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Coen brothers

"Ethan Coen" redirects here. For the comedic screenwriter, see Etan Cohen.
"Joel Coen" redirects here. For the comedic screenwriter, see Joel Cohen (writer).

Joel and Ethan Coen
Ethan (left) and Joel Coen at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival
Born Joel David Coen
Ethan Jesse Coen

(1954-11-29) November 29, 1954 (age 61) (Joel)
(1957-09-21) September 21, 1957 (age 58) (Ethan)
St. Louis Park, Minnesota, U.S.
Other names Roderick Jaynes
Occupation Film directors, producers, screenwriters, film editors
Years active 1984–present
Notable work Blood Simple, True Grit, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing
Spouse(s) Frances McDormand (Joel; 1984–present; 1 child)
Tricia Cooke (Ethan; 1990–present; 2 children)

Joel David Coen[1] (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Jesse Coen[1] (born September 21, 1957), known informally as the Coen brothers, are American film directors, screenwriters, producers, and editors. Their films include Blood Simple (1984), Raising Arizona (1987), Barton Fink (1991), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009), True Grit (2010), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

The brothers write, direct, and produce their films jointly, although until The Ladykillers (2004), Joel received sole credit for directing and Ethan for producing. They often alternate top billing for their screenplays while sharing film credits for editor under the alias Roderick Jaynes. They have been nominated for twelve Academy Awards together, plus one individual nomination for each, winning Best Original Screenplay for Fargo and Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men.


Early life

Joel and Ethan Coen were born and raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.[2] Their mother, Rena (née Neumann), was an art historian at St. Cloud State University, and their father, Edward Coen, was an economist at the University of Minnesota.[3] Their family was Jewish.[4]

When they were children, Joel saved money from mowing lawns to buy a Vivitar Super 8 camera. Together, the brothers remade movies they saw on television, with a neighborhood kid, Mark Zimering ("Zeimers"),[citation needed] as the star. Their first attempt was a romp entitled Henry Kissinger, Man on the Go. Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey (1965) became their Zeimers in Zambia, which also featured Ethan as a native with a spear.[5]

It is claimed the brothers' Jewish upbringing was seldom related to their films' subjects or stories, with some exceptions, such as A Serious Man (2009), whose title was translated into Hebrew as "The Good Jew". Joel notes that: "in regards to whether our background influences our film making... who knows? We don't think about it... There's no doubt that our Jewish heritage affects how we see things."[4]


Joel and Ethan graduated from St. Louis Park High School in 1973 and 1976, respectively.[citation needed] They both also graduated from Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.[2] Joel then spent four years in the undergraduate film program at New York University, where he made a 30-minute thesis film called Soundings. Ethan went on to Princeton University and earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1979.[2] His senior thesis was a 41-page essay, "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy".[6]

Personal lives

Joel has been married to actress Frances McDormand since 1984. They adopted a son from Paraguay, named Pedro McDormand Coen. (Frances and all her siblings were adopted.)[citation needed] McDormand has acted in six of the Coen brothers' films, including a minor appearance in Miller's Crossing, a supporting role in Raising Arizona, lead roles in Blood Simple and The Man Who Wasn't There, her Academy Award winning role in Fargo, and her starring role in Burn After Reading. She also did a voice-over in Barton Fink.

Ethan is married to film editor Tricia Cooke, and they have two children: daughter Dusty and son Buster Jacob.[7][8]

Both couples live in New York City.[9]



After graduating from New York University, Joel worked as a production assistant on a variety of industrial films and music videos. He developed a talent for film editing and met Sam Raimi, who was looking for an assistant editor on his first feature film The Evil Dead (1981).[citation needed]

In 1984, the brothers wrote and directed Blood Simple, their first commercial film together. Set in Texas, the film tells the tale of a shifty, sleazy bar owner who hires a private detective to kill his wife and her lover. The film contains elements that point to their future direction: distinctive homages to genre movies (in this case noir and horror), plot twists layered over a simple story, a dark humor, and mise en scene. The film starred Frances McDormand, who would go on to feature in many of the Coen brothers' films (and marry Joel). Upon release the film received much praise and won awards for Joel's direction at both the Sundance and Independent Spirit awards.[citation needed]

Their next project was Crimewave (1985), directed by Sam Raimi and written by the Coens and Raimi. Joel and Raimi also made cameo appearances in Spies Like Us (1985).

The brothers' next film was Raising Arizona (1987), the story of an unlikely married couple: ex-convict H.I. (Nicolas Cage) and police officer Ed (Holly Hunter), who long for a baby but are unable to conceive. When a local furniture tycoon (Trey Wilson) appears on television with his newly born quintuplets and jokes that they "are more than we can handle", H.I. steals one of the quintuplets to bring up as their own. The film featured Frances McDormand, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Sam McMurray, and Randall "Tex" Cobb.


