Friday, July 6, 2007

Ellen Barkin Mon Amour

The following column is reprinted from the July issue of Providence Monthly
By Scott Duhamel

Try as I might I can just can’t whip up much in the way of interest for Steven Soderbergh’s trio of George Clooney/Brad Pitt rat pack caper films, Ocean’s Thirteen being the third and latest. Soderbergh certainly ranks as one of Hollywood’s premier directorial talents as evidenced from his clarion call of a debut, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), through such diverse offerings as Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Traffic (2000), among others. It’s tough to fault the often bold (‘91’s Kafka, ’96 Schizopolis), or even experimental (‘03’s Full Frontal, 05’s Bubble), filmmaker for taking a deep, warm, bath in the sparkling waters of the Hollywood entertainment whirlpool machine, but something just seems off that such a smart talent could willingly wile away time, energy and huge dollops of greenbacks in the guise of such empty exercises in titillation. I’ve got nothing against male camaraderie, breezy charm, throwaway dialogue and eye winking acting, I even get a kick out of seeing both Carl Reiner and Elliot Gould strut their stuff among the other youthful roosters, but how much investment can one put in patting the backs off Clooney and his fellow rascals as they breeze their way through yet another extended trifle, rife with glossy editing and yet another head-scratching scheme posing as plot?
Besides the somewhat comic inclusion of Al Pacino as the villain-of-the-piece this time around Ocean’s Thirteen does have one element going for it that more than tickles my fancy, the inclusion of the one and only Ellen Barkin as a comic femme fatale. It’s sadly true that many of us who spend inordinate amounts of time with eyes wide open in the dark often develop hard-to-fathom, tough-to-explain, reality dodging crushes on those that parade before us, high and wide on the big screen. I’ve personally felt my heart dance the conga more than a few times while at the movies, worshipping the likes of Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Janet Leigh, Angie Dickinson, Jane Fonda, Jeanne Moreau, Julie Christie, Faye Dunaway, or Charlotte Rampling. But, there is something about Ms. Barkin that really does it for me-a combination of quirky good looks, a sharp mouth and sharper mind, legs that won’t quit, and a mischievous sense of ironic detachment. It seems that Ocean’s Thirteen is a comeback of sorts for Barkin, after she basically withdrew from movie-making for a while, having followed a quite acceptable marriage to the talented Irishman Gabriel Byrne with an inexplicable one to millionaire Ron Perelman. I don’t think the lovely Ellen has yet turned in a truly career defining role, although her early, pre-Perelman work has many highlights, which we’ll go through below, in a clearly unhinged (but highly lineal) attempt to justify my fervent admiration for the one and only Ellen Barkin.

Diner (1982) Forever memorable as the sweetly confused and conflicted young wife caught in times-they-are-a-changing Baltimore, the lone woman that registers equally in a male dominated (and themed) film, one heartbreaking scene apiece with Mickey Rourke and Daniel Stern.

Tender Mercies (1984) As the long estranged daughter of country singer and hard guy Mac Sledge (Robert Duval) Barkin utilized her pungent mixture of toughness and vulnerability to make her mark in a relatively small but pivotal role.

Eddie and The Cruisers (1983) Although the role, female reporter looking into infamous band’s back history, was about as stereotypical as all get out,
Barkin still manages to infuse it with a sense of intelligence, amidst a whole lotta pensive reaction shots.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984) Director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch strange sci-fi/comic book/pastiche/ parody places our gal Ellen as again the one woman of substance in an all male fantasy, as Penny Priddy the romantic counterpart and accidental heroine to Peter Weller’s surgeon/rock star/space adventurer Buckaroo. Very cool cult entry, with Barkin fully enjoying herself.

Desert Bloom (1986) Ms. Ellen is Aunt Starr, a 50’s hellcat and blonde bombshell around to show her niece Rose (Annabeth Gish) how to live (and not) outside society in the arid air and strangling desert of the Las Vegas bomb testing areas. A neat little flamboyant (but poignant) supporting turn.

Down By Law (1986) Barkin just kicks it her hilarious kick-him-out-of-house scene with Tom Waits, as she tosses his beloved record collection all over the streets of New Orleans while haranguing his hangdog DJ in this top notch Jim Jarmusch offering.

The Big Easy (1987) Perfectly paired with Dennis Quaid, they make a highly combustible romantic duo in this low-key Louisiana cop and robber swampfest, finally grabbing the type of leading role she could do in her sleep.

Siesta (1987) Strange, arty offering from RISD’s own Mary Lambert, with Barkin as a sexy mystery women in red, trying to recollect her recent past in Spain, mixing it up with the likes of Jodie Foster, Grace Jones, Martin Sheen, Julian Sands, Isabella Rosselini, and Gabriel Bryne. A mess, actually, a pretentious mess, but Barkin is sexier than ever.

Johnny Handsome (1989) Finally, another truly appropriate role for our gal, as moll/slut in a gang of thieves alongside cool daddy Lance Henriksen and revenge seeking Mickey Rourke as a deformed bad guy who gets a new face from Doc Forest Whitaker while copper Morgan Freeman attempts to round ‘em up in this truly diverting little cult film from macho man Walter Hill (The Warriors, 48 Hrs).

Sea of Love (1989) Outside The Big Easy, easily Barkin’s most well known work and biggest box office success, as the murder suspect and femme fatale to Al Pacino’s burnt out New York policeman, an erotic thriller in which Ellen B, simply burned baby, burned.

Switch (1991) Perry King and his shiny white choppers gets dead and comes back as lithe Ellen Barkin in this mostly misshapen Blake Edwards sexual identity comedy which is long on embarrassing silences and short on the heavy laffs, but Barkin goes all out as the man-turned-female doing the shuffle step in the wrong body.

Man Trouble (1992) The teaming of Barkin and Jack Nicholson along would director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) in this romantic comedy falls a little short, even with stellar back-up like Harry Dean Stanton and Beverly D’Angelo. It mostly fizzles instead of sizzles, although it’s nice to see our girl cast as a straight-up contemporary regular romantic lead.

This Boy’s Life (1993) Barkin stands right up with and right alongside Leo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro as a 1950’s mom without a whole mess of choices, all three going toe-to-toe in this evocative coming of age tale, adapted from Tobias Wolfe’s novel. A fine film and a pitch perfect performance.

Wild Bill (1995) Reteamed with Walter Hill, Barkin makes a fine Calamity Jane to Jeff Bridges Wild Bill Hickcock, an earthy, raunchy cowgirl dogged by unfulfilled love, in an un-showy, mature, hardscrabble turn.

1 comment:

mdoggie said...

Gotta say, maybe there is something to genetics 'cause Ms. Barkin has always done something special for my hormones as well. I recently watched "Buckaroo Bonzai..." which was really the first time I encountered her. I was really shocked to see how miniscule her role and her actual screen time is, the impression made was so lasting and large.
I think she's got a few years even on us. I defined her for years as the sexiest woman on screen and she still sizzles.
You left out one memorable and almost uncredited role as the knife-psyched waitress in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", gorgeous, sexy smart-ass to pitiably terrorized in one short sequence.