Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In Character: John Turturro

There’s a fine class of actors that Spike Lee keeps in his pocket. People he can rely on to deliver, no matter the size of the part. Likewise the Coen brothers, who write with a specific actor in mind, all but knowing that they will accept the part because it’s a… Coen brothers movie. But few people have the rare distinction of being in the pocket of both the Coens and Spike Lee. That’s the effect of a John Turturro performance. Whether he’s the wiseass or the moron, the crook or the cop, the ill fated or the hero, you know that when John Turturro appears in the role call, you’re in for something worthy and oddly enjoyable.

Five Essential Roles
Five Corners (1987)
Heinz Sabantino
We’ve seen John Turturro play most any role there is, but rarely do we have a chance to see him play an out-and-out psychopath like Heinz Sabantino.

The entire dramatic narrative of Five Corners hinges on Heinz’s release from prison. Heinz was sent-up for the attempted rape of his neighbor, Linda (Jodie Foster). Now that he has been released, Linda and her friends are forced to adjust their lives accordingly.

Look, Five Corners isn’t a very good film, and most of the performances are phoned in at best. But not Turturro’s. In what was his most substantial role to date, he really went all in with Heinz, painting a convincing portrait of a man long ago gone mad. And hey, Turturro’s work in Five Corners so impressed Spike Lee, that it led the director to cast him in…

Do the Right Thing (1989)
One of the most interesting things about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is the juxtaposition between Sal (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino and Vito (Richard Edson). Sal has made a living serving an almost exclusively black clientele, and he respects their differences. He serves them pizza, and they treat his business with respect. Vito is a kind simpleton who doesn’t understand the notion of racism. He values everyone equally. Pino is an unapologetic racist who hates where he works and the people who eat his food. But why? Why is Pino so hateful? What in his life made him despise black people so much, when his father and brother clearly do not? I haven’t a clue, and I suspect Pino doesn’t either.

Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Bernie Bernbaum
Bernie Bernbaum has to be the most despicable character John Turturro has ever played, which is high praise, considering he’s played many of them so well. As a moronic bookie who inadvertently starts a local mob war, Bernie is the kind of guy who thinks he’s far more valuable than he actually is. In fact, it’s quite hilarious when you realize the very intricate web that the Coen brothers created for Miller’s Crossing depends entirely on what Bernie does. If he lives, the war goes on. If he dies, then all’s well that ends well.

Still, despite Turturro purposefully playing Bernie as a baboon, nothing takes away from the gut wrenching moment in which Bernie literally begs his would-be killer, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) for his life. It’s such a difficult moment to watch, making Bernie’s eventual deceit that much more frustrating.

Quiz Show (1994)
Herb Stempel
What a poor bastard Herb Stempel is. As a patsy for NBC’s popular game show, Twenty One, Herb exists solely to increase ratings. People behind the scenes at NBC give Herb the answers to his questions before the show tapes, giving viewers at home a particular bit of inspiration that “any of us can make it.” But once ratings start to slip, NBC bosses (and their sponsors) agree that Herb has to go, so they order him to take a dive. Herb battles this moral conundrum relentlessly before finally giving in. The question he is forced to lose on is so pleasantly meta, that I won’t spoil it here for those who haven’t seen Quiz Show. Like I said… poor bastard.

Rounders (1998)
Joey Knish
“You little punk. I’m not playing for the thrill of fuckin’ victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat.

Joey Knish really feels like a back alley card shark, rounding his way through life, making a buck where he can, when he can. It’s the slender frame, pale skin, and dark clothes that make this character feel wholly authentic. Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman give Knish succinct, purposeful sentences. We know this guy is important, because he carries himself with a subtlety of importance. I just love the sleazy confidence Turturro brought to his role here.

The Best of the Best
Barton Fink (1991)
Barton Fink
There’s nothing better than an actor completely owning a role. When I watch Barton Fink, I don’t watch John Turturro play Barton Fink, I watch Barton Fink simply live out his life. That’s how tied to the character Turturro has become. The Coen brothers have admitted that they specifically wrote the part of Barton with Turturro in mind. Seldom can I think of more appropriate casting in a film.

As a playwright enjoying newfound success, Barton Fink is hired by a Hollywood film producer to write scripts on retainer. His first script appears to be a simple one: a generic wrestling film that shouldn’t take long for Barton to draft. But there’s a block. Nagging sensations that won’t allow him to focus. Whether it’s the incessant buzzing of misquotes in his room, a noisy neighbor with an ulterior motive, or a picture on his wall begging to be understood, Barton is a man creatively congested. And watching him suffer through the perils of the Hollywood system makes not only for some of the finest work the Coens ever put on screen, but my favorite Turturro performance as well.

Barton Fink is a film filled with rabbit holes and trap doors; any number of things for the viewer to get lost in. But if we’re abandoned, then we are comforted by the fact that Barton is equally misguided. Turturro’s work in Barton Fink isn’t acting, it’s becoming.

Other Notable Roles
In The Big Lebowski
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
The Color of Money (1986)
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
State of Grace (1990)
Jungle Fever (1991)
Mac (1992)
Being Human (1994)
Clockers (1995)
Girl 6 (1996)
Grace of My Heart (1996)
Box of Moon Light (1996)
He Got Game (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Cradle Will Rock (1999)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
The Man Who Cried (2000)
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001)
Fear X (2003)
Secret Window (2004)
She Hate Me (2004)
Monk (2004-2008)
The Good Shepherd (2006)
Slipstream (2007)
Flight of the Conchords (2007)
The Bronx is Burning (2007)
Margot at the Wedding (2007)
What Just Happened (2008)


  1. With such a distinct voice and quirky look, it always amazes me how Turturro transforms himself in different roles. A gifted and convincing actor.

