John Goodman: The Coen Brothers' Common Man

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October 3, 2013 1:47 PM
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John Goodman in Joel and Ethan Coen's 'Barton Fink'

Lazing on your couch, flipping through the channels (back when people still did that), you could stumble upon a Coen Brothers film and immediately say, "Oh, hey! A Coen Brothers film!" It could be any shot from any film, didn't matter. You knew it was one of theirs. Each of their films -- their shoestring noir Blood Simple, their hula-hoop comedy Hudsucker Proxy, their austere, neo-western opus No Country for Old Men, their absurdist crime drama Fargo -- has a certain singular rhythm, a certain irreverently acute love for Greek tragedy and Homeric adventures. In Barton Fink, a boisterous Hollywood producer tells the title writer that he wants his films to have "that Barton Fink Feeling." The Coen Brothers have a Coen Brothers Feeling that pervades each of their films; they're probably the first auteurist duo in cinema, defying the very definition of auteur.

Part of that feeling stems from their non-heroes and they worlds they inhabit. The Coens explore the dark, and often darkly funny malaise of an American modernity replete with losers: men purged of their masculinity, wrongly imprisoned, confined to lives devoid of meaning; artists trying to make a difference but forever enslaved to the mainstream, money-hungry machine; the ordinary everyday schmuck thrown into extraordinary circumstances; and, occasionally, women standing their ground in a patriarchal society. They're fascinated by losers -- "All of the films about winners have been done," Ethan said during a recent press conference. The title character of their newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, puts it like this: There are two groups of people. People who divide the world into two groups, and losers.

Llewyn, his ex-lover persistently reminds him, is a loser.

As with most of the Coens' non-heroes, Llewyn is a lonely outsider -- an artist -- stuck in gregarious situations. The people with whom he comes in contact chew ears like dogs chew bones, bickering, going back and forth: Where's the Cincinnati paper? On your desk. No it's not. Cincinnati? Yes, Cincinnati. Cincinnati? Yes. On your desk. No, it's not. Oh, I have it here. Cincinnati? Yes, Cincinnati, do you want me to bring it to you? Goddamn it yes.   

(As Llewyn says to his ex-lover, "You don't listen.")

The Coens write wacky, syncopated dialog murmured between wacky, syncopated people who conjure implausible schemes that can only end one way: badly. These are characters would benefit from reading an Elmore Leonard novel or two. (Llewyn is a little different, as his world --his film -- are more overtly rooted in a bleak sense of realism, rendered in gray scale, but rest assured he is a loser and he does cause his own problems, albeit in less ridiculous ways.) So, given their unique style of writing, of course the Coens need a cast capable of handling dialog that wavers between self-vivisecting intricacy and right-hook immediacy. They've established a group of grade-A performers who permeate their filmography: Tony Shaloub, Frances McDormand, John Tuturro, Steve Buscemi.

But their most reliable and protean collaborator has never had a lead role in one of their films. He's never had top billing, never earned an Oscar nomination, never been the star: John Goodman, who makes a welcome, if brief return to the Coens' world in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Goodman has appeared in six of the Coens' films, and although he never plays the same role twice, he always acts as a foil to the hero: a quotidian harbinger of destruction, in a way. They manipulate his jovial manner to feel insidious. He has one of the most riotous, mile-wide smiles to ever grace network television -- he just looks and sounds affable, the kind of guy with whom you'd grab a beer, shoot the breeze, complain about your mother-in-law. Where most of the Coens' protagonists are outsiders and outliers, radicals and rebels and counter-culture loyalists, Goodman has consistently portrayed the mainstream -- a common man, as Barton Fink would say. He's the blue collar schmuck to John Tuturro's elitist writer (Barton Fink); the petty repeat-offender to Nicolas Cage's reformed schemer (Raising Arizona); the unhinged Vietnam Vet to Jeff Bridge's Dude (The Big Lebowski); the vile Klansman to the George Clooney-lead trio of losers trying to save their souls (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). 

Raising Arizona was Goodman's first collaboration with the Coens, and even today you can see the traits that lace Goodman's legacy: that mile-wide smile, that bombastic laugh, the jumping from tranquil to obstreperous and back again. He's like an amphetamine-addled bear with slicked-back hair. He pulls William Forsythe out of the ground, like Princess Peach digging up projectile vegetables, and he throws Nicolas Cage through a wall. And, in the end, he's ultimately inconsequential, nothing more than a fleeting face passing through Nic Cage's life.

