If you’ve watched Ellen Barkin slam Al Pacino up against a wall and devour him in Sea of Love, or snarl threats backed by hot lead in Wild Bill, or strut like a ladies’ man trapped in a woman’s body in Switch, then there are certain assumptions you might make about her. That she swears like a sailor, for instance. That she never cries. And that she’s probably most comfortable sitting around a poker table with a bunch of guys drinking Scotch.
”Ewwww, I’ve never drunk Scotch in my life! I’m a champagne and red wine kind of gal,” says Barkin, right before explaining how easy it is, in fact, to make her cry.
This is why Ellen Barkin is an actress. And a damn good one.
When Barkin’s first film, Diner, came out in 1982, the notoriously tough critic Pauline Kael likened her, with her ”tough wistfulness,” to a female Brando. Granted, reviewers haven’t always been as kind. But that may have more to do with the fact that Hollywood’s never been quite sure what to do with a woman who was so brass-tough and so beautiful at the same time. Barkin, who was born in the Bronx, always seemed like she knew too much to be innocent, talked too straight to be polished, and liked sex too much to be sweet. Gwyneth Paltrow she wasn’t.
But now, at 53, Barkin’s finally gotten Hollywood’s attention again. Next week, she’ll join Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and the rest of their band of merry con men in Ocean’s Thirteen. It goes without saying, she fit right in on the set. ”She loved being the only woman with all these guys,” says Ocean’s producer Jerry Weintraub, who gave Barkin her big break in Diner 25 years ago. ”She hung out with us, she drank with us, and she partied with us. She’s different from all the other actresses around. She’s all woman.”
In person, that definitely seems to be the case. Barkin is a ridiculously thin 5 foot 7. Her hair is cut in a sandy blond bob that grazes her chin. And she’s dressed in a bolero-length black leather jacket, black jeans so tight they look like they took a team of workmen to shoehorn on, and a pair of towering, fire-engine-red stiletto heels. What’s most surprising about Barkin, though, is her voice. She speaks softly, daintily — like a woman who knows a secret and isn’t about to share it with just anyone. Although her crooked, bitter-lemon smile signals when you’re getting close.
For instance, when asked what it was like to pal around with Clooney and Pitt — if they had to scale back their boys-will-be-boys-ness in her presence — Barkin cracks up. ”No, I’m not that kind of girl. To do these Ocean’s movies, there has to be a little bit of a no-fuss, no-muss attitude to you. You have to be able to take a joke. I almost felt obliged to get my clothes as tight as they could possibly be and do the girl job.”
In Ocean’s Thirteen, Barkin does the girl job with gusto. Her character, Abigail Sponder, is the cleavage-spilling gal Friday to an evil casino magnate played by Al Pacino. Clooney and Co. plot to take Pacino down — a scheme that has Matt Damon seducing Barkin. If these two seem to have an easy familiarity, that’s because they shared a scene in Ocean’s Twelve — a scene that wound up on the cutting-room floor. Another notable reunion in Ocean’s Thirteen is Barkin and Pacino, who costarred in 1989’s steamy Sea of Love. ”Al Pacino was my favorite acting partner ever,” she says. ”That movie really made me a movie star.” Although, Barkin is the first to admit, an unconventional one. ”I like my looks, but they’re certainly an acquired taste,” she says. ”I’m not a frothy, girly girl. I was never a pretty little starlet. Hollywood loves a girl who looks like men could make her cry. And I’m clearly not that. I’m a New York Jew from a working-class family. That’s how tough I am.”
When she finishes saying this, the tough New York Jew kicks up her heels, lies down on a black leather sofa, and starts explaining how being a woman on the shady side of 50 in Hollywood isn’t always easy on the ego. It’s never a happy day, for example, when you graduate from playing the bombshell to playing the mom (despite the fact that she has a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old in real life from her first marriage, to actor Gabriel Byrne). Unlike some of her peers, though, Barkin says she’s never had plastic surgery and never will. ”I don’t have a political problem with it, I just don’t want to look crazy! Would I rather look the way I looked when I was 43? Yes. 33? No. I always thought women peaked between 36 and 43. Something happens to your face and everything just settles in. I look at that gorgeous little Scarlett Johansson and I think, ‘Oh, my God, what is that girl going to look like when she’s a woman?!”
All of which inevitably leads Barkin to the subject of her love life…or alleged love life. ”This past year, according to Page Six, I had the most exhausting sex life,” she says. In truth, Barkin is single. And she probably will be for a while, considering how badly her last relationship — a five-year marriage to billionaire cosmetics mogul Ronald Perelman — ended. When they split last year, it wasn’t pretty. The tabloids claimed that he had her escorted from their Manhattan town house and that, later, she threw a drink in his face. Those same gossips also painted Barkin as a sort of feminist role model when she auctioned off the millions in jewelry her ex had given her.
Not that she sees it that way. ”Here’s this woman who you think is really tough and isn’t going to take s—,” she says, ”but I’m just a person. I make mistakes. I was married twice. I was in love with both men. And both marriages ended. So this thing with the jewelry sale…look, if you were married to someone, would you keep your wedding pictures in your house after you got divorced? It wasn’t a stand. I wasn’t saying, ‘F— you!’ It just seemed to be what any normal person would do.”
Barkin lets loose a heavy sigh.
”It would be nice to be considered a role model. But I wish I felt like that because I’ve…taken…so… much…s—.”
Barkin shrugs and smiles her cockeyed smile. And in that smile there seems to be a promise. The promise she’s been making on screen for the past 25 years. The promise that says, This too shall pass. Because Ellen Barkin doesn’t take s— from anyone for very long.