Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Barton Fink in Hollywood, Where Writers Sink Slowly in the West

When actor John Mahoney passed away earlier this month at the age of 77, most commentators mentioned the popular sitcom, Frasier, in which he played Kelsey Grammer’s blue-collar dad. I have to thank my colleague, Carl Rollyson, for reminding me of Mahoney’s very different role in the Coen brothers’ outrageous 1991 Hollywood saga, Barton Fink. Carl, a prolific biographer now researching literary giant William Faulkner, loves Mahoney’s portrayal of W.P Mayhew, a celebrated novelist-turned-Hollywood-hack who (with his Southern charm and ever-present whiskey flask) is an obvious Faulkner clone.

In Barton Fink, Mayhew/ Faulkner represents the way the movie industry uses and abuses writers. With his talent squandered on scenarios for unworthy entertainments, he might as well be dead—which is why he behaves as though he already were. Fink himself (as played by John Turturro) also suggests a familiar literary type. His character reflects the career of Clifford Odets, a 1930s Broadway darling whose gritty kitchen-sink dramas (like Awake and Sing!) chronicle the triumphs and failures of the common man. Barton Fink is first seen on the evening of his greatest theatrical triumph, being feted by nightclub-goers who celebrate his contributions to the New York stage. The applause may be grand, but Fink’s agent advises that it’s time to cash in: he’s been offered a lucrative Hollywood screenwriting contract, and it behooves him to make some real money, before returning to Broadway with his wallet fattened and his dignity intact.

Except that things don’t go as planned. Barton’s time on the coast in fact comes to seem something like Dante’s descent into Hell, with horrors multiplying at every turn. The studio houses him in the seedy Hotel Earle, where the paper is peeling off the walls, a creepy Steve Buscemi seems to be the only staffer, and the motto for guests is “a day or a lifetime.” (The Hotel Earle is surely a 1940s version of Hotel California, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be called “lovely.”) Even when Fink enters swankier surroundings, like the office of the Hollywood mogul who hired him, the atmosphere remains nightmarish. His new boss and the lackeys who surround him barely let Barton get a word in edgewise, and he spots the great W.P. Mayhew vomiting in a toilet stall. Worst of all, he can’t get started on the wrestling picture he’s been assigned because his creative juices seem to have dried up for good.

I won’t get into the film’s unexpected twists and turns except to say that they somehow include his one new-found friend, a jolly insurance salesman  played by John Goodman. Let’s just note that Barton Fink’s California sojourn goes from bad to worse, until he’s faced with an unspeakable tragedy. Years ago, when I saw this film in first-run, I didn’t know what to make of it. This time around, because I’ve spent so much energy pursuing the life of a writer, I’ve found myself focusing on the implications of Barton’s writer’s block. I know what it’s like to be stymied at just the moment when you need to be most brilliant. I know what it feels like when the words don’t come. One detail I’m sure I overlooked back in 1991: it is only when Barton is faced with the grimmest, the most grotesque, of real-life circumstances that he can turn his back on the world, approach his typewriter, and begin happily pounding out a story. The whole film, then, can be seen as an elaborate metaphor for the act of creation: it’s only when life is at its harshest that the imagination kicks in.

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