Is there a bathroom in this joint?” says Ellen Barkin, making her way through the penthouse of the Hotel Giraffe. “I really have to pee.”
These aren’t the words you expect to hear from the wife of a mogul, the woman married to billionaire Ronald Perelman, who wears diamonds on both hands and both ears, each the size of the top joint of a man’s thumb. Because she is photographed so frequently now at benefits in East Hampton and written about primarily as her husband’s date on the glittering Upper East Side rich-people circuit, it can be tempting to imagine Barkin as lacquered and remade. But her trademark frankness and toughness are intact. Sea of Love, among her most memorable performances, was propelled by the force of Barkin’s performance as a driven and forthright sexual opportunist. “I believe in this,” she said and snapped her fingers—meaning instant chemistry, no messing around—in the scene in that movie when she first met Al Pacino through a personal ad. Barkin herself, now 51 and every bit as leggy and silky and seductive as she was at the height of her fame in the late eighties, still isn’t much for mincing words.
“Look, I wouldn’t have married Ronald Perelman if I didn’t have a very strong identity of my own,” she says, sitting cross-legged and holding the heels of her black crocodile Christian Louboutin pumps in her perfectly manicured fingers. “I’m a downtown dweller and have been since I left home at the age of 18. When I went to junior high school,” in the sixties, in Queens, “we cut school and went to the Village, and we would go to Cafe Wha?, go to those music clubs and just walk around 8th Street or go to Central Park and play in Bethesda Fountain. Like what you saw in Hair. The Upper East Side was not a neighborhood I ever went to, to be honest, except to go to Barneys. So I don’t like where I live now, but I love everybody that’s in my house.” One might also speculate that it’s a pretty nice house.
Barkin still keeps up her pre-Perelman life. “I go downtown several nights a week, I teach downtown, my friends are all downtown. He swears, ‘When all the kids are in college, I’ll move downtown with you.’ But that’ll never happen.”
The two met on Oscar night in 1999. “Graydon Carter always says it was the best deal ever brokered at the Vanity Fair party,” Barkin says, talking through her diagonal smile. “It was a big decision for me because my kids were young and I knew it would certainly affect them in a way it might not affect me—the cement was not yet dry on my children,” with ex-husband Gabriel Byrne. “They were 6 and 9. So I try to hold on to as much of who we were as a family before Ronald as I can, and then add the wonderfulness of what we got from Ronald and his family without a certain amount of corruptions and spoiledness that money can buy. For a long time I just felt like this is my job now: to take these two families and try very hard to have everybody live by the same rules and try to, like, make a family.”
“Look, I wouldn’t have married Ronald Perelman if I didn’t have a very strong identity of my own.”
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Barkin’s career, why she went from being the reigning sex goddess of the eighties to becoming a character actress instead of, say, Sharon Stone, you will not find the answer in Perelman’s townhouse. Barkin’s retreat from playing women whose most marked characteristic was their sexual ferocity predated her money and her marriage. “The idea of playing the femme fatale and now the idea of playing the aging femme fatale is not in any way appealing to me. I eased my way up there with The Big Easy—even though that character was about sexual inhibition and then opens up in the end—and then Siesta, where it was really there, and then Sea of Love … and I was done,” she says, and actually snaps her fingers.
It’s the kind of claim that’s hard to believe from an actress, that she opted out of more attention, more exposure, more ego-feeding. But Barkin makes it stick. And it’s true that she has always been a willful celebrity. Barkin got a kick out of being the “go-to girl for sex,” in part because, initially, nobody believed audiences would perceive her as sexy. “I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a little gratifying. First I could never get those jobs, for probably the first half of my career. I was the girl in Diner for a very long time,” she says with a laugh, referring to her first significant role, as mousy Beth in Barry Levinson’s hit. “I would always say to my agent, ‘What’d they say, what’d they say?’ And he’d just say, ‘Oh, you didn’t get the role.’ I’d say, ‘No! I wanna know why I didn’t get it.’ ‘Okay, they said you weren’t pretty. Okay, they said you weren’t sexy.’”
After that scene in The Big Easy, the one everyone remembers, when Dennis Quaid informed Barkin’s character that her bad luck in bed was about to change, both women and men were smitten with Barkin’s swashbuckling eroticism. It’s a credit to her performance that this famously hot sex scene had no intercourse, no nudity: It was just a girl and her orgasm. “I have to remind people I really did not take my clothes off in that many movies,” she says. “Not that I minded doing it. I liked that all of a sudden I wasn’t being pigeonholed anymore. But then I got pigeonholed the other way.” So that was the end of Ellen Barkin, Sex Queen. Her next major role was in 1993’s This Boy’s Life, as an incompetent mother opposite Robert De Niro’s alcoholic, abusive man-of-the-house—a woman whose blowsy sexuality was pathetic instead of titillating, her undoing rather than her strength. “I was not the first choice for This Boy’s Life. It was Debra Winger,” Barkin says. “We were friendly at the time and she turned it down. She said, ‘I just don’t want to be a bad mother.’ And I did.” Barkin’s role as a mother in Todd Solondz’s latest film, the just-released Palindromes, finds her parenting with limited success again, a weakness that clearly intrigues Barkin. “I really like the flip side of being a parent as an actor,” she says, “the not-getting-it-right. Maybe in some way it helps me get it right in life.”
Barkin calls herself “incredibly, inherently lazy,” and says her ambition to succeed has never exceeded her unwillingness to do anything she wasn’t in the mood to do. “My father was a Fuller Brush man and then an usher at Yankee Stadium,” she says. “Once I got a regular job on a soap opera, I thought, Okay, this is it. Now I did beyond great. I made more in a day than my father did in a week. So after Sea of Love, like in terms of money and fame and visibility, I thought, I don’t need more than this. Maybe even a little less than this.” She doesn’t wish she’d worked any more just for the sake of it (and God knows she doesn’t need more money), but Barkin does wish she could have more roles she’s really proud of. “My best friend is Julie Moore; that to me is the perfect career. She goes out and she can do one for them, and then she can do two for her. In order to get the good jobs in the film world, you’ve got to do a lot of shit. I was never willing to do that shit to get the one good job in three years. But Julie’s a real worker, like a real workhorse. And she’s an extraordinary mother! I have no work ethic. I couldn’t work and then get up in the morning and take them to school if I had a night shoot like she does. I hope my kids have more of the desire to succeed.”