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Ethan Coen


Ethan Coen

"Ethan Coen" redirects here. For the comedic screenwriter, see Etan Cohen.
"Joel Coen" redirects here. For the comedic screenwriter, see Joel Cohen (writer).

Joel and Ethan Coen
2001 Cannes Film Festival
Born Joel David Coen
Ethan Jesse Coen

(1954-11-29) November 29, 1954 (age 59) (Joel)
(1957-09-21) September 21, 1957 (age 56) (Ethan)
St. Louis Park, Minnesota, U.S.
Other names Roderick Jaynes
Occupation Film directors, producers, screenwriters, film editors
Years active 1984–present
Notable work(s) Blood Simple, True Grit, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing
Spouse(s) Frances McDormand (Joel; 1984–present; 1 child)
Tricia Cooke (Ethan; 1990–present; 2 children)

Joel David Coen[1] (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Jesse Coen[1] (born September 21, 1957) known informally as the Coen brothers, are Academy Award winning American film directors, screenwriters, and producers. Their films include Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.

The brothers write, direct and produce their films jointly, although until The Ladykillers Joel received sole credit for directing and Ethan for producing. They often alternate top billing for their screenplays while sharing film credits for editor under the alias Roderick Jaynes.


Early life

Joel and Ethan Coen, of Jewish descent,[2] grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.[3] Their mother, Rena (Neumann), was an art historian at St. Cloud State University, and their father, Edward Coen, was an economist at the University of Minnesota.[4]

When they were children, Joel saved money from mowing lawns to buy a Vivitar Super 8 camera. Together, the brothers remade movies they saw on television with a neighborhood kid, Mark Zimering ("Zeimers"), as the star. Their first attempt was a romp titled, Henry Kissinger, Man on the Go. Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1966) became their Zeimers in Zambia,[5] which also featured Ethan as a native with a spear.

The brothers' Jewish upbringing was seldom related to their films' subjects or stories, with some exceptions, such as A Serious Man (2009), translated into Hebrew as "The Good Jew." Joel notes that "in regards to whether our background influences our film making... who knows? We don't think about it... There's no doubt that our Jewish heritage affects how we see things."[2]


The brothers graduated from St. Louis Park High School in 1973 and 1976. They both also graduated from Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.[3] Joel then spent four years in the undergraduate film program at New York University, where he made a 30-minute thesis film called Soundings. Ethan went on to Princeton University and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1979.[3] His senior thesis was a 41-page essay, "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy."

Personal lives

Joel has been married to actress Frances McDormand since 1984. They adopted a son from Paraguay, named Pedro McDormand Coen (Frances and all her siblings were adopted). McDormand has acted in six of the Coen brothers' films, including a minor appearance in Miller's Crossing, a supporting role in Raising Arizona, lead roles in Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There, her Academy Award winning role in Fargo, and her latest starring role in Burn After Reading. She also did a voice-over in Barton Fink.

Ethan is married to film editor Tricia Cooke, and they have two children: daughter Dusty and son Buster Jacob.[6][7]

Both couples live in New York City.[8]



After graduating from New York University, Joel worked as a production assistant on a variety of industrial films and music videos. He developed a talent for film editing and met Sam Raimi, who was looking for an assistant editor on his first feature film The Evil Dead (1981).

In 1984, the brothers wrote and directed Blood Simple, their first film together. Set in Texas, the film tells the tale of a shifty, sleazy bar owner who hires a private detective to kill his wife and her lover. The film contains elements that point to their future direction: distinctive homages to genre movies (in this case noir and horror), plot twists layered over a simple story, a dark humor, and mise en scene. The film starred Frances McDormand, who would go on to feature in many of the Coen brothers' films (and marry Joel). Upon release the film received much praise and won awards for Joel's direction at both the Sundance and Independent Spirit awards.

Their next project was 1985's Crimewave, directed by Sam Raimi. The film was written by the Coens and Raimi. Joel and Raimi also made cameo appearances in Spies Like Us.

