The Coen Project Part 5: The Hudsucker Proxy

After a string of critical if not financial hits, the Coen Brothers had built up a solid reputation in the industry. Their success caught the attention of the successful action movie producer Joel Silver, whose credits included Predator, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard. Given an opportunity by Silver to work with a significantly larger budget, Joel and Ethan sprung at the chance to produce an ambitious script that they had written in the early 80’s with their mentor Sam Raimi: The Hudsucker Proxy.

With 25 million dollars in hand, the brothers embarked on the production of what was to be their first truly commercial film, intended for a mainstream audience. What actually got made is a beautiful but confused genre mashup that failed miserably at the box office and is now considered a lesser entry in the Coen filmography. Since I first saw The Hudsucker Proxy with very little contextual information four or five years ago, I was eager to delve more precisely into what about this film works and what doesn’t.

When the vaguely industrial Hudsucker Industries loses its CEO to a top-floor suicide dive, chairman of the board of directors Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) sets out to bomb the company’s stock so that he can buy a controlling interest before the shares go public. To do this he needs to temporarily install a “proxy” as CEO, someone who will fail miserably at running the company. Enter Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), an eager young graduate of the Muncie College of Business Administration, who is plucked from the mailroom and launched into a new role as chief executive. The sudden change in leadership piques the interest of fast-talking reporter Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who decides to go undercover to get the scoop on the new corporate stooge. Meanwhile, Norville has some circle-shaped ideas of his own that threaten to throw a wrench into Mussberger’s plan.


If you think this sounds like Mr Deeds Goes to Town with some His Girl Friday thrown in, you’re not far off. The Hudsucker Proxy is an amalgamation of genre references, pulling from Frank Capra’s folksy urban fantasies, Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies, and Fritz-Lang inspired corporate dystopia (think Brazil). 

I find it funny that the Coens believed this movie, among all their other movies, to be the most commercially viable. It’s hard to imagine that the general public in 1994 would be lining up to see a love letter to thirties and forties cinema set in the late fifties, no matter how much money got poured into it. If you were to show me this and Raising Arizona side by side and ask me which film was meant to appeal to a broader audience, I’d guess Raising Arizona, hands down

Far from being a big-studio sell-out, The Hudsucker Proxy feels like the Coens at their most self-indulgently esoteric, trying to make the film their own cinematic heroes of the past would have made if they had access to modern resources and technology. For fans of those movies, it’s a wonderful homage to a bygone era of filmmaking, but not much else.

Still, all that money resulted in some beautiful visuals. The Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakens created a fantastical, dream-like version New York City, full of art-deco skyscrapers, rendered in shades of grey. Everything is a little bit larger and stranger than life. My favorite set piece is the mailroom: an endless, bustling perpetual motion machine, with cartoonish screaming managers (“THEY DOCK YA”) and letters and packages flying every which way.


Stray Observations:

  • The motif of the circle is woven throughout the film (the hula hoop, the coffee stain around the job listing).  Again, the symbols in the Coen’s films aren’t always worth analyzing, but I do like how this one ties the narrative together visually.
  • On a related note, I’m pretty sure the only reason this movie was set in 1959 is that the year roughly coincides with the invention of the actual hula hoop.
  • Apparently Joel and Ethan had to be talked out of making this film in black and white. Great commercial instincts, guys.
  • Look at this image and tell me it doesn’t remind you of the last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark:43n4HoEyD4Q3pQb2yy15knNmi9u.jpg


The Coen Project Part 4: Barton Fink

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, Joel and Ethan went to New York City for a three-week break in the middle of writing Miller’s Crossing, which they were struggling to complete. While there, they wrote the script for what would become their fourth feature, Barton Fink. While the film stood on its own when I first watched it a few years ago, putting it in the context of the time and place of its writing unlocked meaning that I didn’t pick up on before. Although set in 40’s Hollywood, Barton Fink is a cautionary tale that the Coens are telling themselves, a revenge story in which the titular New York writer is punished for his pretension. It’s as if the Coens needed to take a step back and think about who they were and what their goals were as writers, resulting in the most personal of all their films that I’ve seen thus far.

After his first Broadway play is a critical and financial success, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is given the opportunity to head west and write movies for Capitol Pictures (the fictional studio that would eventually make a comeback in 2016’s Hail Caesar). Barton laments that going to Hollywood would mean abandoning his “new, living theater, of and about the common man,” not considering the possibility that common men could frequent movie theaters. He goes anyway, and ensconces himself in the run-down and vaguely unsettling Hotel Earle. Assigned by the fast and loud talking Capitol Pictures boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) to write a “wrestling picture,” Barton posts up at his typewriter and is unable to write a single word. 

It’s difficult to discuss this movie in any depth without giving away a significant plot reveal, so if you haven’t yet seen it and are planning to, I’d bail out now.

The Coens wrote the role of Barton Fink specifically for John Turturro, who they were working with on Miller’s Crossing. Turturro masterfully plays a man who is so obsessed with what he thinks he has to say as a writer that he is blind to his own delusions, toeing the line between Barton’s naive sincerity and his abrasive self-importance. Opposite him is John Goodman as Charlie Meadowes, the “common man” that Barton claims to empathize with so deeply. He has plenty of his own stories, but Barton isn’t interested in hearing them. When Charlie turns out to be very uncommon indeed, Barton pays the price for his pomposity.


“I could tell you some stories” 

Goodman’s performance is even more remarkable than Turturro’s: he has the uncanny ability to be simultaneously charming and sinister, drawing us in with his charisma even as we know something isn’t right with him. Even though on paper he ends up being the bad guy, I can never fully turn against him as a character. He’s not terrorizing Barton for no reason, he’s teaching him a lesson that ultimately catalyzes his change as a person and, we can surmise, as a writer. 

Barton Fink is the first out of three Coen Films that are set in Los Angeles, but I don’t think of it as an LA movie. The version of LA in the film is heavily (and purposefully) filtered through Barton’s own anti-Hollywood, east-coast centric perspective. Barton refuses to experience the city on its own terms until the final sequence where he sits on the beach in the aftermath of all that’s happened to him. The symbolism of the young woman aside, I read this scene as the moment Barton becomes an Angelino.

Stray Observations:

  • I didn’t even get into the character of W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), the novelist-turned-screenwriter who disillusions Barton with his alcoholism and nonchalant attitude towards his craft. He’s based on William Faulkner, who’s real-life first Hollywood writing gig was a wresting picture called Flesh.
  • How great is Steve Buscemi as Chet (Chet!), the weirdly pedantic and friendly hotel guy?
  • Although it didn’t even make back its budget at the box office, Barton Fink pulled off a rare hat trick at the Cannes Film Festival, nabbing the Palm d’Or as well as Best Director and Best Actor. This caused the Cannes critics to enact the rule that any one movie could only win two out of the three.