The first line of Ellen Barkin’s new film, Another Happy Day, is “Do you think Mom is hot?” She plays said mom; the question is raised by her character’s Asperger’s-afflicted youngest son to his teenage brother. It’s also the line that sold her on doing the movie.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is going to be really good,’ ” Barkin says, cackling loudly at our table overlooking the dining room of the Lion on West 9th Street. “Clearly there’s going to be a difference of opinion here, and one opinion is completely crazy! I said, ‘You know, I’m in.’ ”
She both stars in and produced the movie, by first-time writer-director Sam Levinson, who’s 26. They met three and a half years ago while working on Operation: Endgame, a nearly straight-to-video ensemble comedy starring Zach Galifianakis and Rob Corddry, about a bunch of government operatives stuck in a bunker trying to kill each other. Levinson had done a “brilliant” rewrite on it, despite the “really stupid premise.” It wasn’t until well into the shoot that she realized he had the same last name as Barry Levinson, who had given Barkin her first big role, in Diner in 1982 (it was the first film he’d both written and directed). She asked Sam, “Are you Barry’s kid?”
He was, and he asked her if she’d take a look at the script for Another Happy Day, adark comedy about family revelations, set at a wedding. “Ordinary People with belly laughs” is how she describes it. She loved that Levinson had written something “so perverse” at his mother’s kitchen table. “I’ve always said that any man who loves his mother loves women; that’s who your boyfriend should be and that’s who your husband should be,” says Barkin. It was the film’s sympathetic take on faltering mothers that gave her a “visceral” need to be a part of it.
Barkin’s big-gun agents, Bryan Lourd and Kevin Huvane at CAA, encouraged her not only to act in the film but to produce it, to better “protect this genius’s vision,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever said this in my life about anything—and it’s a word that I hate—but I am extremely proud of myself, and I’m proud of this film. It’s my greatest achievement, as an actor and certainly as a producer. I’m prouder of this than anything I’ve done.”
At 57, Barkin is having a very good year. She won a Tony for playing the impassioned, implacable wheelchair-bound early AIDS activist Dr. Emma Brookner in the revival of Larry Kramer’s playThe Normal Heart. She released a super-low-budget black-and-white film called Shit Year, about “a movie star who is retiring solely due to aging out of the business and a lack of work and proceeds to have a very subtle and serious and beautiful breakdown.” It was not based on personal experience, she says. “I feel that I’m doing better now as an actor than I ever did. I think my work is better, I think the kind of roles I’m getting offered are better.”
She looks incredible, her skin smooth and glowing. As she rushed up the stairs to the table, barely late, whole sections of her meticulously dyed blonde bob spiked straight up at different angles, as if she’d just been roused from something mind-blowing (she was really just at a fitting). She weaves long, entertaining yarns slowly and nasally through a crooked grin, with a look and tone of eternal amusement. She grew up in the South Bronx and Queens. (She tried, fifteen years ago, to revisit the Queens apartment, but “from the smell of it, it was clearly a crack house, so, no, I don’t go back.”) When the waiter mentions the truffle special, she interrupts him to guess the price: “Eight thousand dollars. For a shred.” It’s actually $75, “shaved quite liberally,” he replies. Barkin passes and orders chicken potpie. Throughout dinner, she keeps the Champagne coming, eyeing the waiter each time he approaches as if he ought to know better than to ask if she wants a refill: “Yes. Please. Thank you.”
She lives not far from the restaurant, and well: Her second husband, the billionaire Ron Perelman, reportedly settled with her for at least $20 million, and she won $4.3 million in a suit over a short-lived production company, Applehead, that he’d promised to invest in. (The story—which she won’t confirm—goes that he’d discouraged her from acting while they were married.) She also made $20 million in an auctionof the jewelry Perelman had given her. When I ask if the auction was a public “fuck you,” she replies, “No, it was a very practical matter. I’m basically … I’m under legal constraints not to discuss … but, no. I say ‘Fuck you’ in a much more direct way than that, quite frankly. I do it right up close and personal.”