The Chameleon

Ellen Barkin on ‘Another Happy Day,’ Sam Levinson, and Being a ‘Broad’

Barkin talks to Kevin Sessums about her new film, ‘Another Happy Day’—and her boyfriend.

“Scratch an actor, find an actress,” Dorothy Parker once pronounced in an arch mashup of misogyny and homophobia that passed for sophistication. In rarer cases, if I may chance a misinterpreted mashup of my own, one can scratch an actress and find an actor. Some actresses depend not on “feminine wiles” to seduce but on their own way with a swagger. Bette Davis was such an actress. Barbara Stanwyck. Tilda Swinton. Gena Rowlands. And Ellen Barkin.

The Bronx-born Barkin got her start in screenwriter and director Barry Levinson’s Diner in 1982 and has now, in 2011, come full circle to produce and star in his son Sam’s first film, Another Happy Day, the title of which comes from Winnie’s last line in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Just as Winnie is buried up to her neck in an earthen mound in Beckett’s play, Barkin’s character in Another Happy Day, opening Nov. 18, seems to be buried up to hers in familial discord. Levinson’s screenplay won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and it is chock full of angst and gallows humor—much like a Beckett play, but one put through a cinematic blender with the top left off. Everyone gets splattered.

Barkin—who uses that swagger of hers to stride straight into depths of vulnerability we’ve never seen from her before—anchors the film even as her character’s insistence that the family face its secrets and pathologies makes it run aground. The rest of the exemplary cast includes, among others, Ellen Burstyn, Demi Moore, Ezra Miller, George Kennedy, Jeffrey DeMunn, Diana Scarwid, Thomas Haden Church, and Kate Bosworth.

Barkin herself is the mother of a son and daughter by her first marriage to actor Gabriel Byrne. Her second marriage, to mega–business macher Ronald Perelman, ran even more aground than the fictional family in Another Happy Day, and their divorce made headlines in New York’s tabloid press. Barkin received a multimillion-dollar settlement from Perelman with the proviso that she not discuss the marriage or the settlement. “May I at least refer to that period of your life as when you played the title role in Tammy and the Billionaire?" I asked her during a long lunch the other week. She laughed and, with a gallows humor all her own, hummed the title ditty to such a disaster film before we settled down to our conservation.

KEVIN SESSUMS: You have said that each time you take on a role you reveal more of your own secrets. What secrets did you reveal in Another Happy Day?

ELLEN BARKIN: They’re horrible. I can’t say them. That’s why I did the role.

KS: They do say in 12 steps that one is only as sick as one’s secrets.

EB: I know. I could be very sick. Look, this was a very challenging and difficult role. It wrenched me. I think if you are a parent you love your children, so the hardest thing to admit is that you’ve made a mistake in raising them. Your intention might have been clear, but the way you went about something might have been wrong, and they got hurt. That was the main thing I found so fascinating about the role. These are the kinds of women that we never see depicted on screen, and these are women who are every mother I know. I don’t know Susan Smith, so I don’t know anyone who ever drove their two kids into a lake. I never met Medea. Never will. I know women just like me who are good, committed parents and who made mistakes. Some of us made big ones and some of us made less big ones.

KS: There is one scene in the film when your character comes downstairs in the middle of the night and turns on the light above the stove. Her mother is sitting there alone in the dark and says, “We never turn on that light. Turn it off.” That’s what your character does over and over—she turns on the light that no one ever turns on. And then Ellen Burstyn, as your character’s mother, has that amazing soliloquy at the kitchen table. The whole movie comes to roost right there in that scene.

EB: I’ll tell you what’s so amazing about that. That line comes from a true story that one of the actors told the writer-director about her mother to sum up her relationship with her own mother. “I turned on the light above the stove once and my mother said, ‘Oh, I never turn on that light.’” I can’t really say if it was me or not. But that was, in fact, my character’s representation of her relationship with her mother. And I challenge anyone to show me two minutes of film that can approach what Ellen Burstyn did in that chair in that scene. She played it like a Stradivarius. She only did three or four takes. Sam did very few takes.

KS: Because you as the producer wouldn’t let him?

EB: No. That was his plan. Sam had a very strong vision of how he wanted to tell the story. He called it formal messiness.

