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MOVIES : More Than Just an Ethnic Face : John Turturro wants to broaden his career but stick with people he can trust; a Cannes award for the Coens' 'Barton Fink' may help.

August 11, 1991|HILARY DE VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Sunday Calendar.

NEW YORK — John Turturro climbs into a limousine looking as edgy as the urban homeboys he has played. His leather backpack is jammed between his sneakered feet, and he plucks restlessly at the sleeves of his black T-shirt. His wife, actress Katherine Borowitz, and a writer are already in the car. He looks at them with sidelong glances. "Yeah, yeah? You and Kath? Really?" he says, struggling to make small talk.

Turturro, et al., are en route to a lunch interview--one of the few he has agreed to do since winning the best actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance in "Barton Fink," the new period comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen that opens this month. The film, in which Turturro plays a Clifford Odets-like playwright adrift in Hollywood of the 1940s, also won this year's Palme d'Or, and interest in the 34-year-old actor, who has most often been cast in small parts as ethnic street toughs, has surged.

Turturro has been in Spike Lee's current "Jungle Fever"; "Barton Fink," which opens Aug. 21, and the upcoming comedy "Lame Ducks," produced by the Zucker brothers.

But Turturro seems nonplussed with this overnight acclaim. Like many an actor, he resists discussions of his personal life and even his craft. But unlike those more accustomed to the media, he has no public persona at the ready. On this afternoon, an oppressive summer day in Manhattan, his manner is awkward, like that of an unhappy teen-ager being dragged to Sunday lunch with grandparents.

"Come, come with us, Kath," he says in his garbled New Yorkese, looking at his wife. Borowitz, who has heard these entreaties before--and indeed has appeared in most of the interviews that Turturro has given--demurs.

"Just come. Come on," he tries again. "Come to lunch. You can leave early." Borowitz, a study in serenity compared to her husband, allows a faint smile to cross her pale face, and Turturro slumps back in his seat with relief.

On the one hand, the actor's plea, touching in its sincerity, speaks volumes about his unwillingness to face the press alone. But in a more fundamental regard, it reflects his desire--some would say his need--to work only with those whom he knows and trusts. As Turturro puts it later, "You have a trust that someone you know will not take you somewhere and abuse you."

It is, perhaps, an unexpected statement coming from this New York-born-and-raised actor, who has spent most of his professional life playing, well, abusers. From big movies to small, Turturro has become one of Hollywood's busiest character actors, most often cast as patently ethnic--Jewish or Italian--urban types. In Tony Bill's "Five Corners," Turturro played a sociopathic rapist; in "The Sicilian," a Mafia mobster; in "To Live and Die in L.A.," a garden-variety criminal. Until "Barton Fink," Turturro had been perhaps best known for his work in three Spike Lee films: playing Pino, the volatile, racist pizza maker in "Do the Right Thing"; Moe Flatbush, the avaricious Jewish club owner in "Mo' Better Blues" (a role that contributed to accusations of anti-Semitism directed at Lee), and Paulie, the sensitive Bensonhurst shopkeeper in "Jungle Fever," which also was one of the contenders at this year's Cannes festival.

Even Off Broadway, where the Yale-trained actor continues to work between films, critics singled out Turturro's professional debut in 1984, an Obie-winning portrait of a potentially homicidal lover in John Patrick Shanley's drama "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea." In the New York Times, Mel Gussow described Turturro as "an astonishing newcomer" and "a poet in the rough" whose performance was "frighteningly real." This year, the actor had the title role in a New York production of Bertolt Brecht's darkly comic anti-Nazi parable "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," in which he played a charismatically vicious Al Capone-like stand-in for Hitler.

Turturro suggests that with the exception of his work with Lee and the Coen brothers, his roles have come uncomfortably close to ethnic stereotyping. It is no surprise then to discover that his work with the Coens--playing the double-crossing homosexual bookmaker Bernie (the Schmatte) Bernbaum in their period gangster film "Miller's Crossing," and now the insecure but ambitious playwright in "Barton Fink"--has provided Turturro with his most satisfying and most critically praised performances to date. Both parts were written specifically for the actor, and although both required him to again play Jewish characters, their ethnicity, like Bernbaum's sexual orientation, is incidental to their personalities.

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