Ellen Barkin: Born to Be Bad
When I was compiling the covers for the Movieline galleries last year, I was a bit surprised to see that Ellen Barkin merited a cover story in the May 1992 issue. Nothing against Barkin as an actress. I usually enjoyed her performance even when she was in a mediocre movie like the gender-bending comedy Switch. I just couldn’t remember Barkin ever being a big enough star to warrant cover treatment on a magazine like Movieline.
Partially, I think Barkin got this cover due to her reputation for being “difficult.” Stephen Rebello opens the interview by trying to get a rise out of her. *Spoiler warning* he does so successfully and with little effort. But coming off the steamy hit Sea of Love and a Golden Globe nomination for Switch, Barkin was poised to take her career to the next level with several high profile movies. The biggest of the bunch was the Jack Nicholson flop, Man Trouble. Turns out, Barkin’s career didn’t take off the way she might have hoped. But she does come off as a smart, no-nonsense actress in this interview.
Ellen Barkin bristles, just as memorably as Daniel Stern bristled at her in Diner for misfiling his record collection. Then she narrows her eyes into Cruella De Vil slits. Secretly I’m delighted. I had come to this interview amply warned that the scene-stealer of Tender Mercies, The Big Easy, and Sea of Love could be, would be, a handful. As in someone who eats up and spits out the intellectually halt and lame. As in someone once dubbed “Mad Dog Barkin” by a publicist paid to keep her and the press on speaking terms.
As in someone who, making her new movie Man Trouble, was reputedly given to such pranks as grabbing male crew members and faking loud orgasms. And to belting out obscene lyrics to show tunes between takes. And to taking on director Bob Rafelson, with whom co-stars Jack Nicholson and Beverly D’Angelo also supposedly clashed, in an all-day-long, epic battle of wills that climaxed with Barkin’s yanking down her costume to moon the filmmaker before the entire company. You know, Actress From Hell rumors.
Figuring that this looked to be one breakneck rollercoaster ride with a one-woman colossus, I decided, why not just take the Big Plunge? It’s the Monday morning after Barkin lost her Golden Globe nomination for Switch, so I jump in and ask about a rumor I had heard about the making of that movie: “Is it true that you fought with director Blake Edwards and, among other things, smeared your costumes with lipstick?” That’s when Ellen Barkin bristles. Then she snaps at me, “That is a horrible question I cannot answer without making an asshole of myself.”
Just in case her contempt might have missed its intended target–me–she growls, “Pathetic.” So, while I’m guessing I’ve got–what?–five, 10 seconds tops before she hauls off and crowns me, or splits altogether, I admit it–I’m delighted. And relieved. She’s exactly the way she comes off on-screen. Ornery. Smart. Mercurial. Roughed-up. Take-it-or-take-a-hike. I like these things. In fact, I’ve liked Ellen Barkin from the minute I set eyes on her in Diner, and not just because she reminds me of all those wild, fine, mill city she-cats I grew up with in Massachusetts. Girls too straight-up to smear Cover Girl over a hickey. Girls who might shoot hoops with you, then, just because they could, shred your heart. Girls who got fast reps for doing a slow, grinding Dirty Boogie while the rest of us did a spastic Frug.
In Hollywood, just like back in high school, reputations are quirky things. You hear the talk, wild talk, all the time, but you can never be certain. There’s loads of other stuff I want to get to besides how Barkin earned such a spikey reputation. Like what she thinks of the hype–now that she’s replaced Meryl Streep in Man Trouble, due out any minute, and replaced Debra Winger opposite Robert De Niro in the movie of Tobias Wolff’s autobiographical novel This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, which she’s now shooting–that says: This Year Could Be Hers. Like why she uprooted herself, her husband, actor Gabriel Byrne, and their two-year-old from lower Fifth Avenue Manhattan to an 11-acre farm in upstate New York. Okay, so I do want to know about how she got that spikey reputation, too, but I won’t get down on all fours and play Arsenio Hall, so I say: “Hey, Ellen, these are my questions. Why should this interview be different from any of my others?” She doesn’t split, she doesn’t conk me. In fact, she raises her glass and grins lopsidedly at me. So, I repeat: “Did you clash with director Blake Edwards and smear your costumes with lipstick?”