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KS: Sounds like the definition of divorce. One of the secrets you’ve told by taking this role—in a very circumspect way—is that you’re in a relationship with Sam in real life. Or have you discussed this in a story before?

EB: Why would I discuss us as a couple?

KS: It’s not like you’re living a secret. I know you both. You’re not in the closet about it.

EB: I don’t live any part of my life in the closet. To me—I almost feel—yeah, so what, next question.

KS: What I’m trying to get to is the dynamic of being directed by someone you love, with whom you’re a “couple.” There’s coupling going on, Ellen. You, Sam, this movie: it’s all very Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands.

EB: I did feel like Gena Rowlands when I was doing this movie.

KS: So did you fall in love with Sam as you read his script?

EB: I’m not giving you the details, Mr. Sessums. Look, here’s when it becomes important. I think great directors can do it with strangers. But I spent three years with Sam producing this movie. Yes, night and day. Watching films that influenced him in general and indicative of the way he wanted to do this movie. I knew everything he wanted out of that role, and he knew everything that I wanted. So the intimacy—just provided by the work situation—was intense.

KS: It seems as if to get over what came before Sam in your life that you, in your role as the producer, had to become the business macher yourself.

EB: Someone had to do it. Part of it was that I’m older and it’s time. I’ve been at this for 30 years. But it wasn’t about my telling him where to put his camera.

KS: Talk about projection.

EB: [laughing] Fabulous. But I really did finally think if someone doesn’t protect this material and his vision it’s never going to get out there. I trusted him enough to protect it.

KS: So you fell in love with his artistry. You needed an artist in your life at this point.

EB: I will say this. Men who love their mothers treat women wonderfully. And they have enormous respect for women.

KS: Even I wasn’t going to be so obvious to ask if you were his mother figure—even though you are 57 and he’s 26.

EB: No. But I think that Sam has such a strong relationship with both his parents—especially with his mother. He’s just one of those guys. I can always tell when I’m hanging around. I’ll go, oh, that guy hated his mother. Because they are just not nice to women.

KS: Nietzsche once said, “Love matches, so called, have illusion for their father and need for their mother.” That could sum up your last two relationships.

EB: I love that quote. That’s beautiful. There has to be an enormous truth to it on each sex’s part. My oldest friend is a psychiatrist. I’ve known him since I was 19. He would always say that a good relationship is just a pairing of neuroses. So I need to have both sides of that. I need to play the father and the mother, and I need to be with someone who has both things in them. I’m not limited by my gender, and I don’t think anyone else should be either. Because I am the age I am and I sort of rode the crest of the first profound post-suffragette feminists, I wasn’t fighting to burn my bra. Those women fought that fight just seconds before I came into womanhood. I never had to reclaim my territory. I just sort of slipped my foot under the beauty of Kate Millett and Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and all those beautiful women. I’ve never said this before, but I never had to burn my bra because I never wore a bra. I never wore a bra, so I never had to take it off. When I first started making movies, it took me a while to get how sexist it was. I mean, you’re even called “the girl” on the movie set. And I don’t care how f--king successful you are, you can still find someone who will call you “the girl.”

KS: Do you ever get old enough that when you’re called “the girl” it becomes a backhanded compliment?

EB: No, that’s when they just start to call you “the bitch” ... Look, there is a certain feminine point of view in the way that Sam looks at the world. I do respond to that in him. He’s always willing to give someone another chance. He doesn’t judge anyone. It’s almost a kind of maternal thing of his own. I think he finds women much more complicated than men and is much more interested in exploring them in his writing. But even look at the character of Elliot—my character’s son in the film—he’s very androgynous. That’s not a macho teen.

KS: Sam’s androgynous.

EB: Very.

KS: He could be mistaken for being gay.

EB: Our Sam? Notice I didn’t say my Sam. He’s our Sam.

KS: That’s a way of my getting you to talk about him. I’ll accuse him of being gay.

EB: I don’t think he’d consider it an accusation. Remember, he’s an artist. That’s your bad.

KS: That is my bad. You’re exactly right. That was an awful word choice on my part. I apologize to you. To Sam. To myself. And all my gay brothers.

EB: That’s a question that I have. What year did gay get split into the sexes? When I was young, gay was gay.

KS: Now it’s LGBT.

EB: That’s fine. I understand the blurry lines between the B and the T. What year did the lesbians decide they weren’t in the gay party?