The next film by the brothers was the 1987 film Raising Arizona, the story of an unlikely married couple: ex-convict H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and police officer Ed (Holly Hunter), who long for a baby but are unable to conceive. When a local furniture tycoon (Trey Wilson) appears on television with his newly born quintuplets and jokes that they "are more than we can handle," H.I. steals one of the quintuplets to bring up as their own. The film featured Frances McDormand, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, and Randall "Tex" Cobb.


Miller's Crossing, released in 1990, starred Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, and John Turturro. The film is about feuding gangsters in the Prohibition era, inspired by Dashiell Hammett's novels The Glass Key and Red Harvest.

The following year, they made Barton Fink; set in 1941, a New York playwright (the eponymous Barton Fink played by John Turturro) moves to Los Angeles to write a B-movie. He settles down in his hotel room to commence writing, but suffers writer's block until he is invaded by the man (John Goodman) next door. Barton Fink was a critical success, earning Oscar nominations and winning three major awards at 1991 Cannes Film Festival, including the Palme d'Or.[9] It was their first film with cinematographer Roger Deakins, a key collaborator for the next 15 years.

In 1994, The Hudsucker Proxy (co-written with Raimi) was released; the board of a large corporation in the 1950s attempt to sabotage its share price by appointing a no-hoper as boss, but their plan backfires when he invents the hula hoop.

The brothers returned to a more familiar theme in 1996 with the crime thriller Fargo, set in their home state of Minnesota (Fargo, North Dakota appears in only a couple of early scenes). Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who has serious financial problems, has his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. His plan goes wrong when the kidnappers deviate from the plan and local cop Marge Gunderson (McDormand) starts to investigate. A critical and commercial success, with particular praise for its dialogue and McDormand's performance, the film received several awards including a BAFTA award and Cannes award for direction and two Oscars, one for Best Original Screenplay and a Best Actress Oscar for McDormand.

In the Coens' next film The Big Lebowski, which was released in 1998, "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles slacker, is used as an unwitting pawn in a fake kidnapping plot with his bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman). Well received by critics,[10] it is now regarded as a classic cult film.[11]


The Coen brothers' next film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), was another critical and commercial success. The title was borrowed from the 1941 Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels, whose lead character, movie director John Sullivan, had planned to make a film with that title.[12] Based loosely on Homer's Odyssey (complete with a cyclops, sirens, et al.), the story is set in Mississippi in the 1930s and follows a trio of escaped convicts who, after absconding from a chain gang, journey home in an attempt to recover bank heist loot that the leader has buried. But they have no clear perception of where they are going. The film also highlighted the comic abilities of George Clooney who starred as the oddball lead character Ulysses Everett McGill (assisted by his sidekicks, played by Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro). The film's bluegrass and old time soundtrack, offbeat humor and noted cinematography, made it a critical and commercial hit. The soundtrack CD was also successful, spawning a concert and a concert DVD of its own (Down from the Mountain) that coincided with a resurgence in interest in American folk music.

The Coen brothers produced another noirish thriller in 2001, The Man Who Wasn't There. Set in late 1940s California, a laconic chain-smoking barber (played by Billy Bob Thornton) discovers a way of blackmailing his wife's lover and using the proceeds to invest in a dry-cleaning business. The film's twists and turns and dark humor were typical of Coen films, but here the slow pace, its dead-end roads look meant that the film was more for enthusiasts than casual audiences.

Intolerable Cruelty, released in 2003 and starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was a throwback to the romantic comedies of the 1940s. The story focused on hot-shot divorce lawyer Miles Massey and a beautiful divorcee whom Massey managed to prevent from receiving any money in her divorce. She vows to get even with him while, at the same time, he becomes smitten with her. Intolerable Cruelty divided the critics; some applauded the romantic screwball comedy elements, while others wondered why the Coens would wish to subject audiences to their take on this particular genre.

In 2004, the Coen brothers made The Ladykillers, a remake of the Ealing Studios classic. A professor, played by Tom Hanks, assembles a team to rob a casino. They rent a room in an elderly woman's house to plan the heist. When the woman discovers the plot, the gang decides to murder her to ensure her silence. The Coens received some of the most lukewarm reviews of their career in response to this movie. Much of the criticism centered on the idea that a relatively faithful reworking of an existing classic, in contrast to the broader genre homages that made up the bulk of the brothers' prior work, did not provide the creative latitude they needed to place their distinctive stamp on the work.

