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With director, co-writer and brother Joel, writer-producer Ethan Coen was part of the most celebrated brother act in recent entertainment memory. He helmed a series of stylish, irreverent and cinema-savvy movies that charmed critics while thrilling an initially small, but loyal band of viewers. Though they evinced a powerful fascination with film genres - particularly screwball comedy and film noir - the Coen Brothers earned a great deal of respect from the Hollywood community despite their penchant to work outside the system. These self-conscious movies-within-movies possessed humorous camera movements, richly textured landscapes, and powerhouse performers spouting beautifully artificial dialogue. While some complained that the brothers were nothing more than slick stylists, the Coens, nonetheless, achieved a rare feat in entertainment: making the movies they wanted with little-to-no outside interference.Born on Sept. 21, 1957 in St. Louis Park, MN, Ethan was the second born, preceded by Joel three years earlier. Both grew up in an academic home - their father, Edward, was an economics professor at the University of Minnesota and their mother, Rena, was an art history professor at St. Cloud State. ...
With director, co-writer and brother Joel, writer-producer Ethan Coen was part of the most celebrated brother act in recent entertainment memory. He helmed a series of stylish, irreverent and cinema-savvy movies that charmed critics while thrilling an initially small, but loyal band of viewers. Though they evinced a powerful fascination with film genres - particularly screwball comedy and film noir - the Coen Brothers earned a great deal of respect from the Hollywood community despite their penchant to work outside the system. These self-conscious movies-within-movies possessed humorous camera movements, richly textured landscapes, and powerhouse performers spouting beautifully artificial dialogue. While some complained that the brothers were nothing more than slick stylists, the Coens, nonetheless, achieved a rare feat in entertainment: making the movies they wanted with little-to-no outside interference.
Born on Sept. 21, 1957 in St. Louis Park, MN, Ethan was the second born, preceded by Joel three years earlier. Both grew up in an academic home - their father, Edward, was an economics professor at the University of Minnesota and their mother, Rena, was an art history professor at St. Cloud State. Growing up, the Coen Brothers displayed exceptional intelligence that somehow managed to translate into mediocre grades, thanks in part to a minor obsession with watching movies on television. In their early teens, the Coens mowed lawns and saved their money to buy a Super-8 camera which they used to remake several of their favorite films, including "Naked Prey" and "Lassie Come Home." They also churned out a slew of originals like "Henry Kissinger - Man on the Go," "Lumberjacks of the North" and "The Banana Film." With Joel three years ahead of him, Ethan attended Bard College at Simon's Rock, a school for gifted high school age students in Great Barrington, MA.
After leaving Bard College, Ethan went to Princeton University to study philosophy - his senior thesis was "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy." Prior to graduating, Ethan left school and had to reapply for admission. But he was late in submitting his forms, prompting the school to deny reentry. Ever the prankster, Ethan - with help from Joel - wrote a letter to the school with the wild claim that he had lost his arm in a hunting accident. The dean replied to say that he was sorry to hear about his arm and that Ethan should send a letter from his doctor saying whether or not he could attend classes. Ethan decided to push the envelope, writing a letter from the Reverend Doctor Samson Gaziorwitz of Our Lady of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital. The letter claimed that Ethan had also lost his legs and should be scheduled for classes close together. It went on to suggest that it would be wise for the school to warn fellow students wishing to poke fun that Ethan had "become quite adept at wielding his hooks." (The Washington Post, Feb. 3, 1985) The school demanded that Ethan submit himself to psychological examination, which he passed with flying colors.
After graduating Princeton, Ethan joined his brother in New York. While Joel worked as a production assistant and assistant editor, Ethan landed a series of temp office jobs. Meanwhile, they began writing scripts in their spare time, eventually churning out the pages for what became their first film, "Blood Simple." Inspired by the hard-boiled noir of novelist James M. Cain, "Blood Simple" was a dark, twisting tale about a Texas bar owner (Dan Hedaya) who hires a private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz), only to bear the brunt of a surprising double-cross that ultimately leads to a sadistic and darkly ironic end. Ethan and Joel wrote the script for "Blood Simple" in 1981, then had Sonnenfeld - at that time strictly a cinematographer - shoot a short trailer for the film, which they used to raise $750,000 from all and sundry. After shooting in and around Austin, TX in 1983, the Coens' debut film made its way through the festival circuit, including the US Film Festival, which eventually became Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film. With an acrobatic camera, lean dialogue and absurdly comic violence, "Blood Simple" firmly established Ethan and Joel as talented filmmakers right from the get-go.
