, “and she was working so hard. But Ellen pretty much won psychologically. Boy, can she give it back. She can speak on her feet in a way I’m envious of.”

For much of Siesta, Barkin appears as a kind of apparition, wandering through her own life. In those scenes, she was forced to hold back, and the restraint terrified her — she wasn’t sure the camera could pick up what she was feeling. “That’s where she trusted me the most,” says Lambert, “even more than in the nude scenes. She’d get depressed and say, ‘Mary, I feel like I’m dead, I feel like I’m not in the movie.”‘ After Siesta, Barkin vacationed in Italy, came home to collapse and hasn’t worked since. She is, by her own admission, lazy; when she’s not doing a role, she hangs out in her apartment, sometimes not emerging for days. She reads about three scripts a week. “They’re almost all shit,” she says. “There’s no nice way to say it.” She has never initiated a project, although, she has been working with a young director, Claude Kerven, on Mortal Thoughts, a black comedy set in Queens. She’d love to do it with her hero, Debra Winger, but at the moment the project is in “the endless turnaround.”

Barkin passes on many scripts — films that go on to make actors stars — because she doesn’t respect them. Saying no gives her a sense of control most actresses don’t have. “The least you can do is make sure you’re never embarrassed by what you do,” she says. “And the most you can do is always be proud of it — not necessarily proud of your work, but proud of what you’re part of. I couldn’t be in Top Gun. Sometimes I think I’m a little extreme, but I know if I try to be another way, I just can’t. Even my agent will say, ‘Don’t do it. You’ll be miserable, you’ll make them miserable, you don’t mind staying home.”‘

All of which doesn’t change the fundamental problem: that one of the best actresses in America is not, at the moment, acting. Of course, the kinds of roles she wants may come her way more frequently — if The Big Easy is a hit.

“I’d be delighted,” says Barkin. “I’d be vindicated that I could be in a hit movie . . . that was one of mine, not one of theirs.”

In This Article: Action Movies, Coverwall

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