No Country for Old Men, released in November 2007, closely follows the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), living near the Texas/Mexico border, stumbles upon, and decides to take, two million dollars in drug money. He then has to go on the run to avoid those looking to recover the money, including sociopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who confounds both Llewelyn and local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). This plotline is a return to noir themes, but in some respects it was a departure for the Coens; with the exception of Stephen Root, none of the stable of regular Coen actors appears in the film. No Country has received nearly universal critical praise, garnering a 95% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes.[13] The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, all of which were received by the Coens, as well as Best Supporting Actor received by Bardem. (The Coens, as "Roderick Jaynes," were also nominated for Best Editor, but lost.) It was the first time since 1961 (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise for West Side Story) that two directors had received the honor of Best Director at the same time.

In January 2008, Ethan Coen's play Almost An Evening premiered Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 and opened to mostly enthusiastic reviews. The initial run closed on February 10, 2008 but the same production was moved to a new theatre for a commercial Off-Broadway run. The commercial run began in March 2008, and ran until June 1, 2008 at the Bleecker Street Theatre in New York City, produced by The Atlantic Theater Company[14] and Art Meets Commerce.[15] In May 2009, the Atlantic Theater Company produced Coen's "Offices," as part of their mainstage season at the Linda Gross Theater.

Burn After Reading, a comedy starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney was released September 12, 2008; it portrays a collision course between a gym instructor, spies and internet dating. Despite being released to mixed reviews, it debuted at number one in North America.

In 2009, they directed a television commercial titled "Air Freshener" for the Reality Coalition.[16][17]

A Serious Man was released on October 2, 2009. It has been described as a "gentle but dark" period comedy (set in 1967) with a low budget.[18] The film is based loosely on the Book of Job and the Coen brothers' own childhoods in a Jewish academic family in the largely Jewish suburb of St Louis Park, Minnesota.[18] Other filming took place in late summer 2008 in some neighborhoods of Roseville and Bloomington, Minnesota, at Normandale Community College, and at St. Olaf College. The movie went on to be nominated for the Oscars for Best Picture as well as Best Original Screenplay.


True Grit, based on the novel by Charles Portis, was released in 2010.[19] Filming was done in Texas and New Mexico. Jeff Bridges stars as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Hailee Steinfeld also appear in the movie.[20] True Grit was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Ethan Coen wrote the one-act comedy Talking Cure which was produced on Broadway in 2011 as part of Relatively Speaking, an anthology of three one-act plays by Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen.

Upcoming work

The Coens' upcoming movie is a treatise on the 1960s folk music scene in New York City's Greenwich Village, specifically on the life of Dave Van Ronk. The film is loosely based on Van Ronk's memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.[21] Titled Inside Llewyn Davis, the film is backed by USA's The Weinstein Company,[22] and stars Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan and will be distributed by CBS Films in USA and Canada only and The Weinstein Company in the non-USA and United Kingdom only.[23] It has been selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it received rave reviews from critics.[24]

The brothers are also reportedly working on their first television project called Harve Karbo about a quirky Los Angeles private eye for Imagine Television.[25]

Planned films and uncompleted projects

The Coens hoped to film James Dickey's novel To the White Sea.[26] They were due to start production in 2002, with Jeremy Thomas producing and Brad Pitt in the lead role, but it was canceled when the Coens felt that the budget offered was not enough to successfully produce the film.