After penning the script to Sam Raimi's "Crimewave" (1985), a slapstick comedy about hitmen, Ethan and Joel moved onto their next project, "Raising Arizona" (1987), a screwball comedy about a petty crook (Nicolas Cage) and his corrections officer wife (Holly Hunter) who are unable to conceive, leading to their kidnapping of an infant from a family of sextuplets. Once again, the Coens utilized Sonnenfeld's jumpy camera to great effect, creating a highly-energized, almost cartoonish movement that served as a perfect compliment to the film's outlandish premise, stylized dialogue and over-the-top performances. Either loved or hated by fans and critics, there was no mistaking that "Raising Arizona" solidified Ethan and Joel's claim to being true auteurs. They followed with perhaps their most understated project to date, "Miller's Crossing" (1990), a lush, elegant yarn set in an unnamed city in 1929 about an Irish mobster (Albert Finney) and his brooding right hand (Gabriel Byrne) who have a falling out over a woman (Marcia Gay Harden) while trying to fend off the Italian boss (Jon Polito) in a citywide gang war. Though not as revered as their later work, "Miller's Crossing" nonetheless demonstrated the Coen Brothers ability to jump from genre to genre with ease.
Writing the script for "Miller's Crossing" proved to be a difficult task, however, prompting Ethan and Joel to take three weeks off and write what became their next film, "Barton Fink" (1991). A satire about a New York playwright (John Turturro) hired by a Hollywood mogul (Michael Lerner) to write a wrestling picture, only to struggle with writer's block in his seedy hotel room, "Barton Fink" was ultimately a metaphor for the brother's own frustrations with writing "Miller's Crossing." The film earned Ethan and Joel a Palm d'Or for Best Director at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, the brothers moved on to make "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994), their first film with a substantial budget ($30 million) and a big time Hollywood producer (Joel Silver). A madcap send-up of Frank Capra and Howard Hawks-esque films about an idealistic, but dopey mailroom clerk (Tim Robbins) promoted to president by the head of a major company (Paul Newman) in an effort to devalue their stock, "The Hudsucker Proxy" bombed at the box office and gave the Coens their first brush with financial disaster.
The Coens' failure was fleeting, however, thanks to what ultimately became their seminal feature, "Fargo" (1996). Returning to their Minnesota roots, Ethan and Joel fashioned a taut and quirky tale about Jerry Lundegaard, (William H. Macy), a Minneapolis car salesman in over his head in debt, who hires two thugs (a yammering Steve Buscemi and a taciturn Peter Stormare) to kidnap his own wife (Kristen Rudrud) in order to secure a large ransom from her wealthy father (Harve Presnell). The scheme falls apart, however, after the two thugs shoot a highway patrolman and two hapless passers-by, which leads Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a very pregnant local police chief, to investigate and ultimately unravel Jerry's increasingly botched plan. Because of its folksy charm, stunningly shot landscapes of snow and ice, and a twisting plot of a crime gone wrong, "Fargo" was hailed by both audiences and critics on its way to earning a slew of awards, including two Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. The film became a true high-water mark for the brothers, both in terms of creative and financial success, and allowed them artistic freedom heretofore unseen.
Building off the success of "Fargo," Ethan and Joel went to work on their next feature, "The Big Lebowski" (1998), a return to their peculiar mix of screwball comedy, absurdist theatrics and unflinching violence. In this yarn about a stoner private investigator (Jeff Bridges) known as "The Dude" - the laziest man in Los Angeles - the Coens pulled out all the stops with their characters, throwing into the comic tale of embezzlement and deception a gun-loving Zionist (John Goodman), a lurid bowling champ (John Turturro), and a trio of German nihilists (Torsten Voges, Peter Stormare and Flea) prone to violence and urinating on rugs. Though not a financial windfall upon release, "Lebowski" would become a cult favorite with die-hard cinephiles upon its release to video and DVD. For their next project, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), the Coens tapped the star power of George Clooney to play the leader of three cons (Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson rounding out the threesome) escaped from a chain gang who record a hit record while hunting down a fortune in buried treasure. Inspired by Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1941) and Homer's The Odyssey - which they later claimed was a joke because they never actually read it - "O Brother" was a rare financial boon for the Coens, earning over $45 million at the box office and spawning a Grammy-winning soundtrack.
