Coen, Joel (1954– ) and Ethan (1957– )

views updated

COEN, JOEL (1954– ) and ETHAN (1957– )

COEN, JOEL (1954– ) and ETHAN (1957– ), U.S. filmmakers. The Coen brothers were born in Minneapolis, Minn., to college professors Edward (economics) and Rena (art history). Raised in a middle-class Jewish household, their uneventful childhood was spent watching old comedies and noir thrillers on tv and recreating films like The Naked Prey and Advice and Consent with a Super-8 camera. Joel first attended college at Simon's Rock in Massachusetts and then studied film at New York University. Ethan went on to Princeton, where he studied philosophy and wrote his thesis on Wittgenstein. Joel took on editing small-budget films after college, which included work with director Sam Raimi, providing Coen with real-world production experience. Ethan followed his brother to New York in 1979 and took a job with Macy's as a statistical typist. The brothers spent a good deal of time together and began collaborating on screenplays. When the Coens decided to make their first film together, Joel's experience watching filmmakers lose creative control over their own projects inspired the brothers to finance their first film, Blood Simple (1984), themselves. In 1981, Joel went back to Minnesota and was able to raise $750,000 by selling limited partnerships to friends and family, and a year later they filmed the thriller in Austin, Texas. To reduce high costs normally associated with filmmaking, every scene and angle was mapped out with storyboards, a practice they continue to use as a team to ensure tight budgets, effective directing, and creative control. In 1984, Circle Releasing agreed to distribute Blood Simple, which took the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 United States Film Festival. However, critics were split on the project and every Coen brothers film since. Blood Simple was followed by the madcap comedy Raising Arizona (1987), which set off a distribution bidding war among the major studios; the gamble on the brothers paid off for Twentieth Century Fox, and the Coens won over a mainstream audience. Raising Arizona was followed by the gangster tale Miller's Crossing (1990); the 1930s Hollywood drama Barton Fink (1991), which took the Palme d'Or for best picture, best director, and best actor at the Cannes Film Festival; and the Frank Capra–like comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). In 1996, the same year Fargo was released, Joel married the brothers' sometime leading lady Frances McDormand on April 1. Fargo won best feature, best director for Joel, best actor for William H. Macy, best actress for McDormand, and best screenplay for Joel and Ethan at the 1997 Independent Spirit Awards; McDormand also won best actress at the 1997 Academy Awards for her Fargo role. The Coens followed with the noir comedy The Big Lebowski (1998), the Odyssey-based Depression-era period piece O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and a remake of the comedy The Ladykillers (2004). In 1998, Ethan released a book of semi-autobiographical short stories titled Gates of Eden, followed by The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way: Poems (2001).

[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]