He was second-billed in Barton Fink, in which the Coens blend film noir with savage surrealism: Chandler by way of Camus. The Coens started to mingle a little more wickedness in Goodman's role here, and he would only become more wicked in subsequent films. Goodman plays the chthonic insurance salesman, Charlie, whom the title character befriends. Barton, a pretentious New York playwright, likes to tell people that his writing serves the working class -- the Common Man, Barton calls them. And every time Charlie says, "I could tell you some stories," Barton interrupts him, ignoring the Common Man he's supposedly serving. "You don't listen!" Charlie yells, as the room burns around him. Is Barton a loser, like Llewyn, or does he divide the world into two groups of people? Are they mutually exclusive?

'The Big Lebowski'

Walter from The Big Lebowski remains Goodman's signature film role, and his loudest, even though it's arguably the least eccentric of his Coen repertoire. He yells a lot, has 'Nam flashbacks, waves around a gun in a bowling alley. He bites the ear off an anti-Semite nihilist and throws his friend's ashes into the wind, blowing back into the Dude's face. Walter, like the Dude, is a loser, but he's a stereotype of a generation; with his camo headbands and constant comparisons to 'Nam, Walter is epochal of the countless men who were enlisted during the clusterfuck of Vietnam. He's the Burgher establishment, the guy who fought in a tragically stupid war while the Dude, the most obvious counterculturalist of the Coens' non-heroes, was taking hits of the Devil's Lettuce and protesting whatever. Likewise, his turn as a Klansman and bible salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? represents the unfortunate majority of Americans who were less-than-progressive during segregation. His big, loud, angry, hooded salesman encapsulates the afflictions of the Deep South during a dark time in American history. He accuses a guitar-slinging black man of being a servant of the Devil and tries to have our non-heroes killed, but he is ultimately thwarted by a burning cross.

'Inside Llewyn Davis'

And that was John Goodman's last turn in a Coen Brothers film for twelve years. With Inside Llewyn Davis, his sixth collaboration (counting a fleeting supporting role in The Hudsucker Proxy, in which he's credited as Karl Mundt, a reference to Barton Fink), Goodman again plays the foil to our rebellious artist/non-hero. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer with financial issues and perpetually bad timing. He thinks he's caught a break when another folk singer lets him hitch a ride to Chicago with someone who looks and sounds like Garret Hedlund (played by Garret Hedlund) and John Goodman's burned-out gasbag Roland Turner. Turner uses two canes to waddle around and he shoots up heroin in bathroom stalls. He's also a jazz musician, ostensibly, playing twelve notes "instead of three chords." He asks Llewyn what kind of music Llewyn plays, to which Llewyn responds, "Folk music," to which Turner says, "I thought you said you were a musician." 

Llewyn informs Turner that a friend threw himself off of the George Washington Bridge, and Turner warmly says, "Who does that? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally." This back-and-forth, between our Homeric nobody and his pseudo-Poseidon, interrupts the flow of the main narrative and pulls us out of the intimate, realistic world the Coens have been creating for an hour but it serves a significant purpose: It acts as an obstacle for Llewyn's odyssey to nowhere, showing him the that the world isn't ready to accept the folk revival yet (Dylan is still a few days away from engendering the resurgence). Goodman's role is one of complete antagonism. Llewyn is an emotional conduit, from the artist to the audience; he reflects the passion that goes into art as well as the isolation an artist must endure. Goodman, cold and selfish, is also alone because he's already made it he's the common man ascended, and he's a bitter old jerk. While folk was rarefied, jazz was at the height of its popularity in the early '60s, the modal era. Turner wears a suit and has a driver (whom he calls a valet, emphasis on the T), while Llewyn doesn't have a winter coat, or a record contract, or a home. Folk is about to explode, and Llewyn is going to miss it; jazz is about to veer into all sorts of weird, anti-jazz electronics and wah-tinged antics thanks to Miles Davis, at which point Turner will likely fall from his comfy perch (if he doesn't OD first).

Goodman, now in his sixties, has come full-circle from his role as a petty criminal. He's made it, and success has drained him, and his surroundings, of life and color. Even his beard is gray. The times are a-changing and none of our characters are ready.

This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.

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