Miller's Crossing, released in 1990, starred Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, and John Turturro. The film is about feuding gangsters in the Prohibition era, inspired by Dashiell Hammett's novels Red Harvest (1920) and The Glass Key (serialized in 1930).

The following year, they released Barton Fink (1991); set in 1941, in which a New York playwright (the eponymous Barton Fink played by John Turturro) moves to Los Angeles to write a B-movie. He settles down in his hotel room to commence writing but suffers writer's block until he is invaded by the man next door (John Goodman). Barton Fink was a critical success, earning Oscar nominations and winning three major awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, including the Palme d'Or.[10] It was their first film with cinematographer Roger Deakins, a key collaborator for the next 15 years.

The Hudsucker Proxy (co-written with Raimi) was released in 1994. In it, the board of a large corporation in 1958 New York City appoints a naive schmo as president (Tim Robbins), to sabotage the firm's own share price, so the board could later purchase their company's stock cheaply to retain ownership. However, their plan backfires when the new president invents the hula hoop. The film bombed at the box office ($30 million budget, $3 million gross in the USA), even though it featured Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and despite its having received good reviews by audiences in the intervening years.[citation needed]

The brothers returned to a more familiar theme with the crime thriller Fargo (1996), set in their home state of Minnesota. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), who has serious financial problems, has his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. His plan goes wrong when the kidnappers deviate from the plan and local cop Marge Gunderson (McDormand) starts to investigate. Produced on a small budget of $7 million, Fargo was a critical and commercial success, with particular praise for its dialogue and McDormand's performance. The film received several awards, including a BAFTA award and Cannes award for direction, and two Oscars: a Best Original Screenplay and a Best Actress Oscar for McDormand.[citation needed]

In the Coens' next film, The Big Lebowski (1998), "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles slacker, is used as an unwitting pawn in a kidnapping plot with his bowling buddies (Steve Buscemi and John Goodman). Well received by critics,[11] it is now regarded as a classic cult film.[12]


The Coen brothers' next film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), was another critical and commercial success. The title was borrowed from the Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels (1941), whose lead character, movie director John Sullivan, had planned to make a film with that title.[13] Based loosely on Homer's Odyssey (complete with a cyclops, sirens, et. al.), the story is set in Mississippi in the 1930s and follows a trio of escaped convicts who, after absconding from a chain gang, journey home in an attempt to recover bank heist loot that the leader has buried. But they have no clear perception of where they are going. The film also highlighted the comic abilities of George Clooney, who starred as the oddball lead character Ulysses Everett McGill (assisted by his sidekicks, played by Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro). The film's bluegrass and old time soundtrack, offbeat humor, and digitally desaturated cinematography made it a critical and commercial hit.[citation needed] The soundtrack CD was also successful, spawning a concert and a concert DVD of its own (Down from the Mountain (2000)) that coincided with a resurgence in interest in American folk music.[citation needed]

File:Javier Bardem Coen brothers.jpg
With Javier Bardem at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Coen brothers next produced another noirish thriller, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Set in late 1940s California, a laconic chain-smoking barber (played by Billy Bob Thornton) discovers a way to blackmail his wife's lover and use the proceeds to invest in a dry cleaning business. The film's twists, turns, and dark humor are typical of Coen films, but here the slow pace and dead end roads look demonstrate that the film is meant more for enthusiasts than casual audiences.[citation needed]

Intolerable Cruelty (2003), starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is a throwback to the romantic comedies of the 1940s. The story focuses on hot shot divorce lawyer Miles Massey and a beautiful divorcée whom Massey managed to prevent from receiving any money in her divorce. She vows to get even with him while, at the same time, he becomes smitten with her. Intolerable Cruelty divided the critics; some applauded the romantic screwball comedy elements, while others wondered why the Coens would wish to subject audiences to their take on this particular genre.[citation needed]

In 2004, the Coen brothers made The Ladykillers, a remake of the Ealing Studios classic.[citation needed] A professor, played by Tom Hanks, assembles a team to rob a casino. They rent a room in an elderly woman's house to plan the heist. When the woman discovers the plot, the gang decides to murder her to ensure her silence. The Coens received some of the most lukewarm reviews of their careers in response to this movie. Much of the criticism centered on the idea that a relatively faithful reworking of an existing classic, in contrast to the broader genre homages that made up the bulk of the brothers' prior work, did not provide the creative latitude they needed to place their distinctive stamp on the work.[citation needed]

