As we hurtle towards the close of our Coen brothers season, we spontaneously picked 10 of our favorite performances from their bravura film collection. I know we all love Frances McDormand as the pregnant law enforcers, or Jeff Bridges as the lawman, or even Javier Bardem as the law-breaker. But we wanted to shine a torch on some of the sinfully less commended roles, so let’s keep these in the limelight:
Fred Melmed in A Serious Man
It would have been easy to have simply play the character of Sy Ableman as an asshole, I mean he is the guy who has stolen our main character’s wife. However Melmed presents us with a dilemma with his portrayal of Sy, presenting us with a kind, caring and considerate man. Fred Melmed’s Sy represents everything that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) isn’t. Sy is calm, collective and loved by all, while Larry is the exact opposite. It may be a small role, which could have been lost and forgotten in a quite a moderate sized ensemble, however Melmed manages to stand out. The diner scene where he discusses living arrangements with Gopnik and Gopnik’s ex-wife, is amusing to watch and Sy appears to be the only ”adult” sitting at the table, trying to have a conversation. Ableman delivers the opposite performance to Stuhlbarg’s deadpan reserved performance, and they work well together, making for an engaging interaction on-screen. It a film full of comedic performances, Melmed manages to make a lasting impression.
Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen were keen to cast Carey Mulligan after they had seen her in An Education. The filmmakers were curious to see sweetness and light turn into unpleasant and coarse. Jean Berkley says it as it is, and as far as Llewyn Davis is concerned there’s a lot of bitterness and distaste to be expressed. Former lovers, Jean tells Llewyn her expectant baby could be his. This, of course, only adds to her apparent hatred of him. Mulligan expells the dialogue, for the most part vicious and insulting, with a kind of spontaneous venom – “We shouldn’t have done it in the first place, but if you ever do it again, which as a favor to women everywhere, you should not, but if you do, you should be wearing condom on condom, and then wrap it in electrical tape.”. That said, there’s compassion somewhere there, she wants Llewyn to hear her cries. One of the Coen brothers’ most memorable, inflicting supporting characters, tough to image anyone other than the super-talented Mulligan doing Jean justice.
Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!
Hail, Tobie! Every so often an unknown – or relatively unknown – actor appears on the horizon who, in just one or two scenes, ignites the screen. Not much hoopla followed Ehrenreich’s brilliant turn as the shit-kicker-turned-actor in Hail Caesar, but it’s likely not his fault, but the fact that nobody bothered to see the Coen’s take on McCarthy Hollywood. Hobie Doyle was/is a cowpoke who can rope and ride with amazing agility. He dazzles his date by lassoing her finger with a strand of spaghetti while flashing a sinfully wholesome smile. He also has a moral core that jerks him into action at the first sign of injustice. The Coens wrote the part as a caricature of the noble, white-hatted cowboy, but it’s Ehrenreich who plumbs the part for charm and laughs, especially when the studio decides to capitalize on his popularity by throwing him into a drawing room melodrama that requires an upper class British accent. Ehrenreich shines brightest when he strides bow-legged onto the set and attempts to paddle through his molasses-thick drawl, to the horror of his director, the aptly named and pretentiously pronounced, Laurence Laurentz. Alden Ehrenreich is currently paying the dues that seem to be required by every actor these days – doing his big for the tentpole picture machine as Hans Solo – so we’ll have to wait and see if his Tobie was a fluke or the preview of an actor who’s got the long term goods. I’m betting he has.
M. Emmett Walsh in Blood Simple
M. Emmett Walsh’s sickening, sleazy turn as private investigator Lorren Visser in Blood Simple is one of the Coen brothers’ finest. It is clear early on, with his wicked cackle and sinister stare, Visser is not someone you would assign to mow your lawn, let alone spy on your wife and her lover. Julian hires Visser to obtain proof his barman Ray is sleeping with his wife Abby. Visser does his dishonourable duty, then takes matters into his own hands without batting an eyelid. Walsh is inch perfect with every moment he is on screen, and when he is not you long for his return, despicability and all. He portrays a seemingly simple man with selfish, calculating intentions. A crook who will follow through on his own haphazard actions, to clean up his own and other people’s mess. Walsh gives Visser a fearless persona, making him all the more dangerous.
Kelly MacDonald in No Country For Old Men
No Country For Old Men is quite a male dominated film (often I feel that a lot of the Coen Brothers film are), but they do have a great way of writing strong, well-developed female characters even if they are acting as supporting characters for their male peers. Kelly MacDonald plays Carla Jean the long-suffering wife of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and it would be easier for this to remain a simple supporting role as a nagging wife. Instead MacDonald is amusing, and quick with her delivery of sassy one liners that she never comes across as the whiny ballbusting wife, but rather Llwelyn’s equal. And MacDonald’s expressions seem to be that of genuine concern and empathy, there’s a lot expressed by her eyes and frowns, which speak volumes. What impresses me in regards to MacDonald’s strong performance is her spot on accent, it seems so authentic that when I discovered that she is actually Scottish, it was almost unbelievable, it just goes to show how talented MacDonald is as an actor.
