Coen, Ethan and Joel

Coen, Ethan and Joel
▪ 1997

      By 1996, after having made only six motion pictures, brothers Ethan and Joel Coen had established themselves among the most versatile filmmaking talents in the U.S. Joel wrote and directed, while Ethan wrote and produced. Their clever screenplays, toying with the conventions of film genre while paying homage to them and peopled with vivid, oddball characters were acclaimed for their striking imagery. The Coens credited precise and detailed storyboards, in which every element was preplanned. In 1996 the brothers joined an elite group of repeat award winners when their latest feature, Fargo, a quirky tale of crime and punishment set in the snowy Midwest, captured the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

      Joel was born on Nov. 29, 1955, and Ethan arrived on Sept. 21, 1958; both were born in St. Louis Park, Minn. The children of university professors, the brothers showed an early interest in filmmaking, shooting home movies of their friends with a Super-8 camera.

      Joel refined his craft at the New York University Film School and after graduation found work as an assistant editor on low-budget horror films. Ethan, meanwhile, studied philosophy at Princeton University. After graduation he joined his brother in New York City, and together they began writing scripts for independent producers.

      The brothers riveted the attention of the film world in 1984 with Blood Simple, a stylish thriller that they co-wrote and financed through private investors. Although Joel took the director's credit and Ethan that of producer, they insisted that their roles were interchangeable.

      The critical success of Blood Simple enabled the brothers to make a deal with an independent production company that granted them complete creative control. The films that followed were as different from Blood Simple as they were from each other. Raising Arizona (1987), an irreverrent comedy about babies, Harley Davidsons, and high explosives, and Miller's Crossing (1990), a period gangster drama, firmly established the Coens' reputation as idiosyncratic talents. Barton Fink, about an edgy, neurotic would-be writer, claimed the best picture, best director, and best actor awards during the 1991 Cannes competition, the first such sweep in the festival's history.

      The Coens turned to Hollywood to produce their fifth feature, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a fairy tale in which a small-town hayseed becomes the head of a big-time corporation. Written a decade earlier by the brothers and horror film maven Sam Raimi, the project boasted an all-star cast but was a critical and financial flop. Fargo marked a return to both small-budget, independent filmmaking and the brothers' Minnesota roots. (ALISSA SIMON)

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Universalium. 2010.

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