Continuing to revisit and revise the film genres they admired as kids, Joel and Ethan turned to 1940s noir for "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), a darkly comic story about Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in small town Northern California, dissatisfied with life and seemingly invisible to friends and neighbors. But when he suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) of infidelity, Crane hatches a blackmail scheme that suddenly turns to murder. With "Intolerable Cruelty" (2003), the Coens produced a surprisingly run-of-the-mill effort in this screwball comedy about a fast-talking divorce lawyer (George Clooney) in a battle of the sexes with the gold-digging wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of a wealthy client (Edward Herrman). After providing uncredited rewrite work on "Bad Santa" (2003), Joel and Ethan made "The Ladykillers" (2004), a remake of the Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers film of the same name from 1955. Tom Hanks elevated an otherwise mediocre effort as a smooth-talking college professor who assembles a gang of experts for the heist of the century, only to be stymied by an obstinate landlady (Irma P. Hall).
Thanks to "The Man Who Wasn't There, "Intolerable Cruelty" and "The Ladykillers," the Coen Brothers hit a creative lull. Everything changed, however, with their excellent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's terse novel, "No Country For Old Men" (2007). With surprisingly little dialogue - the film faithfully stuck to McCarthy's laconic style - "No Country" told the story of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran who finds a briefcase containing $2 million in the desert near the remains of a bloody drug deal gone bad. Taking the satchel of cash only makes Moss' life worse, forcing him to elude all manner of pursuers, including a deadly assassin (Javier Bardem) who flips coins for human lives and a disillusioned West Texas sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) at the end of his tether. "No Country for Old Men" marked a resounding return to form for Joel and Ethan, who were again the subjects of early buzz during Oscar season. Their chances boded well, when in early 2008, they took home a shared Golden Globe trophy for Best Screenplay for their dark, disturbing picture. Meanwhile, the Oscar buzz became a reality when "No Country For Old Men" earned eight Academy Award nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The brothers would go on to win for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director(s) and, as producers, Best Picture.
Following up "No Country for Old Men," the Coens went to work on their next feature, "Burn After Reading" (2008), a spy comedy about a dim-witted fitness instructor (Brad Pitt) and his plastic surgery-obsessed coworker (Frances McDormand) who try to blackmail a down-and-out CIA agent (John Malkovich) with a CD containing his memoirs he mistakenly left behind at the gym. But in true Coen Brothers fashion, the blackmail scheme goes horribly and violently awry, thanks to the involvement of a womanizing Treasury agent (George Clooney) bedding the CIA agent's wife (Tilda Swinton). Though not a top shelf effort by the Coens, "Burn After Reading" did receive a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy. The siblings had a better critical reception with their next film, "A Serious Man" (2009), which marked the first time the brothers confronted their Jewish upbringing head-on. The period black comedy focused on a quiet physics instructor (Michael Stuhlberg) at a Midwestern university who loses his blithely unconcerned wife (Sari Wagner) to another man while struggling to deal with his dysfunctional children (Aaron Wolff and Jessica McManus) and his lay-about brother (Richard Kind). Hailed by most critics as their most mature work to date, "A Serious Man" earned the brothers several award nominations, including a Best Director nod from the Independent Spirit Awards and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Nothing if not audacious, the Coens' next project was "True Grit" (2010), a remake of the revered Western tale that originally starred film icon John Wayne - his only Oscar-winning performance - in 1969. Fans of the original novel by Charles Portis, the Coens made it clear that their version was far from a remake of the earlier movie, but rather a more faithful adaptation of the source material's tone and language. Jeff Bridges took on the role of the hard-living, loutish U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, who is hired by the spirited 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to track down the man responsible for murdering her father. Joining them on their quest for vengeance is the dim and preening young Marshal LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who also has his sights set on killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Once again the brothers' gamble paid off as the film went on to garner them Academy Award nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.
The brothers' next project was a self-penned script very loosely based on Elijah Wald's biography of Greenwich Village folk singer Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. The resulting film, "Inside Llewyn Davis" (2013), starred Oscar Isaac as the title character, a talented but aimless folk singer in the Village in 1961, and garnered generally positive reviews, especially for Isaac and co-stars Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as his more commercially viable friends, folk duo Jim and Jeane. The Coens next co-wrote (with William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese) the screenplay for Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken" (2014), the story of Olympic hero turned World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand.
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