John Goodman in Barton Fink
Charlie Meadows and Madman Mundt are the two identities that John Goodman portrays in the Coen Brothers Barton Fink. On the surface for most of the movie is Goodman as Meadows, Who Fink observes to be the quintessential example of the common man, an average bumpkin selling insurance to make ends meet. He’s the perfect figure that Fink writes his Plays about. When in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. He is secretly a serial killer that goes by the name Madman Mundt, someone sought after by the police for some time for a string of murders across the Mid-West. He is the catalyst for almost all the troubles the central character deals with throughout the 2nd half of the film. One of the creepiest aspects is we don’t ever know how his interaction with Barton’s parents went or if they’re still alive. Goodman’s performances as both personas contrast each other brilliantly as he plays Charlie quite meekly and Mundt with a ferocious and overbearing violent demeanor. The slow reveal of his character is a creepy escalation throughout Barton Fink and stands out in memory as a potent and harrowing performance.
Steve Buscemi in Fargo
At the time a Coen brothers regular, Steve Buscemi appeared to miss the acting acclaim boat when it came to Fargo’s awards season success. Frances McDormand and William H. Macy made it to the Oscars. While Buscemi, with a truckload of diverse, impressive supporting turns under his belt, was left out. In Fargo, Buscemi is practically a lead this time around, partnering with the grim Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), his Carl Showalter is the more colorful, conversational of the pair of misfits. Assigned to kidnap Jerry Lundegaard’s wife so his father-in-law can pay the ransom, Carl is inquisitive of the operation, demanding Jerry abide to “simple fucking instructions”. Buscemi is immense here, and he seems to get better with repeqted viewings of Fargo. His range of character is tireless, a thoroughly entertaining journey we follow him on, as the one who gets his hands dirty, takes and beating and a bullet for his troubles. The performance is so brilliant largely due to the sheer frustration Buscemi conveys in the hapless crook.
Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski
Maude Lebowski is a character who knows more than she lets on throughout her screen time in the Big Lebowski. She’s responsible for the 2nd break-in to the Dude’s apartment and the nasty knockout punch that delivers an LSD like dream sequence. She has power but she uses it selectively, here to get a rug back with sentimental value that the Dude actually took without permission. She is a part of the abstract art world complete with a pretentious speaking cadence that fits like a glove with Julianne Moore’s wonderful subtle performance. Maude ultimately wants a child from The Dude but no support or acknowledgment of responsibility is being sought. He’s just being used by her ultimately. She opposes the story given to The Dude by The Big Lebowski, her father, disbelieving the “ludicrous” story. She gives credibility to the increasing doubt of the reality The Dude finds himself in. She’s the only life raft that The Dude has in a sea of manipulations and hidden prerogatives despite also wanting something from him. She points out the reoccurrence of Uli (Peter Stomare) in Bunny Lebowski’s circlemof friends, reminding The Dude that he’s “met” him before, at The Lebowski estate. Maude clarified that The Big Lebowski has no real money and is only running charities “for show”. That vanity is The Big Lebowski’s biggest weakness. Without Maude guiding The Dude as well as the story, the film fails to properly navigate.
Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona
Much of Raising Arizona’s success lies in Holly Hunter’s performance, rather than allow herself to be overshadowed by the likes of her co-star Nicholas Cage, Hunter outshines him and she is the one who leaves the lasting impression. Hunter presents us with a sympathetic portrayal of Edwina “Ed” McDunnough, who is unable to bear children and we really feel for her. Hunter doesn’t portray Ed as a victim or as a weak submissive wannabe-mother but instead, she presents us with a tough talking, fighting woman who isn’t afraid to take on the likes of bounty hunter Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb) delivering one of the funniest lines in the movie, “Give me that baby, you warthog from hell!” The character of Ed is very human, all she wants is to have her own family, her own slice of the ”American Dream” and she seems so down to Earth. Hunter is a great, and if slightly underused actress, who can do serious drama (see The Piano) but is more than capable of doing comedy, and in this comedic role, she’s pure gold.
Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
Somehow slipping under the net with an impressive string of performances in the 90s – Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, Short Cuts, Georgia, Dolores Claiborne – Jennifer Jason Leigh gave one of the frenetic supporting turns of the decade in The Hudsucker Proxy. Leigh lights up the screen as the Coen brothers tip their hat to old Hollywood and nostalgia. Pulitzer prize winner, and boy does she not let you forget it, Amy Archer is a hot-shot reporter. First on the sly, Archer looks to get accidental hero Norville Barnes under her thumb, but eventually falls head over heels. Leigh’s gift to the filmmaking siblings is to bring their eccentric character to life on the screen. Likely how they dreamed while writing her – the actress nails the sassy, snappy persona of golden age dialogue-eaters a la Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn. It’s a dazzling, showy turn from Leigh, breathing vibrant air into the lungs of yet another fascinatingly written character.