Actor John Turturro is to hair what Meryl Streep is to accents. In "Miller's Crossing," Turturro's closely cropped hair is slicked down like a small-time bookie's. As a Brooklyn shopkeeper in "Jungle Fever," his hair's a frizzy dome perched atop the whitewalls of his shaved head. In his newest film, "Barton Fink," in which he plays a Clifford Odets-style Hollywood writer, it is a towering, seemingly unmovable wedge. With each disconcertingly odd do, he transforms himself into a new character. Even Turturro laughs that his hairstyle often gets as much attention as his acting.
This summer it's definitely Turturro's acting that is attracting the most notice. Critics praised his sensitive performance as Paulie, who loses his white girlfriend to a black man in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever." This week, "Barton Fink," the latest enigmatic offering from filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, opens after the Cannes Film Festival named Turturro its best actor.
It's no surprise that Turturro, 34, does his best work for the aggressively offbeat Coens and the outsider Lee. With his irregular smile-and that hair-and a propensity for portraying fundamentally unlikable characters, Turturro isn't going to challenge Kevin Costner for top matinee idol. It was Turturro's performance in "Five Corners" as a psychopathic ex-con who clubbed a penguin to death and threw his mother out the window that persuaded Lee to cast him in "Do the Right Thing." As Pino, the bitter, racist pizza maker, Turturro helped precipitate the violent climactic riot. Barton Fink is a more subtly unappealing guy: utterly self-absorbed and corpse white from too many days indoors hunched over a typewriter searching for the "common man." To Turturro (in person a gentle, generous man), sympathetic characters are like Chinese food: nice going down but forgotten tomorrow. "My interest lies in my self-expression-what's inside of me-not what I'm in," he says, explaining why big-budget Hollywood pictures hold little attraction for him. "And I've learned that it can't be [just about] a role. It has to be the people I'm working with and the role-maybe even more the people than the role."
Turturro's brilliance is in finding some touching evidence of humanity in each of his characters. He does that, he says, by drawing on his experiences growing up in tough neighborhoods in Queens (he was born in Brooklyn). As Bernie (the Shmatte) Bernbaum in "Miller's Crossing," Turturro is a sleazy, double-crossing schemer. But as he kneels in a forest, begging an assassin to "look in your heart" and not kill him, Bernbaum is revealed as a shattered soul. "John has a lot of compassion for people from his own neighborhood who are perhaps damaged," says "Five Corners" screenwriter John Patrick Shanley. "He identifies with outsiders."
That connection with his past inspired Turturro's next project, a somewhat autobiographical film about a family of builders set in the '50s. "Mac" is a memoir of his raucous, close family of three boys, his mother (a former jazz singer) and his father, who died in 1988. Only half in jest, he calls his childhood a cross between "Joe Orton and 'The Honeymooners'." "It was a brutally honest environment," he says. "There was a lot of black comedy but also a lot of support." Turturro began working on the script 10 years ago-Shanley calls it "John's 'Moby Dick'"-and will direct himself when shooting starts in September. His character is loosely based on his father, Nicholas, though he adds in an awed tone, "I could never play my father." It's that desire to tie what he knows to what he does as an actor that keeps him in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Katherine Borowitz, and son. He says he will never move to Los Angeles, where those more bankable actors live. "They're rich. They're fat. They don't take the subway," he says. "I don't live in that environment. I stay connected to the world by living in it."
Photo: Staying connected to the world: Off-screen (SHONNA VALESKY)
At the Hotel Earle in Hollywood, an idealistic New York "proletarian" playwright named Fink (John Turturro) sits in his infernally hot room and stares at his typewriter, paralyzed by writer's block as he tries to pound out a formula wrestling movie. The Earle, the principal setting of Joel and Ethan Coen's hugely unnerving new comedy, Barton Fink is the creepiest hotel since "The Shining," Its only other visible guest is a sweatily gregarious insurance salesman, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), whom the condescending Fink takes to be a fine example of The Common Man-his self-appointed subject as an artist.
The Coens ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona") have always made strange movies, but this may be their strangest: it's a nightmare dressed in the bold outlines of a cartoon. At first you think you're watching a satire of Hollywood in the '40s, complete with such archetypes as the vulgarian mogul (Michael Lerner), a Faulkneresque novelist/screenwriter (John Mahoney) and his lover/secretary (Judy Davis). But the Coens explode convention with a shocking violent twist, at which point all the familiar genre signposts are abandoned and the audience enters terra incognita. "Barton Fink" is a post-modernist Faustian comedy whose ultimate destination is hell itself Creepily beautiful, acted with relish, "Barton Fink" is a savagely original work. It lodges in your head like a hatchet.