Have any American filmmakers working today created as many memorable characters as Joel and Ethan Coen? Wes Anderson’s sometimes come second to the set design, David Lynch’s are a little too inscrutable, and Terrence Malick’s are mostly there for the twirling. But in their every movie, even lesser ones (and you could make an argument that there are no lesser Coen movies), the duo come up with indelible creations who are sometimes comic, sometimes terrifying, often both, and who are very, very difficult to forget.
“Hail, Caesar!,” which opens this week (read our review here), looks to deliver on that front. The filmmakers have assembled their most glittering cast to date, which includes both returning collaborators like George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin and Tilda Swinton, and new recruits like Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, all playing various figures across the golden age of Hollywood.
So in tribute to a movie that we’re sure will introduce a few new classic Coen figures, we thought it was time to celebrate the men and women of the directors’ filmography. Below, we’ve ranked 65 of the Coens’ most memorable characters (just as we did with Wes Anderson a little while back). Take a look below, and argue about the placement in the comments section.
65. Gus Petch (Cedric The Entertainer in “Intolerable Cruelty”)
As we’ll see, writing not-white characters is something of a blind spot for the Coens. Cedric The Entertainer’s PI Gus Petch in “Intolerable Cruelty” doesn’t quite supersede this weakness —he’s essentially a catchphrase (“I’m gonna nail yo ass”) in search of a character, but the comedian’s at least funny in the role.
64. Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney in “Burn After Reading”)
Probably the least (to date) of George Clooney’s trilogy of Coen-style idiots, there’s something a touch bland and broad in the actor’s performance in “Burn After Reading,” though he does give the character a deep sadness and a nicely paranoid, ’70s conspiracy-thriller touch (endlessly chopping carrots helps show his slipping sanity).
63. Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in “True Grit”)
Josh Brolin’s second Coens team-up came when his villainous Tom Chaney, the killer of Mattie Ross’s father, crops up in the third act of “True Grit.” He manages to bring some pathos in some limited screen time, but the strangely Muppet-like voice he uses is a baffling and utterly distracting choice.
62. Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins in “The Hudsucker Proxy”)
Big-budget flop “The Hudsucker Proxy” makes a good argument for being among the most underrated Coens work, and at its centre is Tim Robbins’ Capra-esque hero Norville, a small-town kid who accidentally becomes a success after inventing the hula hoop. Robbins is excellent, but he’s perhaps better at the darker side of things than the pure goodness that comes later on.
61. Judith Gopnick (Sari Lennick in “A Serious Man”)
A relatively little-known theater actress that the Coens found to play the wife of Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, Lennick is a striking presence in “A Serious Man,” but doesn’t get all that much to do via a slightly one-note shrewish tone to play. Great hair, though.
60. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges in “True Grit” )
Jeff Bridges reuniting with the Coens the year after he won the Oscar and taking on one of John Wayne’s greatest roles meant his take on Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” was hotly anticipated. Bridges does exactly what was expected of him, and it won him another Oscar nod, but while solid, it was hard not to feel that it was a little… uninspired (not helped by Bridges continuing to riff on the performance ever since).
59. Miles Massey (George Clooney in ‘Intolerable Cruelty”)
“Intolerable Cruelty” gave Clooney the chance to embrace his inner Cary Grant, and the role of shark-like divorce attorney Miles Massey lets Clooney unleash his movie star charms more than in other Coen pics to date. He has some great moments (“You fascinate me”), but the film’s uneven mix of screwball rom-com and more traditional Coenisms doesn’t serve him well on the whole.
58. Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson in “The Man Who Wasn’t There”)
“Hail Caesar!” sees Scarlett Johansson return to the Coens fold for the first time in fifteen years, and it’s fascinating to look back at her first go-round, as talented pianist/teen temptress Birdy in “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” It’s a small role, and probably most notable as a time capsule capturing Johansson at the exact midpoint between her “Ghost World” awkwardness and the persona she’s had as an adult.
57. Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King in “O Brother Where Art Thou”)
A rare Coens portrait of a real-life figure, the depiction in “O Brother Where Art Thou” of bluesman Tommy Johnson, who’s sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar-playing skills, doesn’t quite escape the stereotyping that often mars the Coens’ African-American characters. But real-life blues musician Chris Thomas King elevates it with a nice little performance, not least when he gets to sing.
56. Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito in “Miller’s Crossing”)
With roles in “Barton Fink,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Big Lebowski” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” Jon Polito is one of the Coens’ most frequently-used character actors, but he’s never been better than in his first appearance as gang boss Johnny Caspar. Utterly obnoxious, not as smart as he would like you to think and sporting a natty pencil mustache, he’s almost an archetypal Coen villain.
55. Ray (John Getz in “Blood Simple”)
A grisly, whip-smart spin on the classic “Double Indemnity”-style noir, the Coens’ debut “Blood Simple” stuck perhaps closest to its inspirations with John Getz’s Ray, the vaguely similar kind of dimwitted sap who’s appeared in most of these types of movies. Getz is a touch blander than most future Coen characters, but he does sell the desperation and haplessness of his character well.
54. Marilyn Hamilton Rexroth Doyle Massey (Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Intolerable Cruelty”)
“Chicago” aside, Catherine Zeta-Jones has had few better movie-star showcases than in “Intolerable Cruelty.” She’s a more traditional kind of femme fatale than the Coens usually give us, but Zeta-Jones gives her a playfulness that works nicely, and her description by another character as a ‘carnivore’ is fitting —it feels like she’s going to devour Clooney whole in places. And he’d like it!
53. Delmar & Pete (Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro in “O Brother Where Art Thou”)
We’ve doubled up on Clooney’s dim-witted sidekicks in “O Brother Where Art Thou,” if only, let’s be honest, because the pair don’t have all that much to distinguish them. Tim Blake Nelson probably slightly has the edge —he’s a touch dumber and is in the movie more (Pete disappears in the middle). Both serve their ultimate purpose of making Clooney look smart in comparison.
52. Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton in “Burn After Reading”)
Another of the Coen’s rep company returning for “Hail Caesar!,” Tilda Swinton reached something like peak Tilda Swinton iciness (“You really are a negative person,” Clooney tells her) with her Katie Cox, the spouse of John Malkovich’s perpetually furious CIA agent. Swinton provides great value as ever —just the way she says ‘shithole buddies’ gets a laugh— but hopefully her Hedda Hopper riff in ‘Caesar’ is more imaginative.
51. Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham in “Inside Llewyn Davis”)
The “Amadeus” Oscar winner is such a Coens-type actor that it’s almost surprising it took him nearly thirty years to work with them. He didn’t disappoint when he arrived: even though he has a single scene as a music manager (based closely on Bob Dylan’s early manager Albert Grossman), his inscrutability and his ability to show a kind of compassion even as he coldly tells our hero “I don’t see a lot of money here” looms large over the whole picture.
50. Doris Crane (Frances McDormand in “The Man Who Wasn’t There”)
She ‘s always effortlessly in tune with the Coens’ sensibility, but for any other director, McDormand might make an unlikely femme fatale-type. But the Coens (indeed, she’s married to one) have cast her in that light several times over, with never less than fascinating results. Here, as the doomed faithless wife of Billy Bob Thornton‘s chain-smoking barber in their black-and-white oddity “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” she’s Stanwyck-level ambivalent in a relatively small but perfectly pitched role.
49. Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes in “Intolerable Cruelty”)
“Intolerable Cruelty”is among the least loved of the Coen’s films, but it contains flashes of genius, several courtesy of the character of “Wheezy” Joe, the asthmatic assassin played by the unmistakable Irwin Keyes (who sadly died last year from the same growth hormone disorder that made him such an imposing presence). Hired by Clooney’s Miles to kill his wife in one of the film’s funniest scenes, he also gets the movie’s best/nastiest single gag, when during the climactic tussle, he mistakes his gun for his inhaler.
48. Marva Munson (Irma P. Hall in “The Ladykillers”)
“The Ladykillers” may be the very rare Coens title that we can take or leave, but if the whole film had been comprised of that opening,in which the indomitable Marva swears out an incomprehensible complaint in the police station (involving “hippity hop” “blasters” and the use of the N-word in the “age of Montel”), we’d probably love it. She has none of the fluffy frailty of the original’s Katie Johnson, but this is one part of the reimagining that really works.
47. Penny (Holly Hunter in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”)
When Odysseus returned from his vast voyage, he found his wife Penelope being courted by a string of suitors. In the Coens’ transposition of The Odyssey, Penny is being actively pursued by just one, but it still presents a challenge to George Clooney’s Everett, who must embark on another mission to win her back. It’s hard to imagine any other actress plausibly embodying the mythic and the absolutely ordinary the way Hunter does here.
46. Verna (Marcia Gay Harden in “Miller’s Crossing”)
If it was a little hard for us to reconcile Harden’s incarnations as a frumpy zealot in “The Mist” or more recently Christian Grey’s mom in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” it’s because she made such an indelible impression as archetypal femme fatale Verna in bitter neo-noir “Miller’s Crossing.” A sulky, unknowable survivor, it was her first film role, and in it she displays a sexuality is so potent it could be weaponized.
45. Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan in “Inside Llewyn Davis”)
One of the few critiques lodged against the Coens’ beautiful “Inside Llewyn Davis” was the lack of depth of the few women characters that featured. But Mulligan’s turn as Jean, Llewyn’s love object, potential mother of his never-to-be-child and wife of his goodnatured, unsuspecting friend, is far more nuanced than given credit for. Yes, she has that hilariously acid-spitting “asshole!” speech, but that only makes the tiny moments of forgiveness, and one almost-smile, all the more valuable and heartrending.
44. Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand in “Burn After Reading”)
Among the broadest of the Coens’ movies, McDormand delivers, appropriately for one of her broadest performances, as Linda, the physical perfection-obsessed would-be blackmailer who, as ever in the Coensverse, is having an affair. Linda is one of the aptly dubbed “league of morons” in the film, but she’s a little sharper than the others, so hearing her litany of complaints against her own body —big ass, no boobs, “baby crows feet”— gives the otherwise scatty film a little satirical edge.
43. Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald in “No Country For Old Men”)
One small woman amid so many young men, violent men, grasping men and old men, Carla Jean is a terrific character, perfectly embodied by Macdonald’s girlish yet somehow steely-cored performance. As Llewelyn’s wife, over the course of the movie she evolves from disappointed trailer-trash into a much more instinctual and thoughtful creature, to the point that her showdown with Chigurh is among the film’s most satisfying.
42. Abby (Frances McDormand in “Blood Simple”)
This is what you get for being Frances McDormand: your debut film, in which you turn in a peerless performance as the cheating wife at the centre of a grubby little triangle of backstabbing, theft and murder, gets almost overlooked in the pantheon of your great performances. Her Abby ain’t no good, but then neither is anyone else here, and it proves that from the off, McDormand was fearless about portraying her characters’ many facets.
41. Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner in “Barton Fink”)
We’re not sure anyone has ever captured the despotic tendencies of men at the heads of large corporations better than the Coens, and Lerner’s studio chief Lipnick is a brilliant case in point. Mercurial to the point of demonic, the way only a 1930s studio head could possibly be, it’s the fact that he can turn on a dime from charming and warm to chilling and ruthless that makes him so terrifying in a film full of terror.
40. Arthur Gopnik (Richard Kind in “A Serious Man”)
He’ll forever be known as the heartbreaking voice of Bing-Bong, but the great character actor (and best pal of Coens regular George Clooney) got his best live-action showcase thanks to “A Serious Man” as the hapless, hopeless burden of a brother to Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry. Kind finds notes to play beyond just sad-sack, making him a vaguely malevolent mirror of his brother, but there’s a deep sadness to him, not least in his closeted nature.
39. Freddy Bender (Richard Jenkins in “Intolerable Cruelty”)
Richard Jenkins is one of the best character actors working, able to completely steal a scene with a single line delivery or look, and it’s not surprising that the Coens have used him three times. He’s great in “Burn After Reading,” but maybe his best gig with the brothers so far is as opposition lawyer Freddy Bender in “Intolerable Cruelty.” Somewhat baffled by the oddness of the proceedings (“Objection! Strangling the witness!”), he plays beautifully off everyone, as is usual for Jenkins.
38. Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich in “Burn After Reading”)
John Malkovich is another actor you can’t quite believe it took the Coens so long to get to —in fact, even they were surprised, eventually writing his “Burn After Reading” role specifically for him— and he’s utterly satisfying as the bow-tied rage monster Osbourne Cox, a self-regarding, permanently furious ex-spy. More, please!
37. Maud Lebowski (Julianne Moore in “The Big Lebowski”)
“Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?” Julianne Moore’s soon to get some new Coens words to play with, appearing in the Clooney-directed, Joel & Ethan-scripted “Suburbicon,” and if her “Big Lebowski” role is anything to go by, that’s great news. Her Lebowski daughter is an almost cartoonishly pretentious figure (right down to the affected semi-British accent), but Moore somehow keeps grounded even while she’s consistently hilarious.
36. Donny (Steve Buscemi in “The Big Lebowski”)
The third and least featured member of the Dude’s bowling team, Buscemi admittedly is mostly in “The Big Lebowski” to serve as a focus point for the rage of John Goodman’s Walter (“Shut the fuck up, Donny!”). But his cheery nonchalance is funny every time, and his shock passing at the end proves to be unexpectedly moving.
35. Gaear (Peter Stormare in “Fargo”)
The forerunner to not just Anton Chigurh but to half the characters on the “Fargo” TV series, Stormare’s near-mute kidnapper in “Fargo” helped introduce the great Swedish actor to U.S. audiences, and created an utterly memorable villain, one driven to the edge not by psychosis but by sheer irritation at his partner in crime.
34. Sid Mussburger (Paul Newman in “The Hudsucker Proxy”)
It seems like destiny that one of the greatest actors American cinema ever had would work with two of the greatest filmmakers the medium’s ever had, but it’s a shame that Paul Newman teamed with the Coens on “The Hudsucker Proxy,” one of their least successful movies. Still, the screen legend is clearly having enormous fun as a cigar-chomping corporate villain, relishing a rare chance to play malevolent.
33. Gail & Evelle Snoats (John Goodman & William Forsythe in “Raising Arizona”)
The first example of one of the Coen’s favorite archetypes —what they call the ‘howling fat men’— and arguably the Platonic ideal as such, the pair of John Goodman and William Forsythe steal most of their scenes as hickish criminal brothers Gail and Evelle in “Raising Arizona.” From their muddy ‘birth’ to possible eventual reform, they’re duplicitous scumbags, but loveable for it.
32. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne in “Miller’s Crossing”)
The polar opposite of the kind of manic energy that infuses a lot of the Coens’ more comic characters, Tom Reagan is unemotional and undemonstrative to the point of dour. But it’s that outward stolidity, and Byrne’s granite-like performance, that gives the character such depth, and makes Reagan’s behavior and actions, such as sparing of Bernie’s worthless life in the forest in the film’s most brilliant scene, reveal so much about him.
31. Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis in “Barton Fink”)
The last time the Coens set a movie in Hollywood was “Barton Fink,” and we’d be surprised if “Hail Caesar!” had a fate for any of its characters as dark as the one that befalls Audrey, the secretary/secret power behind the throne of drunken writer W.P. Mayhew (the wonderful John Mahoney). Audrey might be best remembered for her (likely) head-in-a-box fate, but Australian star Judy Davis is sultry and textured even in her limited screen time.
30. Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya in “Blood Simple”)
It was almost as rare to see Hedaya in a leading role in the ’80s as it is today, but his growly, irascible presence (rendering him a world-class Richard Nixon in the otherwise unfortunate “Dick”) threatens to suck up all the oxygen on the screen, so perhaps that’s understandable. As the cuckolded husband in the Coens’ debut, he’s exactly the right mix of vengeful and sorrowful, right up till one of the most horrible deaths imaginable.
29. Pappy (Charles Durning in “O Brother Where Art Thou”)
While some of us experienced a pang at not being able to also include the great Durning’s other turn for the Coens (as jauntily suicidal chairman Waring Hudsucker in “The Hudsucker Proxy”), his slightly larger role here will have to suffice. Anyway, it’s a doozy. As Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel, the sclerotic local governor who is at first our heroes’ antagonist but who pragmatism dictates must become their ally, he is a pitch-perfect portrait of a politician, surrounded by dunderheaded yes-men and perfectly corrupt.
28. Bernie (John Turturro in “Miller’s Crossing”)
Coen regular Turturro first teamed up with the filmmakers on the Dashiell Hammett-indebted gangster classic, and he’s rarely been better than he is here as the bookie Bernie. He could be a walking MacGuffin, but Turturro smartly shows Bernie to be more manipulative than he first appears, and his two “Look in your heart” scenes are among the film’s most memorable.
27. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton in “The Man Who Wasn’t There”)
One of the Coens’ “grower” movies, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” has, as the euphemism goes, a very deliberate pace. But that slowness is one of the film’s many strengths, as it derives entirely from the lazy-lidded torpor of Thornton’s slow-moving, quite possibly slow-witted “hero.” It’s a performance of stunning clarity and sureness, even though, or maybe because, it moves like molasses through curls of cigarette smoke and expressionist bars of light.
26. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in “No Country For Old Men”)
We recall thinking at the time that if Josh Brolin never did anything good again, he’d go down in the history books as a great actor just for this role. Which was lucky for him, because he then went on to do “Jonah Hex” and the “Oldboy” remake. Meow! His Burt Lancaster-level physicality here makes Llewelyn feel almost archetypal — he’s not a bad man, maybe even a good one, but he wants something he did not earn and will venture into hell to get it.
25. Lone Biker of the Apocalypse (Randall “Tex” Cobb in “Raising Arizona”)
He doesn’t say a word and he doesn’t need to. Ex-pro-Heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb, sporting a filthily fertile-looking beard and a “Mama didn’t love me” skull tattoo, haunts H.I’s nightmares as a vision of the coming apocalypse, and instantly became one of the most iconic images and characters from the Coens’ early career. If they deal as much in mythic archetypes as that of ordinary folk, the Lone Biker is basically their Wicked Witch.
24. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon in “True Grit”)
Time and again, the Coens have given heartthrob-type actors the opportunity to be funny. Brad Pitt in “Burn After Reading,” George in … anything they’ve cast him in. And they also did it with Damon, who rose to the occasion brilliantly, delivering one of the most memorable turns in a film lousy with them, as the pompous, self-important LaBoeuf in “True Grit.” It’s hard not to love a character who is so effortlessly outmaneuvered verbally by a small girl at every turn.
23. Carl (Steve Buscemi in “Fargo”)
Every time we see Steve Buscemi in anything (and that’s a lot of the time because he’s everywhere), we can’t not hear the words “I dunno, just kinda funny-looking” delivered with perky Minnesotan intonation. As the weaselly, motormouthed foil to Peter Stormare’s hilariously stoic killer who meets a famously grisly end, this is one of Buscemi’s defining performances, despite being, unlike his turns in “Reservoir Dogs” or “Boardwalk Empire,” a relatively small supporting role.
22. Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub in “The Man Who Wasn’t There”)
In a film full of terrible people doing terrible things, and aliens, Tony Shalhoub’s vicious, large-living lawyer might be the most terrible and the most alien of all. Just as the Coens seem to derive some glee from casting romantic leads against type as fools, they also enjoy making cuddly character actors play semi-monstrous roles, and Shalhoub rises to the challenge here, delivering the film’s most indelible speeches and several of its best shots.
21. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy in “Fargo”)
Possibly, along with Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in “Magnolia,” the defining Macy performance to date (which is quite saying something as he’s one of the finest actors of the past three decades), attempted wife-napper/murderer Jerry Lundegaard is a brilliant mixture of pathetic, hateful and completely understandable. Nobody does sweaty desperation —scrubbing at that list of car registrations, hanging up on angry creditors, sitting across from McDormand’s implacable Marge or taking it out on his iced-up car windscreen— like Macy does here. Nobody.
20. Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt in “Burn After Reading”)
Brad Pitt doesn’t get the chance to be funny that often, but he is FUNNY in his sole Coen outing to date. Riffing on the kind of beach-bum dimwits he made his name on when he was starting out, Pitt’s gym employee is an idiot even by the gold standard of Coen idiots, and the film suffers once he’s killed off halfway through.
19. Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed in “A Serious Man”)
He was a veteran actor by the time he appeared in “A Serious Man” (including a stack of Woody Allen movies), but Fred Melamed felt like all but a new discovery when he played Sy Ableman for the Coens. Taking full advantage of the character actor’s rich, soothing voice, it’s a part —of Judith’s lover, a maddeningly understanding would-be-good-guy who blows into Larry’s life like a tornado— that passed into legend almost instantly, with every line reading proving to be solid gold.
18. Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD (Tom Hanks in “The Ladykillers”)
This remake of the 1955 Ealing Studios film is generally deemed to be the least of the Coens’ pictures, and probably rightly so. But it’s not without its pleasures, first and foremost being Tom Hank’s performance that, were it in a better loved film, would be seen as one of his finest. Turning Alec Guinness’s evil mastermind into a Colonel Sanders-ish Southern dandy, Hanks owns the movie and then some, able to get belly laughs purely out of the way he pronounces the word ‘waffle.’
17. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney in “O Brother Where Art Thou”)
The first Clooney/Coen collaboration sees the star play Odysseus surrogate Ulysses Everett McGill, a chain gang escapee leading two idiots across the American south in search, or so they think, of buried treasure. Like one of the Three Stooges doing a Clark Gable impression, Clooney found a whole new comic persona here as a fool who thinks he’s a genius. It’s simultaneously broad and subtle, but Clooney’s greatest achievement might be in making you care for him by the end.
16. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country For Old Men”)
Look up the word ‘world-weary’ in the dictionary after 2007, and you’ll see it’s a picture of Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country For Old Men.” For all the bloodletting and evil that goes on elsewhere in the film, it’s Jones (an actor born to deliver Coen dialogue if ever there was one) who gives the film a deeply sad moral centre, as a man seeing the world turning into anarchy and violence around him and just can’t bear it anymore.
15. Jesus Quintana (John Turturro in “The Big Lebowski”)
There are plenty of Coen Brothers characters that deserve a spin-off (we won’t rest until we get a Freddy Reidenschneider legal TV show), but only one that’s ever come to fruition, and that’s John Turturro’s oft-talked about, still not made Jesus Quintana movie. It’s a testament to the affection in which this flamboyant, furious pederast and champion bowler is held, and the fun that Turturro has in performing him.
14. Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hudsucker Proxy”)
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s finally an Oscar nominee thanks to “The Hateful Eight,” but she should have managed it two decades ago, when she pulled the one-two punch of “Mrs. Parker and The Vicious CIrcle” and her uttery delightful turn as ace reporter Amy Archer in “The Hudsucker Proxy.” Many actors have tried to embody the screwball comedy era over the years, but few with such pinpoint Russell/Hepburn-esque brilliance as Leigh’s fast-talking, whip-smart work here.
13. Private Detective Loren Vissar (M. Emmet Walsh in “Blood Simple”)
The Coens’ first truly indelible character came with M. Emmet Walsh’s sweaty, sleazy P.I. in their debut “Blood Simple.” In some movies, Vissar would be a minor character, but he takes the film over once he arrives in what appears to be a fifty-gallon hat, inhabiting an utterly amoral character who somehow becomes the moral centre of the film. As he bleeds out in the bathroom at the end, he becomes somewhere between a horror movie victim and a cartoon character, and one of the first embodiments of the Coens’ more persistent themes.
12. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”)
Even among a cast of A-list stars and regular Coen collaborators, Hailee Steinfeld stood out in her big-screen debut as Mattie Ross in “True Grit.” The then-13-year-old actress’s performance is one of the things that elevates this film above the original adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel —she’s far more charismatic and distinctive than Kim Darby in the original, taking to Coen dialogue like she was born to it, putting across an innate toughness but still being vulnerable when the going is at its toughest. Steinfeld’s one of the brothers’ greatest finds, to the extent that she’s yet to find a role quite as good.
11. Leo (Albert Finney in “Miller’s Crossing”
Albert Finney will have more than a few great roles to remember him by —“Saturday Night And Sunday Morning,” “Tom Jones,” “The Dresser,” “Big Fish.” And firmly in that pantheon will be “Miller’s Crossing,” in which the great British actor gives a spin to the crime boss like few had seen before. Leo doesn’t often seem like a threat —he’s got an avuncular vibe for the most part and clearly loves a life of luxury. But in the film’s finest moments —in one of the finest the Coens have ever filmed— he ruthlessly dispatches assassins in his home to the tune of ‘Danny Boy,’ and we see why he’s so feared.
10. Walter Sobchak (John Goodman in “The Big Lebowski” )
Aside from perhaps George Clooney and Frances McDormand, no actor is more closely associated with the Coens as John Goodman, whose work with them has spanned five movies, from their second, “Raising Arizona,” to their most recent before “Hail Caesar.” But his most iconic —if not his best— comes with “The Big Lebowski,” where Walter Sobchak damn near stealing the movie away from the Dude himself. The character is allegedly based in part on filmmaker John Milius and is unforgettable as a Vietnam vet with an ever-present pair of cargo shorts and yellow-tinged sunglasses, an unconvincing surface politeness, a finely honed sense of injustice and a hair-trigger temper. It’s a breathlessly funny, faintly disturbing, and endlessly quotable (“THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FUCK A STRANGER IN THE ASS!”) turn.
9. Barton (John Turturro in “Barton Fink”)
A perfect skewering of the artistic ego that happens to also come in the form of an all too human, all too relatable mediocrity, John Turturro’s Barton is basically everything you need to know about the sensibility of an aspiring writer. That it’s packaged in such a brilliant way — with pen-portraits of the 1930s Hollywood system, murder, mystery and abortive mentorships — treated with as much window dressing as Barton, blinded to any possibility but that he is anything other than the star of his own creative life, he actually allows the greatest story he could ever tell to unfold all around him, without him even noticing. Turturro’s nerdy, increasingly unshaven Barton is the writer that lurks inside all writers.
8. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulhbarg in “A Serious Man”)
It was a surprise when the Coens, coming off their most star-studded film ever with “Burn After Reading,” announced a film with no major stars, and that would be led by a little-known theater actor. But little wonder, after a turn like this, that Michael Stuhlbarg has become omnipresent on both film and TV (see everything from “Men In Black 3” and “Doctor Strange” to “Boardwalk Empire” and “Transparent”). His relative anonymity at the time was actually a boon for a film in which he plays Job-like everyman Larry Gopnik, a physics professor who finds himself tested by family, faith, work and, well, life in general. It’s one of the Coens’ most existential pictures (in a career full of them), and Stuhlbarg effectively captures the weight of the world on his shoulders, the desperation of his situation. But he’s also deeply funny, finding a degree of absurd comedy to play even as we pity him more and more.
7. Edwina (Holly Hunter in “Raising Arizona”)
The Coens don’t really do love stories. Most of the relationships they show end poorly, and often with at least one party dead. But the great exception is the unlikely affair between Hi (Nicolas Cage, see below), and Ed, the latter of which ranks with “The Piano” and “Broadcast News” as the best work that Holly Hunter has ever done. A tough cop who, despite her fierce sense of morals, falls for career criminal Hi, only for them to discover they can’t have children, leading to a kidnapping. Hunter kind of takes second position in the second half of the movie, but she’s a wonder for every second she is on screen, from getting a laugh even out of absolute tragedy when she’s told she can’t have kids, to having her heart broken by her husband’s return to bank robbery. She’s played a huge part in the Coens myth (she recommended that her then-roommate Frances McDormand audition for “Blood Simple” when she was unavailable, and shared an apartment with them and Sam Raimi), so it’s a shame that she hasn’t worked with them since “O Brother Where Art Thou,” in which she’s also incredible.
6. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men”)
They might have made more textured, fascinating, multi-faceted characters, but the Coens have never created anyone as iconic — in the Halloween-costume-mimicked, identifiable-from-just-a-silhouette way — as Anton Chigurh. Which is slightly unfair — he was, after all, featured in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, on which “No Country For Old Men” is closely based. But it’s hard to imagine any other filmmakers (or any actor bar Javier Bardem) coming up with a take on him this distinctive and memorable. A hitman, like the Terminator is a hitman, or like the Grim Reaper is a hitman, Chigurh is in search of the money that’s ended up in the hands of Llewyn Moss, but kills basically anyone he crosses regardless of his quest (unless they’re lucky enough to win his coin toss). Complete with pageboy bowl cut, he’s less a villain than a force of nature or an inevitable, a personification of death itself, and all the scarier for having both Bardem’s very particular rhythm, and no real rhyme, reason, or backstory.
5. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis”)
Our Jess talked a good deal about “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which in only a few years has come to be seen in the upper-tier of the Coen pantheon, a few weeks ago. But it’s a mark of the film’s greatness that there’s still so much to be said about its title character, brought to extraordinary life by Oscar Isaac. It isn’t that Llewyn is a mediocre folk singer (in fact, Isaac’s song renditions are gorgeous), it’s that he’s just not quite good enough to make it big, and whether his selfishness and self-destructiveness is born from that, from his immense grief for his former musical partner, or was present before, it’s not helping matters. Llewyn is perhaps less of an asshole than he likes to think of himself, and so you feel for him despite his worst moments: the film’s of a piece with “A Serious Man,” with the universe constantly dealing him a bum hand, and though his odyssey doesn’t quite have the same Biblical overtones, it still makes his circular cycle feel bigger than its initially-seemingly modest scope.
4. Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in “Barton Fink”)
Of the Coens’ many services to film lovers the world over, few rank as highly in our estimation as their discovery that John Goodman, the fat guy from “Roseanne” is one of the best actors of his generation, given the right material. They have consistently given him the right material too, but while his indelible Walter in “The Big Lebowski” might be the better known part just due to that film’s unassailable cult status, the breakthrough really came in “Barton Fink” in which mild, sweet, sweaty traveling salesman Charlie morphs in front of our eyes into a towering, bellowing, murderous demon, all because, as he rightly points out to Barton “You. Don’t. Listen.”
3. H.I. (Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona”)
Like everyone else, we’re sick of waiting for the Nicolas Cage we all adore to return and reoccupy the body that has apparently been taken over by some B-movie actor zombie with a terrible agent, but while we leave a light on for that day, good to know we can always revisit happier times. Cage only worked with the Coens once, which is unusual for directors who seem to build lasting relationships with most of their cast members, and also unusual considering how well he simply nails this ludicrous, zany, yet deeply soulful character. Through dream sequences and semi-philosophical voiceover, whether kidnapping babies, shoplifting diapers or waking up suddenly saying “Merry Christmas” there is never a moment you do not love and believe in H.I., one half of one of the most romantic couples of the 1980s.
2. The Dude (Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”)
Even those of us who might feel like the retrospective crowning of “The Big Lebowski” as the Coens’ most popular film is somewhat unwarranted (it’s great, it’s just not their best) can’t deny that there’s really only one other character in their pantheon that could possibly vie for the top spot. Jeff Bridges’ White Russian-sipping, rug-partial, super-chill Dude is one of the most iconic characters in modern film, let alone their own filmography. The hero of a picaresque journey that makes very little sense except according the film’s internal, stoner-level logic, there is an absolute purity to The Dude’s lifestyle and philosophy that makes witnessing his every interaction, be it ever so high-stakes or ever so banal, such a joy. As the ultimate non-confrontational, pacifist, live-and-let-live hippy, he’s more or less the last person who would foment any unnecessary drama, which makes him such a bizarre, brave and frankly out-there choice as the star of any movie. Which is also what makes him so completely, fetishizably unique. But hey, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.
1. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in “Fargo”)
As writers, even before they direct, the Coens are masters of the skewering character detail — the one little nugget of inspiration that feels like it unlocks not just levels of characterization, but often plot points and dramatic possibilities too. But whatever muse watches over them pulled double duty the day they dreamed up Marge Gunderson — already a fabulous character simply by virtue of being such a prosaically brilliant police officer in a very prosaic corner of the world — and then making her pregnant. Not only does that give the great Frances McDormand the chance to play a character who has pretty much never been seen on screen before — a capable pregnant woman! — it provides the kind of wonky homely comedy that the Coens do so well. “Carrying quite a load here!” she trills settling into Lundegaard’s office. “Think I’m gonna barf!” she warns at a crime site. “Aw, Norm, you got Arby’s all over me,” she complains gently to her loving and beloved husband. There is no part of Marge that we don’t feel we know and love by the end of “Fargo,” and she will always remain one of those characters who made the whole world of the movies — all of cinema, not to get too dramatic — a better place, just for having shown up.
Honorable Mentions: We tried to keep this to the most major characters and a few memorable supporting ones just for the sake of our own sanity, but that still leaves plenty of Coen characters we could have mentioned. To name just a few, there’s John Mahoney as drunken writer W.P. Mayhew in “Barton Fink,” or Tony Shalhoub as studio exec Ben Geisler in the same film. “The Hudsucker Proxy” brings Jim True-Frost’s memorable elevator operator Buzz, and Bruce Campbell in sleazy form as journalist Smitty, while Mike Yanagita (Steve Park), Norm Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch) and Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnall) all make strong impressions with limited screen time in “Fargo.”
“The Big Lebowski” has a murderer’s row of great supporting characters, including Tara Reid’s Bunny, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Brandt, Sam Elliot as the narrator, The Stranger, Ben Gazzara as Jackie Treehorn and David Huddleston as the title character, while there are strong cameos in “O Brother Where Art Thou” from the late Daniel Von Bargen as the satanic sheriff, Ray McKinnon as Everette’s love rival, John Goodman as Klan leader Big Dan and Michael Badalucco as real-life bank robber Baby Face Nelson.
The latter was also great in the Coens’ next movie, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” which also features fine work from Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver and James Gandolfini as Big Dave Brewster. Heist accomplices J.K. Simmons, Marlon Wayans and Tzi Ma are all good in “The Ladykillers” even if the film doesn’t use them so well, while “Intolerable Cruelty” has the late great Edward Hermann as Rex Rexroth, strong cameos from Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton, and wonderful work from Jonathan Hadary as the unforgettably-named Heinz, The Baron Krauss Von Espy.
Woody Harrelson is great in “No Country For Old Men,” Richard Jenkins is terrific in “Burn After Reading,” the young Aaron Wolff makes an impression as Danny in “A Serious Man,” and Barry Pepper reminded us all of how good he is in “True Grit.” And finally, “Inside Llewyn Davis” includes both yet another great small John Goodman appearance, and some damn fine work from the unlikely sources of Garret Hedlund and Justin Timberlake (plus stage performer Stark Sands stealing the show as military man Troy Nelson).