Something very unusual happened at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival: for the first time, one film swept the three major awards: the Palm d’Or (Best Picture), Best Actor, and Best Director. In fact, this was so unusual that the festival established rules afterwards to prevent it from happening again; now, a film may earn at most two of those awards.
The 1991 film was “Barton Fink,” the actor was John Turturro, and the director was Joel Coen. (Fun fact: until “The Ladykillers” (2004), only Joel Coen was officially credited as director, even though he and brother Ethan share the duties. Once they were an established duo, convention allowed them to share directing credits.)
Turturro stars as the titular Barton Fink, a New York playwright in the early 1940’s who, after immediate success on Broadway, is lured out to Hollywood to write screenplays for big money. But once there, lodged in the oppressively empty and moist Hotel Earle, Barton is hit with crippling writer’s block as he struggles to pen a wrestling movie.
The Coens’ fourth film after “Blood Simple.” (1984), “Raising Arizona” (1987), and “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), “Barton Fink” was adored by critics, though audience members stayed away in droves (it only earned about $6 million toward its $9 million budget). And though it can be somewhat challenging at first glance, this is a wildly entertaining film, full of allegory and allusion, excellent acting, and the kind of dark humor we had already come to expect from the Coen Brothers.
In addition to Turturro’s wonderful work, other performances of special note are John Goodman as Barton’s hotel neighbor (the Coens wrote the part for him), Oscar nominee Michael Lerner as studio boss Jack Lipnick, the recently-deceased John Mahoney as a very Faulkneresque W.P. Mayhew, and Judy Davis as Mayhew’s long-suffering assistant and lover.
“Barton Fink” is also important because of who was not able to work on it. Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld had worked with the Coen Brothers on their first three films, but was busy filming his own directorial debut, “The Addams Family,” when “Barton Fink” went into production. So the brothers hired Roger Deakins, who to that point had served as director of photography on only a few feature films.
He has since done the cinematography for every Coen Brothers film except for “Burn After Reading” (2008) and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), and finally won his first Oscar this year on his 14th(!) nomination, for “Blade Runner 2049” (five of those previous nominations were for Coen Brothers films). Pay attention to the camera’s movement when Barton and Audrey are in bed; it’s a hilarious, classic homage.
Amusingly, Joel and Ethan Coen wrote this screenplay -- about a screenwriter with writer’s block -- in just a few weeks while taking a break from “Miller’s Crossing,” on which they had gotten stuck.
Theories about the movie’s meanings and influences abound; I’m sure many a film school thesis has been written to explain it all. I don’t claim to know exactly what I should be taking away from it; I just know that I love that Barton Fink feeling!