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Joel Coen

Joel Coen

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Also Known As: Roderick Jaynes Died:
Born: November 29, 1954 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: St Louis Park, Minnesota, USA Profession: director, screenwriter, editor

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

With producer, co-writer and brother Ethan, writer-director Joel 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 never failed to charm critics while thrilling an initially small, but loyal band of viewers. Though they evinced a powerful fascination with film genres â¿¿ particularly screwball comedy and film noir â¿¿ the Coen Brothers earned a great deal of respect by 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 to make with little-to-no outside interference.Born on Nov. 29, 1954 in St. Louis Park, MN, Joel was the first born brother, followed by Ethan three years later. Both grew up in an academic home â¿¿ their father, Edward, was an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, and their mother, Rena, was an art history...

With producer, co-writer and brother Ethan, writer-director Joel 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 never failed to charm critics while thrilling an initially small, but loyal band of viewers. Though they evinced a powerful fascination with film genres â¿¿ particularly screwball comedy and film noir â¿¿ the Coen Brothers earned a great deal of respect by 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 to make with little-to-no outside interference.

Born on Nov. 29, 1954 in St. Louis Park, MN, Joel was the first born brother, followed by Ethan three years later. Both grew up in an academic home â¿¿ 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 Ethan three years behind him, Joel attended Bard College at Simon's Rock, a school for gifted high school age students in Great Barrington, MA.

After leaving Bard College, Joel went to New York City where he enrolled at New York University to study film. Joel pretty much kept to himself, making little impression among his teachers and classmates â¿¿ all the better for him, because he was given equipment to do what he wanted unencumbered, a precursor of things to come. His most notable accomplishment at NYU was "Soundings," a 30-minute black-and-white film about a deaf man whose girlfriend verbally fantasizes about his roommate in the other room while having sex. Joel graduated with his degree and hung around New York, working as a production assistant on various local productions. He was hired to work for Barry Sonnenfeld on an industrial film, who later said that Joel was "without a doubt the worst P.A. I ever worked with." Eventually, he became an assistant editor for Edna Paul, who specialized in low-budget horror movies, which in turn led to his meeting director Sam Raimi.

By this time, Ethan had joined Joel in New York after graduating Princeton with a degree in philosophy. The brothers 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. Joel and Ethan wrote the script for "Blood Simple" in 1981, then had Sonnenfeld â¿¿ who was at that time strictly a cinematographer â¿¿ 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 U.S. Film Festival â¿¿ which eventually became Sundance â¿¿ where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film. With an acrobatic camera, lean dialogue and absurdly comic violence, "Blood Simple" firmly established Joel and Ethan as talented filmmakers right from the get-go. And for Joel, the film introduced him to his future wife, leading lady McDormand, who would go on to star in many of the brothers' films.

After penning the script to Sam Raimi's "Crimewave" (1985), a slapstick comedy about hitmen, Joel and Ethan 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 Joel and Ethan's standing as 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 Coens' ability to jump from genre to genre with ease.

Writing the script for "Miller's Crossing" proved to be a difficult task, however, prompting Joel and Ethan 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 brothers' own frustrations with writing "Miller's Crossing." The film earned Joel and Ethan a Palm d'Or for Best Director(s) at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Meanwhile, they 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, Joel and Ethan 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 (McDormand) and Best Original Screenplay. The film became a true high-water mark for Joel and Ethan, both in terms of creative and financial success, and allowed the brothers artistic freedom heretofore unseen.

Building off the success of "Fargo," Joel and Ethan 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) who have escaped from a chain gang and 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 â¿¿ which they later claimed was a joke because they never actually read it â¿¿ "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 â¿¿ the film faithfully stuck to McCarthy's laconic style â¿¿ "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 â¿¿ his only Oscar-winning performance â¿¿ 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 materialâ¿¿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 brothersâ¿¿ 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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Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Hail Caesar (2016)
3.
  True Grit (2010)
4.
8.
  Ladykillers, The (2004) Director
9.
  Intolerable Cruelty (2003) Director
10.

CAST: (feature film)

2.
 Spies Like Us (1985) Drive-In Security
3.
 Intimate Portrait: Holly Hunter (2000) Interviewee
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Grew up in St Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, MN
:
Transferred to a private school in Massachusetts, Simon's Rock of Bard College
1980:
Feature debut, assistant editor on "Fear No Evil"
1980:
Served as assistant editor on "The Evil Dead" (released 1983)
1984:
First film as co-screenwriter (with brother Ethan and Sam Raimi), Raimi's "Crimewave (released 1985)
1984:
First film as director and screenwriter, "Blood Simple"
1984:
Began co-writing (with brother Ethan and Sam Raimi) the screenplay for "The Hudsucker Proxy" (released 1994)
1985:
First film appearance, played a security guard in John Landis' "Spies Like Us"
1994:
Signed a five-commercial deal with brother Ethan for Budweiser Ice Draft Beer
1996:
Breakthrough feature "Fargo"
1997:
Helmed "The Big Lebowski"
2000:
Shared a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination with brother Ethan for "O Brother Where Art Thou?"
2001:
Helmed "The Man Who Wasn't There"; premiered at Cannes
2003:
Co-directed with brother Ethan "Intolerable Cruelty," which starred George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones
2004:
Helmed "The Ladykillers," with Tom Hanks and Marlon Wayans
2007:
With brother Ethan, co-directed (also co-wrote and co-produced) the award winning film, "No Country for Old Men" starring Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem; earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director
2009:
With brother Ethan, co-directed (also co-wrote and co-produced) the drama film, "A Serious Man," which loosely retells the Jewish biblical story of Job in the modern American era; earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Director; also earned Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture
2010:
With brother Ethan, co-directed (also co-wrote and co-produced) the American Western film, "True Grit"
2011:
Nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Achievement in Directing
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Simon's Rock Early College: Great Barrington , Massachusetts -
New York University: New York , New York -
University of Texas, Austin: Austin , Texas -

Notes

See Ethan Coen biography for a film by film evaluation

"Maybe the Coens are just the most un-self-conscious self-conscious artists in history. Their evasive and jokey approach to interviews ... reveals as much as it conceals. For the Coens's disdain of abstract thinking goes far beyond the traditional artist's distrust of ideas. It goes, finally, as deep as style itself--which in many ways is what the Coens are all about. Theirs is a style that's exuberantly attentative to surfaces, to the look of things, to style itself." --John H. Richardson, "The Joel & Ethan Story," in Premiere, October 1990.

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Frances McDormand. Actor. Directed by Coen in "Blood Simple" (1984); together from 1987; married 1994; second wife.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Edward Coen. Professor. Taught economics at the University of Minnesota.
mother:
Rena Coen. Art historian.
sister:
Debbie Coen. Older.
brother:
Ethan Coen. Producer, screenwriter.
son:
Pedro McDormand Coen. Adopted; born c. November 1994; South American.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"Blood Simple: An Original Screenplay" St. Martin's Press
"Raising Arizona: An Original Screenplay" St. Martin's Press
"Barton Fink; Miller's Crossing" Faber and Faber
"Joel & Ethan Coen" Titan
VIEW COMPLETE BIBLIOGRAPHY

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