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Singling out just one John Mahoney performance feels a little reductive. Mahoney, who died yesterday at the age of 77, was a member of that rare stratum of actor who elevates every single thing they’re in, whether it’s as Ione Skye’s deeply flawed, yet completely relatable father in Say Anything; or as an old-school aluminum salesman in Tin Men; or the sunny morning show host who belittles Winona Ryder in Reality Bites; or a lecherous professor who charms Olympia Dukakis in Moonstruck; or hell, even playing Paul Newman opposite Ben Stiller in a silly SNL parody of The Color Of Money. Mahoney’s obits almost uniformly identified him as “the dad from Frasier,” and there’s definitely no shame in that. Martin Crane is one of the great, archetypal characters of sitcom Valhalla, and Mahoney was so convincing as a blue-collar, ex-Seattle cop that you’d never know he was actually bred in Blackpool, England. Even still, Mahoney’s résumé ran far deeper than that, filled with appearances that he disappeared into just as remarkably—which unfortunately doesn’t make for a tidy headline.
Singling out just one great performance in the Coens’ Barton Fink feels similarly diminishing. The 1991 movie is wall-to-peeling-wall with memorable turns in even the smallest of roles. Judy Davis’ wry, steely assistant, Audrey. Michael Lerner’s blustering studio mogul. Tony Shalhoub’s acridly cynical producer. Even Richard Portnow and Christopher Murney as Hollywood’s most defiantly unimpressed detectives. It’s the kind of film where not a single line or moment goes to waste. But even there, John Mahoney stands out. His is one of the all-time great supporting actor turns, delivered for a filmmaking team that specializes in them.
As the politically minded, pretentious playwright lured to L.A. to draft a wrestling picture, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is understood to be a stand-in for Clifford Odets—his origin story, at least. Unlike Barton, Odets didn’t mind Hollywood so much, working both in and out of the studio system and, most importantly, actually getting movies made. Whatever distaste or skepticism Odets might have held for showbiz was mostly purged in noirs like The Big Knife and Sweet Smell Of Success. And while Odets had a similar verve for “common man” vernacular that bore absolutely no resemblance to how real people talked, loved to expound at length on the philosophy of writing, and worked in a neurotic and ritualistic manner, by all accounts he never fell prey to crippling writers’ block nor serial-killing psychopaths.
There’s a similarly loose resemblance between Mahoney’s character, a floridly boozy Southern author named W.P. Mayhew, and William Faulkner. Ethan Coen has acknowledged that discovering Faulkner had once worked on a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery (Whaddaya need, a road map?) gave the brothers their way in on Barton Fink—the concept of an eminently serious author debasing themselves in order to, as Mayhew puts it to Barton, “make their way out here to the Great Salt Lick.” Like Faulkner, Mayhew is also a heavy drinker—Barton first discovers him puking in the bathroom—and he speaks in a casually baroque prose filled with references to the Bible and antebellum spirituals. Yet Cohen has also taken pains to say such similarities are “superficial.” Faulkner, like Odets, had his own reservations about the movie business, and he also expressed that contempt a bit more directly—and he had relatively less success in squaring them. At the same time, Faulkner also wrote dozens of short stories, along with some of his best novels, during and after his Hollywood tenure.
Mayhew, by contrast, is an august failure—a genteel mess, a drunk with dignity. Mahoney imbues Mayhew with courtly grace through the smallest of gestures; during his prolific vomiting in the bathroom stall, Mayhew kneels on a silk pocket square, which he then tucks back into his suit with a practiced flourish. “Sorry about the odor,” he says to Barton, with a warm conviviality. As he takes in Barton’s subsequent gushing over his novels, Mahoney gives Mayhew a tight smile that conveys both his inurement to fanboys and the slightest hint of shame at his own lapsed greatness. Mayhew is charming and wittily composed in the way that every boozehound fancies themselves. He even makes his alcoholism sound noble: “I’m buildin’ a levee,” he tells Barton later. “Gulp by gulp, brick by brick. Raisin’ up a levee to keep that ragin’ river of manure from lappin’ at my door.”
Mayhew somehow maintains that nobility even when he’s completely shit-faced. The punchline to Barton and Mayhew’s bathroom encounter, during which Mayhew invites him to come by his office later, is a smash cut to Mayhew bellowing inside his bungalow, with Mahoney giving Mayhew’s drunk voice a wounded and desperate tenor. In their rescheduled conference over a picnic, where the two discuss their differing approaches to writing—Mayhew, a beatific smile on his face, asks, “Ain’t writing peace?” while Barton contends it comes from “a great inner pain”—Mahoney gives his line a wistfulness that implicitly telegraphs just how far from that peace he is. He then drunkenly stumbles off with a droll suggestion of suicide, lashing out at Audrey while barking another purplish epigram—“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny!”—that’s just so much poetic nonsense. It’s all funny and pitiable, loathsome yet sad, and it lends some credence to Audrey’s tearful insistence that she really just feels sorry for him. “Empathy requires understanding,” she tells Barton as Mayhew wanders off howling “Old Black Joe.”
Mahoney plays all these conflicting tones beautifully, giving us a complete portrait—over just a couple of scenes and a few short minutes of screen time—of an arrogant asshole who’s shitty to women and probably a teensy bit racist, yet whom you’d still love to get a drink with. Like so many of the film’s borderline-cartoons, it’s a character that could have easily lapsed into Foster Brooks-meets-Foghorn Leghorn caricature—the sozzled, tormented genius spouting “mammies” and “sirruhs”—but Mahoney’s performance gives Mayhew both empathy and understanding, turning him into a symbol of talent rotting at the bottom of a rocks glass. It’s brief, yet enough to elevate him to the top tier of the Coens’ impressive stable of scene-stealers. (Mahoney would work with them only once more, as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s similarly archetypal newspaper editor in The Hudsucker Proxy, which seems like a shame.) And it’s a testament to how a character actor of Mahoney’s caliber can turn even a small part into something that lingers as long as an 11-season run on a hit TV show.
Availability: Barton Fink is available on DVD through Netflix and to stream on Amazon. It may also be found in your local video store or library.