KS: Maybe Sam’s androgyny and his female outlook is a way for you to get in touch with your own latent lesbianism.

EB: I don’t think I have to get in touch with any of those aspects of my personality or character. I think it’s been done. That’s one of the fun things about doing this role—she was so much more feminine than I. I am kind of a butch girl, if you really think about it.

KS: But you are very aware of how sexy you are to men.

EB: But there is a certain androgyny to my appeal.

KS: You’d be a great Hamlet.

EB: I would have been.

KS: You could still do it. You sure don’t look 57, Ellen.

EB: Yeah, but I don’t look 20 either. I’d like to play Lady Macbeth and call it a day.

KS: I used to be intimidated by you—even when you were my waitress at The Bagel on West Fourth Street back in the ’70s.

EB: Yeah. I used to work there five days a week. That was my college job. And then I worked as a waitress at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. That, in fact, brings it all together. When Ellen Burstyn signed on to this film, she called Sam and asked if there was any music that inspired him when he was writing it, and he sent her Nina Simone singing “Everything Must Change,” which is what plays over the end credits now of the movie. The whole cast started listening to it. So as the producer, I went to get the rights to it, but it has always been denied by her and now her estate. It’s never been in a movie before. But I sent them Sam’s script and told them we wanted the whole song and not just a part of it, and that no dialogue would be played over it. They gave us permission. I used to wait on Nina Simone at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. [Putting on Simone’s raspy lilt] “Get that little blonde over here to make my salad dressin’!” Nina would always shout. There were so many other people like that at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. After Mickey Ruskin closed Max’s in 1974, two years later he opened the Ocean Club. Everybody came. All the painters. De Kooning. All of them. William Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs would go, in the nicest way, “Get that c--t over here!” That would be like him complimenting me. I’d go, “I’ll be right there, Mr. Burroughs. No problem.”

KS: You’re in the tradition of great Hollywood molls, Ellen, even though you live in a townhouse in Greenwich Village.

EB: I am very “broady.” I always take it as a compliment when I read a quote and someone says, “She’s a great broad.” I think it’s probably true. I don’t know where I got it from. When I look at my own mother, who is still alive and healthy, she is not particularly strong. Now, there is a secret part of me, which is I have no self-protection mechanism. Look, I’m tough. I know that it’s unexpected for me to say this, because sexism allows that if a woman is tough she is also a little bad. They must go hand in hand. Bulls--t! I have done things to hurt people, but no one could say, “She’s evil.” Or say, “She’s bad.” I don’t believe that people are bad, so I just walk around thinking everybody means well. So I am always stunned when I finally have to admit that a person is just not nice. What that person just did is purposefully mean. It still shocks me. So when I finally see it, I go, why the f--k didn’t I see that coming! Of course that person is evil. It’s that thing where I just don’t think to protect myself because I don’t think you need to be protected from another human being. But then I realize—Oh! Some human beings are like boa constrictors.

KS: There is such a follow-up question to all that I want to ask you.

EB: I’m probably not allowed to answer such a question, but I’d love to. There is nothing I’d love more.

KS: Let me put it in the subjunctive. What happens if one falls in love with a person like that?

EB: I think in certain cases that if someone does do that they don’t realize it’s that person. Look, I am not only a maternal person but in some areas I am a very controlling one as well, so there is a part of me that if I fall in love with you and I see bad in you I really am going to believe that my goodness is going to crush your badness and that you are going to become a better person. Not that I’m going to change you, but that you are going to be overwhelmed or, by osmosis, you are going to be infused with goodness and generosity. I continue to approach the world in the same way, and if it happens again I’ll say, “F--k! Where did that come from?” I know it’s not at all the image I present to the world, but I’m not at all jaded. I’m suspicious. I’m hyper-aware. But I’m not jaded.

KS: The first film you ever saw was Gigi at Radio City Music Hall, when your mother took you as a little girl. What has that arc been like, from that unjaded little girl seeing that film to the unjaded woman starring in Another Happy Day?

EB: Gee. I don’t know. I am to a fault an introspective person. But I am not a reflective person—except for a big mistake, and then I really think about it.

KS: Do you ever think you could get to the bittersweet point with that macher you were married to and, like Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, sing “Yes, I Remember It Well”?

EB: I’d much prefer to be like Elaine Stritch and sing “I’m Still Here.”