No Country for Old Men, released in November 2007, closely follows the 2005 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), living near the Texas/Mexico border, stumbles upon, and decides to take, two million dollars in drug money. He then has to go on the run to avoid those looking to recover the money, including sociopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who confounds both Llewelyn and local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). This plotline is a return to noir themes, but in some respects it was a departure for the Coens; with the exception of Stephen Root, none of the stable of regular Coen actors appears in the film. No Country has received nearly universal critical praise, garnering a 94% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes.[14] The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, all of which were received by the Coens, as well as Best Supporting Actor received by Bardem. (The Coens, as "Roderick Jaynes", were also nominated for Best Editor, but lost.) It was the first time since 1961 that two directors (in that year, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise for West Side Story) had received the honor of Best Director at the same time.[citation needed]

In January 2008, Ethan Coen's play Almost An Evening premiered Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 and opened to mostly enthusiastic reviews. The initial run closed on February 10, 2008, but the same production was moved to a new theatre for a commercial Off-Broadway run. The commercial run began in March 2008 and ran until June 1, 2008 at the Bleecker Street Theatre in New York City, produced by The Atlantic Theater Company[15] and Art Meets Commerce.[16] In May 2009, the Atlantic Theater Company produced Coen's Offices, as part of their mainstage season at the Linda Gross Theater.[citation needed]

Burn After Reading, a comedy starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney, was released September 12, 2008; it portrays a collision course between a gym instructor, spies, and Internet dating. Despite being released to mixed reviews, it debuted at number one in North America.[citation needed]

In 2009, they directed a television commercial titled "Air Freshener" for the Reality Coalition.[17][18]

A Serious Man was released on October 2, 2009; a "gentle but dark" period comedy (set in 1967) with a low budget.[19] The film is based loosely on the Book of Job[citation needed] and the Coen brothers' own childhoods in a Jewish academic family in the largely Jewish suburb of Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.[19] Other filming took place in late summer 2008 in some neighborhoods of Roseville and Bloomington, Minnesota, at Normandale Community College, and at St. Olaf College.[citation needed] The movie went on to be nominated for the Oscars for Best Picture as well as Best Original Screenplay.[citation needed]


True Grit (2010) is based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis.[20] Filming was done in Texas and New Mexico. Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross along with Jeff Bridges as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Matt Damon and Josh Brolin also appear in the movie.[21] True Grit was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.[22][23]

Ethan Coen wrote the one-act comedy Talking Cure, which was produced on Broadway in 2011 as part of Relatively Speaking, an anthology of three one-act plays by Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen.[citation needed]

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is a treatise on the 1960s folk music scene in New York City's Greenwich Village and very loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk.[24] The film stars Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan.[25] It won the Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where it was highly praised by critics.[26]

The Coens also contributed to the screenplay for Unbroken, along with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. The film, directed by Angelina Jolie, and based on Laura Hillenbrand's non-fiction book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010), was released on December 25, 2014.[27]

The Coens' next feature film is entitled Hail, Caesar! about a fixer in 1950s Hollywood, starring Coen regulars George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, as well as newcomers Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Alden Ehrenreich.[28] It was also confirmed that the Coens would be co-writing the screenplay for the upcoming spy thriller Bridge of Spies about the 1960 U-2 Incident, with playwright Matt Charman. The film is set to be directed by Steven Spielberg for an February 2016 release.[29][30]

Planned and uncompleted projects

In a 1998 interview with Alex Simon for Venice magazine, the Coens discussed a project called The Contemplations, which would be an anthology of short films based on stories in a leather bound book from a "dusty old library".[31]

In 2001, Joel stated that "a Cold War comedy called 62 Skidoo is one I'd like to do someday".[32]

The Coens had hoped to film James Dickey's novel To the White Sea.[33] They were due to start production in 2002, with Jeremy Thomas producing and Brad Pitt in the lead role, but it was canceled when the Coens felt that the budget offered was not enough to successfully produce the film.

As well as their own planned projects, the Coens have collaborated on productions with other directors. One, reported in 2005, is Suburbicon, a comedy starring and directed by George Clooney. It will be written and produced by the Coens.[34]

In 2008, it had been announced that the Coen brothers would write and direct an adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007). They were to produce the film with Scott Rudin for Columbia Pictures.[35] In the fall of 2012, however, Chabon told Mother Jones that "the Coen brothers wrote a draft of a script and then they seemed to move on", and that the film rights had "lapsed back to me".[36]

In 2009, the Coen brothers stated that they are interested in making a sequel to Barton Fink called Old Fink, which would take place in the 1960s, around the same time period as A Serious Man. The brothers also stated that they have had talks with John Turturro in reprising his role as Fink, but they were waiting "until he was actually old enough to play the part".[37]