“Part of me just wants to stare at you and not address this because,” she says huskily, “by addressing it, I’m giving credence to this crap. I hear stuff like this all the time. We should all just laugh at this stuff and say, ‘Right. I know I’m a bitch. I smeared lipstick on my costume.’ I’d like to look the person in the eye who told you that and say, ‘You worked on the movie? Tell me the day I put lipstick on a costume. What did the dress look like?’ The wardrobe designer on Switch is still a very close friend and I would never have destroyed a costume in that movie. That was one of my favorite things about the film. Oh, the nerve. It’s fucked.”
She starts to say something, swats it away. “The other day I read an interview with an actress,” she observes, after a moment, “where they took a subtle dig at her for having her two children on the set. I mean, fuck. Fuck them! How dare they? It was just that she was walking around with her two children and her nanny. They didn’t say she was holding up production because of her children. I’m sure she wasn’t. I know her. I mean, give me a break! She’s a mother trying to do her job and keep her family together. Do they say that about a million male actors who walk around with bodyguards or an entourage? It fuckin’ sickens me.”
Point taken. But what about the lipstick-smeared costume? “Total fabrication,” she says, crossing her heart, “I swear it.” Taking a deep breath, she continues, “I’ll tell you a little story about how a woman–you know, not a lie-down type of girl, not a rollover–gets treated in Hollywood. ‘Smeared lipstick on a costume,’ somebody told you? The truth is, there was a scene where I was in my underwear and we had a disagreement about how revealing the underwear would be. Just having had a baby, I did not want to wear such revealing underwear. That was it. I adored Blake Edwards, who gave me the best comedic role to come out of Hollywood since Lucy. Every day, I’d say to him, ‘I’m not Peter Sellers,’ but I had to be, for Blake. I never fought with him. We had an argument over underwear. It lasted for, like, half an hour. I mean, it’s an outrage. An outrage. The day I take lipstick and draw it on a costume I should never be hired for another movie again.”
Fat chance. Switch shorted at the box office but Barkin’s clowning was such a hoot that she was hired–at a hefty salary hike, she’ll happily tell you–for Man Trouble, joining the star, director and screenwriter of the esteemed Five Easy Pieces. If she was jazzed about working with Nicholson and inheriting (from the pregnant Meryl Streep) the Miss Prim role of a Bach cantata choir soloist (Diane Keaton and Jessica Lange had been contenders before Streep), some say she had odd ways of showing it. I try out the rumors I’ve heard, about the faux orgasms, the dirty ditties, the mooning incident.
“Where do you get this stuff?” she says, looking at once bemused and steamed. “Here’s a little Man Trouble story for you. Some clothes just weren’t made properly, you know? There was an exposed zipper and the pants were really big. So we had to wait and have them sewn, ’cause I obviously couldn’t get in front of the camera like that. It had nothing to do with me not liking the clothes. Then, when the shooting was over, my assistant went to the accountant to pick up my final per diem, and the accountant, who was very nice to me the entire movie–to my face, anyway–says, ‘I’m glad to see her go. They paid her a lot more money than she was worth.’ Granted, I don’t pull in as many moviegoers, but do you think this guy said that to Jack Nicholson’s assistant? I called [the accountant], who says, of course, ‘Oh, hiiiiii, Ellen, how’s the baaaaby?’
And I said: ‘Next time you have a problem with an actor, Larry, why don’t you discuss it with the producer of the film and not that actor’s assistant?’ Now, I’m not necessarily linking the two, but an anonymous item is printed a week or so later in Los Angeles magazine–and I do condemn the press for not following up on whether it was true–saying that I was so difficult on the movie I held up a day’s shooting because I felt my pants were too tight.”
Barkin declares she has “a very big problem” with people who misread her on-set behavior. “Once you’re in,” she explains, “they create a little bubble for you to live in and then blame you. It’s a small incident, but when I was a support actor or working on lower-budget movies, everyone would come up and say, ‘Cameras ready.’ All of a sudden, I noticed no one would say that. Now, if they’re ready, I’m not going to go sit in my trailer, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. But if I don’t think everybody’s ready, I’ll sit in the makeup chair for another 20 minutes or close my trailer door and work on the script. All of a sudden I poke my head out and say, ‘What’s going on?’ And they go, ‘We’re ready,’ and they’ve been ready for, like, 20 minutes, but they’re told in some way: ‘Don’t offend the star.’ It took me a couple of movies to realize that, so now I say, ‘Please tell me when you’re ready.’ Or, if I’m not ready, I’ll say, ‘I need another 10 minutes.'”
