Ellen Barkin: Born to Be Bad
Is Ellen Barkin the hottest hot property in town, or just its wildest card? With three new movies in the can and a fast, funny way with a quip, maybe she's both.
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. City. 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.'"