A project which has been mooted for several years is Hail Caesar, the third of the so-called Numbskull trilogy, a comedy starring George Clooney as a matinee idol making a biblical epic. However in an interview for the Los Angeles Times in February 2008, the Coens said that it did not exist as a script but only as an idea.[27]

It has been announced that the Coen brothers will write and direct an adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. They will produce the film with Scott Rudin for Columbia Pictures.[28] In the fall of 2012, however, Chabon told Mother Jones that "the Coen brothers wrote a draft of a script and then they seemed to move on," and that the film rights had "lapsed back to me."[29]

In a 1998 interview with Alex Simon for Venice magazine, the Coens discussed a project called The Contemplations which would be an anthology of short films based on stories in a leatherbound book from a 'dusty old library'.[30]

As well as their own projects, they have involvement in two other productions. One is Suburbicon, a comedy starring and directed by George Clooney. It will be written and produced by the Coens.[31] In addition they have provided the screenplay for a remake of the 1966 film Gambit, due to star Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz.[32] Gambit began filming in London in May 2011.[33]

Joel stated that "a Cold War comedy called 62 Skidoo is one I'd like to do someday".[34]

The Coen brothers have stated that they are interested in making a sequel to Barton Fink called Old Fink, which would take place in the 1960s, around the same time period as A Serious Man. The brothers have stated that they have had talks with John Turturro in reprising his role as Fink, but they were waiting "until he was actually old enough to play the part".[35]

Turturro has also stated that he would be interested in making a spinoff of The Big Lebowski about his character, Jesus, but the Coens have not publicly confirmed the likelihood of this project going forward.[36]

Production company

The Coen brothers founded their own film production company, called Mike Zoss Productions, located in New York City, which has been credited on their films from O Brother, Where Art Thou? onwards.[37]

Directing distinctions

Up to 2003, Joel received sole credit for directing and Ethan for producing, due to guild rules that disallowed multiple director credits to prevent dilution of the position's significance. The only exception to this rule is if the co-directors are an "established duo". Now that they are able to share the director credit (as an established duo), the Coen brothers have become only the third duo to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. The first two pairs to achieve this were Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (who won for West Side Story in 1961) and Warren Beatty and Buck Henry (who were nominated for Heaven Can Wait in 1978).

Only five other directors have won three Oscars for the same film, a distinction the duo shares with Billy Wilder, James L. Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson.

With eight Academy Award nominations for No Country for Old Men including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing (Roderick Jaynes), the Coen brothers have tied the record for the most nominations by a single nominee (counting an "established duo" as one nominee) for the same film. Orson Welles set the record in 1941 with Citizen Kane being nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay (with Herman J. Mankiewicz). Warren Beatty tied Welles' record when Beatty was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay for Reds in 1981. Alan Menken also then achieved the same feat when he was nominated for Best Score and triple-nominated for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast in 1991.


The Coen brothers often cast certain actors in their films, most frequently with Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jon Polito, and John Turturro. They have worked twice with Jeff Bridges and at least three times with George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, and Stephen Root.

The Coens use similar crews as well, especially including Roger Deakins, Skip Lievsay, Mary Zophres, and Jess Gonchor. They notably used cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld on their first three films, through Miller's Crossing, until Sonnenfeld left to pursue his own directing career. Deakins has been the Coen brothers' cinematographer for all their subsequent films except Burn After Reading, on which they employed Emmanuel Lubezki.[38]

Sam Raimi also helped write The Hudsucker Proxy, which the Coen brothers directed; and the Coen brothers helped write Crimewave, which Raimi directed. Raimi took tips about filming A Simple Plan from the Coen brothers, who had recently finished Fargo (both films are set in blindingly white snow, which reflects a lot of light and can make metering for a correct exposure tricky). Raimi has cameos in Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy. They met when Joel Coen was hired as an assistant editor on The Evil Dead (mentioned on the movies' commentary).

All of their films aside from 1985's Crimewave have been scored by Carter Burwell, although T-Bone Burnett produced much of the traditional music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers and was also in charge of archive music for The Big Lebowski. Skip Lievsay handles the sound editing for all of their films.

Most of their films have been edited by "Roderick Jaynes". Jaynes is, however, an alias to refer collectively to the two Coen brothers. Tricia Cooke, Ethan's wife, was also an editor on three of their films, after working as assistant editor on several of their earlier films. Michael R. Miller edited Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing.

William Preston Robertson is an old friend of the Coens who helped them with re-shoots on Blood Simple and provided the voice of the radio evangelist. He is listed in the credits as the "Rev. William Preston Robertson". He has provided vocal talents on most of the Coens' films up to and including The Big Lebowski. He is also credited in Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II and he wrote The Making of The Big Lebowski with Tricia Cooke.