This reputation thing really sticks in Barkin’s craw. “It started when I was a young, beginning actress who didn’t lay down and play dead. When I recently did a small part in a Miramax movie, Into the West, that my husband produced and starred in, [the film company’s co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein said to me, ‘Everyone used to ask, “Gee, was Ellen difficult? Was she?”‘ Harvey said he told people, ‘Ellen spends so much time arguing with her husband that she didn’t have time for anyone else.’ Which I thought was great, because Gabriel is, like, the least difficult person in the world.”
So, if making Man Trouble wasn’t Gunfight at the Barkin Corral, was it a breeze? “Look, I was so delighted reading that script–it’s like some Carole Lombard or Thin Man movie–that that alone could have kept me happy for three months. When they sent it, I thought they were sending it for me to play Beverly D’Angelo’s part, the sister,” she says, of the role of a sexy, madcap writer of Kitty Kelley-type exposés, “and I would have been delighted by that.” Mining a similarly upbeat vein, she says, “working with Bob Rafelson and [screenwriter] Carole Eastman was actually great.” Then, after more gush, she notices my eyes have glazed over and drops another tidbit. “One night, Jack sat on a car window and smashed it because I really couldn’t work anymore. I’d had it. I wasn’t good in the scenes and I really needed to be sent home. And he did. It was a very generous thing.”
And, one might guess, a very Nicholson thing. On the record, Barkin strews nothing but rose petals across her co-star’s path, calling acting opposite him “a career high point, like working with someone who’s just been given his first lead in a movie. He’s a real innocent, a very vulnerable actor. I had a great time and when that’s happened before, with Dennis [Quaid in The Big Easy], and Al [Pacino in Sea of Love], or with Gabriel [Byrne in Siesta and Into the West], it’s worked.”
Barkin doesn’t say as much, but something cannot have escaped her: She’s done some of her sharpest turns opposite some of the most hellacious actors in the business, yet you don’t catch many journalists reading their beads. “The more powerful you become, some people especially don’t like it that you’re a woman,” she observes. “I stick up for myself. They don’t mind if a man doesn’t play the game, but if you’re a woman, people say, ‘Who the fuck is she?’ They can’t do stuff, not right to your face, or they feel they can’t, so it comes out in other ways. It’s not expected of you to put your ass up in the air–” she interrupts herself and, comically, asks me to excuse her language. “Tell me what actress you really respect who doesn’t have a bad reputation. Name her? Anjelica Huston? Debra Winger? And so stories start, like your lipstick story or the Los Angeles story. Certain directors, producers and executives feel that all actresses do is put on their hair and makeup and come out and read lines. Al Pacino acts. What do we do? I used to go to work just waiting to be offended in some way. If you’re waiting to be offended and you’re an actress in the movies, you don’t have to wait very long.”
Whether she’s more likely to be the offender or the offended, Barkin stands apart from the current screen crop of vapid, smiling, big-haired girls. Who could possibly be neutral about someone who’s played put-upon girlfriends from the wrong side of the tracks, sexual freewheelers, unapologetic molls? She brings out stuff in people. She could frame most of her notices, like the Pauline Kael review of Tender Mercies that downplayed Robert Duvall and called Barkin’s scenes “the high points of the movie.” Interviews are something else.
At the mention of a now-infamous Vanity Fair piece, in which she let fly on English actors who high-hat their American counterparts, she grimaces, and declares: “I hated it. Every time Vanity Fair does that spotlight piece, they dress up a girl to the nines, get a very expensive photographer to take a beautiful picture of her, then write terrible things about her. Doesn’t that make them look like a bunch of fuckin’ morons? What I resented specifically about the story on me–and, by the way, James Wolcott is highly amoral and should be forbidden to write on women, ’cause he’s like a schoolboy writing about girls he can’t have–was that there were certain actors I talked about in response to very specific things that he left out. And then, to see their [editor in chief] Tina Brown on ’60 Minutes’ insulting everybody in her magazine, to hear a woman who has gained a position of power in a predominantly male field refer to another woman as a bimbo–I mean, is she stupid or does she just want to be dishy, catty and hip? It’s beyond me why anyone would have anything to do with that magazine after that.”
That story, and a similarly quotable piece in Esquire, were sufficient to make Barkin’s publicists try to muzzle her, right? “Oh, yeah,” she says. “This is it, this is my lifetime gag order. I’m doing it, I can’t mention names.” She breaks up laughing and she drains her glass of Evian as though it were good Scotch, drawling: “So much for James Wolcott and Tina Brown.”