Thursday, February 3, 2011

Ellen Barkin "The Big Easy", "Sea of Love", "Siesta" - The First Time...: February 3, 2011 (Sexy, Triple-Feature Special Edition)


Hey what a surprise I'm writing about a non-brunette actress, featured in a non-singing role. (Three of them to be precise.) As a kid, many of the actresses that got cast in thrillers, neo-noirs, what have you, never really excited me. I never understood the big deal over Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat". (To be fair that might have been tainted by "The Man With Two Brains"!) Nancy Allen was always kinda goofy in the work she did with her ex Brian De Palma. When Sharon Stone became the default femme fatale of the 90s, I just couldn't muster much of an interest. But in the late 80s, right when I was gearing up to enter my pre-teens I saw Ellen Barkin in three (seemingly) back-to-back thrillers, in three very different roles, and was immediately smitten. To be honest, she got my blood pumping in a way it never had before.

It all began with "The Big Easy". Take a look at that picture up there. That was the image for the poster. Hard Case Crime covers wish they were 1/8 as hot as that image. When I saw that VHS cover screaming out at me at my local Wherehouse I had to see the movie. At the time I was staying with my grandparents. My grandfather, never one to turn down what could easily be perceived as a dirty movie, picked it up for me with the caveat that he would watch it first. Of course he would! I would expect nothing less. Once he watched it and realized it was really just a great little cop movie, mixed with a little bit of sexytime between the two gorgeous leads, he let me have it. So glad he did.

Directed by Jim McBride, "The Big Easy" is about a hotshot cop (Dennis Quaid) and a determined DA (Barkin) who bump heads and eventually a whole lot more while she investigates him and the many cops she expect are up to no good in the city of New Orleans. McBride, who directed the quite-good "Breathless" remake (way dirtier than "The Big Easy") and later directed Quaid in the gonzo role of Jerry Lee Lewis in his over-the-top "Great Balls of Fire", does a great job of conveying a really dirty and corrupt New Orleans in the film. It ain't always pretty and the film is dripping with the right amount of sleaze. Barkin isn't the sexpot she's painted to be in that above image. In fact, there are times where she is downright frumpy. But once Quaid gets his hands on her you can see the cool exterior melt away. It is one of the sexiest onscreen seductions EVER. It is also one of the best movies of the 80s. If you haven't seen it, rent it now. Shit, buy it. You'll thank me.

Next up was "Siesta", the debut film by Mary Lambert. She went on to direct "Pet Sematary", "Pet Sematary 2" and then a bunch of nothing. God, I wish she had kept getting real work. A phenomenal, gutsy director, who was willing to take more risks than some of her male peers, Lambert should be up there with Kathryn Bigelow right now. If nothing else, she could have been the female John Dahl. Oh well, I digress. "Siesta" begins with a naked Barkin, bruised and bloodied, waking up on a runway in Spain, with no idea how she got there and what left her in such a state. The movie is delirious, very much in tune with Barkin's desperation in trying to find out the truth about what happened to her. It is a very divisive film, but needs some rediscovering by the film-geek elite. (It is out of print, so best of luck in your hunt. The pimp-ass score by Miles Davis is still available pretty cheap.) Again, Barkin, very hot, this time right off the bat, and only getting more so as the film tumbles down its rabbit hole.

Finally, in the summer of 89, I saw "Sea of Love". I had been waiting for this movie. It was supposed to be Al Pacino's return to film and form after the disastrous "Revolution". The conceit sounded simple enough. Pacino plays a cop who, along with another cop played by John Goodman (one of my faves and also excellent in "The Big Easy"), is investigating a string of murders that all have a very distinct link; at each of the crime scenes the titular song has been playing at the time of the murder. All the victims are men and all the murders are sexual in nature. A strange and novel notion, even downright hokey at first glance, the film is really about a cop who is starting to fall for the primary suspect in the case, a gorgeous young woman played by Barkin. This is one of Pacino's best roles. You can see a little bit of "hooah!" that would become prevalent in a lot of his later roles, but you also begin to see the age and the burnout set in, something he was able to use to great effect in films like "Donnie Brasco" and "Heat". But really Pacino is surrounded by some fantastic talent. Goodman is so smart and so funny and he is the perfect foil for Pacino. A big, warm man who is happily married and able to disconnect from his job, he is the opposite of Pacino. Barkin is also marvelous in a film that on the surface could have given her very little to work with outside of being just another femme fatale. Her Helen is extraordinarily nuanced and is one of my favorite female leads in any film of this ilk.

Any of these three films are worth a look mainly because they are some of the best films from their respective era. They are all very smart and audacious thrillers that make the kind of DTV drivel and overwrought TV drama look like so much farce. At the center of all of them is Ellen Barkin, a smart, sexy woman who deserved so much more after this initial one-two-three punch. After this she did Blake Edwards's "Switch" and it all went downhill from there. Sure she pops up in the occasional bit part and steals the scene every time, no fail. But for a brief moment Barkin was a star, a sexy leading lady unlike any other. At the very least, we had that much.


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