Coens leave the fringe behind


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The scoring of three major awards by Joel and Ethan Coen on Sunday marks the brothers' biggest success to date and solidifies their transition from cult directors to Oscar power players.

Recalling the home movies they shot as children at the Minneapolis airport, Joel Coen, upon receiving the best director prize, said, "What we do now doesn't feel that much different from what we were doing then."

For moviegoers, the Coens' career began a little later -- in 1985, specifically, with "Blood Simple," the bloody chase-noir that in many ways resembles "No Country." It was the writer-director team's first step in establishing itself as one of the country's most visionary and respected set of auteurs.

Despite the Coens' reputation as filmmakers with a distinct --and distinctly dark -- view of humanity, their career has been marked by a surprising diversity. Dramatic tales like "Miller's Crossing" have mixed with such black comedies as "Raising Arizona" and "Barton Fink," genre hybrids like "Fargo" and screwball fare like "The Big Lebowski."

Scattered awards success -- they were nominated for best original screenplay for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in 2001 and for multiple Oscars for "Fargo" in 1996 -- has visited the brothers over the years.

But mainstream recognition has been more elusive. Films like "Lebowski" have become cult hits with robust aftermarkets, "Raising Arizona" was a conversation piece and a career-builder for Nicolas Cage and "O Brother" crossed over thanks to the help of George Clooney and a popular soundtrack.

More characteristic of their career, however, have been movies like 1994's "The Hudsucker Proxy" -- critically acclaimed films with defined but small followings (the movie earned $3 million) -- and no Oscar noms.

With the wins Sunday for best director, best adapted screenplay and best picture, the Coens are decidedly mainstream players, shining in front of 40 million Americans with an unlikely project -- a movie based on a violent Cormac McCarthy novel that many considered unfilmmable but which the brothers, with the help of producer Scott Rudin, believed in.

"Whatever success we have is directly attributable to how selective we are," Joel Coen said in winning the best adapted screenplay prize for only their second-ever adaptation. "We've only adapted Homer and Cormac McCarthy."

The brothers pulled off their mainstream success by molding a movie whose sensibility fit the times -- a story of violence and fear laced with themes of immigration and the conflict between modernity and tradition -- and also by, in a sense, having the times come to them.

At times Sunday night, the success seemed like new terrain that they weren't quite sure how to handle. After the screenplay win, Ethan Coen came to the microphone and struggled to find the words for about five seconds before managing just a "Thank you very much." When he returned for the duo's best director win, he said, to laughter, "I don't have a lot to add to what I said earlier."

There are more ambitious projects to come; the brothers are attached for the Ben Kinglsey-Jennifer Aniston heist movie "Gambit" and the adaptation of Michael Chabon's best-selling "The Yiddish Policemen's Union."

The newfound popularity was unlikely to change the kind of projects the brothers worked on -- it will simply reinforce their ability to do so freely for many more years to come. "We're thankful to all of you out there for letting us play in our corner of the sandbox," Joel Coen said.