September 16, 2008
The Coen Brothers' Ladies
When I think of the most memorable actors and characters of the Coen Brothers' movies, I usually think of the men. There are guys they use again and again, like John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro, and those genius one-offs like Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, or Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. Spout made a really great list of 10 supporting Coen Brothers actors that often get overlooked, since it's often the supporting characters that give their movies their distinctive bizarre and unsettling style.
But what about the ladies? Just about all of their movies feature a bunch of male leads with only one main female character. In 4 movies now they've gone with their best gal Frances McDormand (Joel Coen's wife) and twice they've used Holly Hunter (in O Brother Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona.)
Coen Brothers women mostly conform to a type: they're tough as nails (if they aren't at the beginning of the movie, they definitely are by the end), often inscrutable and distant, and their no-nonsense exterior either masks a soft and tender interior (like Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, Holly Hunter and Frances McDormand as sweet but gutsy cops in Raising Arizona and Fargo) or amplifies a genuinely manipulative and selfish nature (Tilda Swinton in Burn After Reading or Frances McDormand in The Man Who Wasn't There.)
Others, like Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski, Marcia Gay Harden in Miller's Crossing, and Judy Davis in Barton Fink are also mysteriously sexy and remote, sometimes with a whiff of treachery. I can only think of one real casting misstep: Catherine Zeta-Jones in Intolerable Cruelty, which just didn't work.
One partial exception is Kelly Macdonald as the wife in No Country For Old Men--one of the few movies the Coen Brothers adapted from someone else's story. She has a small role, and lacks the grit of most Coen Brothers women, but in her final big showdown with soft-spoken psychopath Javier Bardem she shows an unshakable resolve and inner strength, and ends up kind of serving as the moral anchor of the whole movie [video].
Anyway, in their current movie Burn After Reading, there are actually two female leads, both of which are pretty ridiculous and insensitive people. Frances McDormand is a selfish but harmless woman who can't see anything beyond her own needs, though her chronic loneliness and moments of real joy in finding connections with other people makes her a bit sympathetic. Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, is an icy, cruel bitch on wheels, which makes the reveal of what her profession is towards the end of the movie the single funniest moment in the whole thing.
Burn After Reading has gotten a lot of lukewarm or negative reviews, largely from critics who compare it to the more serious variety of Coen Brothers movies like No Country. I loved No Country as much as anyone, but you've got to remember that at least half of their movies are goofy screwball comedies in which bumbling but lovable characters wildly chase after the things they desperately want, which they almost always fail to achieve. Three times in Burn After Reading different characters say "This isn't fun and games," by which I think the Coen Brothers are reassuring us that this IS all fun and games. In his review, one of the most positive ones I've seen, Roger Ebert notes that the plot doesn't matter at all--the strengths of the movie are the dialogue and the characters, both of which are as good as ever. It's inconsequential, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing.
Anyway, their next movie is called A Serious Man (that oughta make the No Country For Old Men-loving sourpusses happy.) It doesn't use any of their regular actors, and some of the cast have only worked in Minnesota theater--including leading lady Sari Lennick. I'm going out on a limb here and predicting that she plays a ballsy lady who doesn't take any crap. The movie also stars character actor Richard Kind and Broadway star Michael Stuhlbarg.
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