Academy Awards

Ethan and Joel have each been nominated for thirteen Academy Awards (twice under their alias Roderick Jaynes) and have won four, including: two Oscars for screen-writing (original screenplay for Fargo and adapted screenplay for No Country for Old Men), one for Best Director (No Country for Old Men); and one for Best Picture (No Country for Old Men). Twelve of their nominations were joint, but each received an individual nomination for Fargo (Ethan for Best Picture, Joel for Best Director); thus the brothers have fourteen combined nominations. They are two of only seven filmmakers with three Oscars for the same film.[39]

1991: Barton Fink

1996: Fargo

2000: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2001: The Man Who Wasn't There

2007: No Country for Old Men

2009: A Serious Man

2010: True Grit

BAFTA Awards

1996: Fargo

2000: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2001: The Man Who Wasn't There

2007: No Country for Old Men

2008: Burn After Reading

2009: A Serious Man

2010: True Grit

Berlin Film Festival

1998: The Big Lebowski

Cannes Film Festival

1991: Barton Fink

1994: The Hudsucker Proxy

1996: Fargo

2000: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

2001: The Man Who Wasn't There

2004: The Ladykillers

  • Jury Prize (Irma P. Hall, won – for her acting)
  • Palme d'Or (nominated)

2007: No Country for Old Men

2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

Dan David Prize

The Coen brothers were awarded the $1-million Dan David Prize in 2011 as "a creative partnership unique in the history of film-making."[41]


Year Film Writer
Academy Award Golden Globe BAFTA
Nominations Wins Nominations Wins Nominations Wins
1984 Blood Simple Joel & Ethan Joel
1985 Crimewave Joel, Ethan, & Sam Raimi Sam Raimi
1987 Raising Arizona Joel & Ethan Joel
1990 Miller's Crossing
1991 Barton Fink 3 1
1994 The Hudsucker Proxy Joel, Ethan, & Sam Raimi
1996 Fargo Joel & Ethan 7 2 4 6 1
1998 The Big Lebowski
1998 The Naked Man J. Todd Anderson & Ethan J. Todd Anderson
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? Joel & Ethan Joel 2 2 1 5
2001 The Man Who Wasn't There 1 3 1 1
2003 Intolerable Cruelty Robert Ramsay, Matthew Stone
Joel & Ethan
2004 The Ladykillers Joel & Ethan Joel & Ethan
2006 Paris, je t'aime: "Tuileries" segment
2007 Chacun son cinéma: "World Cinema" segment
2007 No Country for Old Men 8 4 4 2 9 3
2008 Burn After Reading 2 3
2009 A Serious Man 2 1 1
2010 True Grit 10 8 1
2012 Gambit Michael Hoffman
2013 Inside Llewyn Davis Joel & Ethan
TBA Suburbicon George Clooney
Total 33 6 17 3 36 6

Other works

  • Darkman (1990) – A film by friend and sometimes collaborator Sam Raimi. Joel and Ethan did uncredited work on the script and make a brief cameo in the film as extras.
  • Gates of Eden (1998) – A collection of short stories written by Ethan Coen.
  • The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way (2001) – A collection of poems and limericks written by Ethan Coen.
  • Bad Santa (2003) – Comedy film starring Billy Bob Thornton, executive produced by the Coen brothers. The Coens also did uncredited rewrites.
  • Romance & Cigarettes (2006) – Film produced by the Coen brothers and written and directed by John Turturro.
  • Almost an Evening (2008) – A series of three one-act off-Broadway plays written by Ethan Coen.


  • Cheshire, Ellen & Ashbrook, John. 2000. Joel and Ethan Coen. "The Pocket Essential" 3rd Revised edition published in 2005 includes all films and some subsidiary works (Crimewave, Down from the Mountain, Bad Santa) up to The Ladykillers. ISBN 978-1-904048-39-8.


External links

  • Internet Movie Database
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Coenesque: The Films of the Coen Brothers
  • video: The Films of the Coen Brothers, movie clip compilation, 3 min.
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