    1. Definitely! He can so convincingly play the bafoon, but he can also play the regular fella. Love this guy.

  2. Another actor that simply makes movies matter more. The guy is always the right kind of crazy. It's a shame I've never seen Barton Fink.

    It's pretty stupid, but did you ever see Brain Donors. When I was a kid, Turturro's performance was pure gold. Then again, I hadn't heard of the Marx brothers yet.

    Like too many of us, I can't help but think of The Big Lebowski every time I see him. So funny...

    Great post, AW.

    1. Thanks man! I've never seen Brain Donors... worth checking out?

      Barton Fink, man, you gotta scope out that one when you can. I would LOVE to read your review of that flick. So out there.

    2. It was my favorite movie for about three months of sixth grade.

      So...yeah...not sure I can still vouch for it.

    3. Haha nice. I know exactly what you mean.

  3. I love Turturro. He's just one of those guys who's always reliable and you can count on him delivering the goods. From Barton Fink all the way down to the crap pile that is Transformers, he can carry a scene (which is good because almost no one else in that last film can). One of my favorites is him in Fear X (a criminally underrated movie). Just such an odd and restrained performance, almost the anti Barton Fink in a sense. I have not seen Five Corners but I will have to look into it if he's as good in it as you say he is.

    Also, love that last one, potentially my favorite line in the whole movie, "You got it man! No one fucks with the Jesus."

    1. That might be THE line of The Big Lebowski, and that is certainly saying something. I really like Fear X, and I love his work in it. I agree, a criminally underrated movie right there. I should check that one out again.

  4. Awesome choice for the series! Such a great actor, always brings his A game. I love his work on Quiz Show, he was just heartbreaking. So many awesome performances there.

    1. Thanks! Glad you're a fan. I love his Quiz Show performance. He's such a perfect shmuck.

  5. I love John Turturro. The guy is just awesome. I love his work with Spike Lee and the Coens. I love his performance of Pino where my favorite scene is where Mookie asks him who are his favorite basketball players and musicians as they're both black but he doesn't think of them as you know.

    Yet, my favorite performance of Turturro in a Spike Lee film is in Jungle Fever where he just had that amazing sensitivity as a guy who finds himself attracted to a black woman yet he has to deal with his needy father.

    With the Coens, it's Barton Fink hands down. No one can do that role.

    I also love his comedy work as he is just naturally funny yet I think my favorite comedic performance from (that isn't the Jesus) is his role as the Phantom in You Don't Mess with the Zohan. I know Adam Sandler is frowned upon these days but this was one of Sandler's better films. Turturro just steals the film for me in every moment he's in.

    "You are going to get spoiled!!! AHHH *chops up lamb for muchen-tuchen restaurant*

    "I will save store and then I kill the Zohan!" The best part of the film is that he never takes off his sunglasses and screams like a girl.

    1. Jungle Fever was this close to making the final cut here. I really value his work in that movie as well. Amazing sensitivity is a great way to put it.

      I agree that Sandler's movies haven't been great as of late, but I do value seeing Turturro pop up in them. He's always been the highlight of those films for me.

  6. Turturro is absolutely THE MAN! He is great in everything I've ever seen him in, including the dreadful "Transformers" flicks. His work in "Do the Right Thing" is my #1, but I'm biased because that is one of my two favorite films of all time (The Godfather Part II, the other). For me, Pino's racism is at least partly due to the way his friends in his own neighborhood not only feel about blacks, but give him a hard time for where his (dad's) pizzeria is located. And yes, the scene with Mookie asking him about his favorite athletes, entertainers, etc. is possibly the most poignant moment in a movie filled with them.

    1. Nice! Love your love for him. Interesting thought about Pino's hatred. Friends can have such an impact on us at such an early age. It's just a shame that he lives his life that way (and that many other characters in that film of many other races live their lives a particular way as well). Had no idea that movie ranked so high for you. It's a perfect film.

  7. Ugh. I really need to watch Barton Fink! Love the rest of your picks, though I haven't heard of Five Corners. It sounds like a great performance, so I'll have to give it a look.

    1. I hadn't seen Five Corners before researching this post, but yeah man, if you're a fan of Turturro, then you'll dig his work there. You gotta see Barton Fink!

  8. Alex, there are so many great options for Turturro. Even his brief parts in movies like The Big Lebowski are brilliant. Miller's Crossing is probably tops for me because of the pivotal scene you mention, but you can't go wrong with picking Barton Fink. You're right to call out Do the Right Thing. Turturro has a thankless role of playing a racist that everyone dislikes, and he owns it. Great job as always!

    1. Thanks Dan! Glad to hear you're a Turturro fan. The man can do no wrong.

  9. I think Barton Fink is the best of the best too, but my favourite is definitely his small role in The Big Lebowski! I didn't even realise that was him. I'm not a fan of O' Brother Where Art Thou, but I think his role in that was brilliant.

    1. You gotta love Jesus! And considering he's only in that movie for about 2 minutes, it's amazing that he's able to steal it. Love this guy.

  10. Barton Fink is a great choice. His character in O Brother, Where Art Thou is another favorite of mine.

  11. Great actor that deserves more attention for sure. He certainly fits like a glove in most of the roles I've seen him play. Can't deny how great he was in Barton Fink or O Brother Where Art Thou. Everything that makes him so appealing as an actor is probably what makes him such a non-mainstreamer if that makes sense. Lets hope he stays at it for many more years.

    1. Many more years indeed. I always love this guy, even if he's in something slight or, you know, dumb. He always brings it.