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The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, winner of the Palme D’or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival (as well as Best Actor and Director), may well be the best movie made about Hollywood. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is the hit playwright on Broadway, when he is offered a contract to write for Hollywood. Against his own better judgment and with urgings by his agent, Barton sets off to Hollywood to work for Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner, who was nominated for Oscar for this role) at Capitol Pictures. Lipnick assigns Barton to write a wrestling movie for actor Wallace Beery. Lipnick is excited to work with Barton, bubbling over when he states, “The important thing is we all want [the script] to have that Barton Fink feeling. We all have that feeling but since you’re Barton Fink, I’m assuming you have it in spades.” I love these lines and should maybe quote them more often.
When Barton finally starts his script, he only gets this far before writer’s block sets in:
FADE IN: A TENEMENT BUILDING On Manhattan's Lower East Side. Early morning traffic is audible.
So the film traces Barton’s steps to unblock his writing. He meets a traveling insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) who lives in the room next to him at the Hotel Earle whom he befriends. He meets fellow writer W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), who is clearly based on William Faulkner, a drunken lout who mistreats his assistant/girlfriend Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), to whom Barton takes an immediate shine. As pressure mounts on Barton to complete his script, things go very awry. VERY awry.
Barton Fink is basically the retelling of Dante Alighieri‘s The Divine Comedy. All three of the books are represented – Paradiso, Purgatorio and Inferno. Hollywood is a perfect setting for this tale and it is one of the reasons this film is so successful. It’s very clever. Clearly, the Coens can easily do retellings of classic texts since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a retelling of Homer‘s The Odyssey,was also very successful.
I would place Barton Fink easily in my top 10 favorite films of all-time. It is pure Coen loveliness and one I think everyone should watch. It is available on Netflix, Amazon (free with Prime membership) and iTunes.
Here is the trailer: