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Oscar Icons: Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel & Ethan Coen
Fabrizio Maltese

“Fargo” (best screenplay); “No Country for Old Men” (best directors, screenplay, picture)

Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1997 Oscar for writing Fargo catapulted them from the fringe to the mainstream, but their post-Oscar films were just as artfully eccentric: They simply grossed six to 16 times more. Their success sprang from willingness to risk failure, like their disappointment over a thwarted $50 million adaptation of James Dickey’s grim WW II Tokyo-firebombing novel To the White Sea. They poured that ambition into the similarly haunted, laconic and literary No Country for Old Men, which won four Oscars. Next, they characteristically chose just what they wanted: True Grit, which earned 10 more Oscar nominations, plus $193 million — $148 million more than Joel Coen expected. “Honestly, we thought there wasn’t going to be a slew of Oscar nominations either,” says Joel, 56. “We assumed Roger [Deakins, cinematographer], would get a nomination,” says Ethan Coen, 53, “because he does every year.” “It’s been shocking,” Joel says. Ethan adds, “Although not that shocking because everybody knows it’s a weird, fluke-y business.” The Coens see the movie business as similar to how their films portray the universe: a whimsically ruthless place. Did True Grit succeed because it’s good? “Even if that were true, I don’t know if that would have anything to do with it,” Ethan says. Their flippancy might lead some to think they don’t care about awards, but Joel is quick to clarify. “We care deeply.”           

Photographed by Fabrizio Maltese on Feb. 10 at the Hotel de Rome, Berlin