In 2009, Turturro also stated that he would be interested in making a spinoff of The Big Lebowski about his character, Jesus, but the Coens have not publicly confirmed the likelihood of this project going forward.[38]

In 2011, the brothers were reportedly working on a television project, called Harve Karbo, about a quirky Los Angeles private eye for Imagine Television.[39]

In December 2013, the Coens stated in an interview that they are working on a new musical comedy centered around an opera singer, though they have said it is "not a musical per se". In the same interview, they revealed they are also working on a sword and sandals drama film set in ancient Rome (later revealed to be a humorous reference to Hail, Caesar!, their latest film which actually has nothing to do with Rome, but is set in 1950's Hollywood).[40]

Production company

The Coen brothers' own film production company, Mike Zoss Productions located in New York City, has been credited on their films from O Brother, Where Art Thou? onwards.[41] It was named after Mike Zoss Drugs, the brothers' beloved hangout when they were growing up in the Twin Cities. The name was also used for the pharmacy in No Country for Old Men.[42]

Directing distinctions

Up to 2003, Joel received sole credit for directing and Ethan for producing, due to guild rules that disallowed multiple director credits to prevent dilution of the position's significance. The only exception to this rule is if the co-directors are an "established duo". Now that they are able to share the director credit (as an established duo), the Coen brothers have become only the third duo to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director. The first two pairs to achieve this were Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (who won for West Side Story in 1961), and Warren Beatty and Buck Henry (who were nominated for Heaven Can Wait in 1978).[citation needed]

Only six other directors have won three Oscars for the same film, a distinction the duo shares with Billy Wilder, James L. Brooks, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and later Alejandro González Iñárritu in 2015.[citation needed]

With eight Academy Award nominations for No Country for Old Men, including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Film Editing (Roderick Jaynes), the Coen brothers have tied the record for the most nominations by a single nominee (counting an "established duo" as one nominee) for the same film. Orson Welles set the record in 1941 with Citizen Kane being nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay (with Herman J. Mankiewicz). Warren Beatty tied Welles' record when Beatty was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay for Heaven Can Wait in 1978 and again in 1981 with Reds. Alan Menken also then achieved the same feat when he was nominated for Best Score and triple-nominated for Best Song for Beauty and the Beast in 1991.[citation needed]


The Coen brothers often cast certain actors in their films, most frequently Frances McDormand (Joel's wife), Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Jon Polito, and John Turturro. They have worked twice with Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin, and at least three times with Michael Badalucco, George Clooney, Richard Jenkins, and Stephen Root.

The Coens similarly tend to work with certain crews as well, especially Roger Deakins, Jess Gonchor, Skip Lievsay, and Mary Zophres. They notably used cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld on their first three films, through Miller's Crossing, until Sonnenfeld left to pursue his own directing career. Deakins has been the Coen brothers' cinematographer for all their subsequent films except Burn After Reading, on which they employed Emmanuel Lubezki,[43] and Inside Llewyn Davis, on which they employed Bruno Delbonnel.[44]

Sam Raimi is another frequent collaborator. He helped write The Hudsucker Proxy, which the Coen brothers directed, and the Coen brothers helped write Crimewave, which Raimi directed. Raimi took tips about filming A Simple Plan (1998) from the Coen brothers, who had recently finished Fargo. (Both films are set in blindingly white snow, which reflects a lot of light and can make metering for a correct exposure tricky).[citation needed] Raimi has cameo appearances in Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy. Raimi and the Coens met when Raimi directed The Evil Dead (1981), for which Joel was hired as an assistant editor.[citation needed]

Carter Burwell has scored all of the Coens' films, aside from Crimewave (1985), although T-Bone Burnett produced much of the traditional music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers, and was in charge of archive music for The Big Lebowski.[citation needed] Skip Lievsay handles the sound editing for all of the Coens' films.[citation needed]

Most of the Coens' films have been credited to the editor "Roderick Jaynes", an alias which refers collectively to the two Coen brothers.[45] Tricia Cooke, Ethan's wife, was also an editor on three of their films,[which?] after working as assistant editor on several of their earlier films.[which?][citation needed] Michael R. Miller edited Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing.

William Preston Robertson is an old friend of the Coens[citation needed] who helped them with re-shoots on Blood Simple and provided the voice of the radio evangelist. He is listed in the credits as the "Rev. William Preston Robertson". He has provided vocal talents on most of the Coens' films up to and including The Big Lebowski. He is also credited in Raimi's Evil Dead II (1987) and wrote The Making of The Big Lebowski with Tricia Cooke.[citation needed]




  • Cheshire, Ellen & Ashbrook, John (2005). Joel and Ethan Coen (3rd Revised edition ed.). The Pocket Essential. ISBN 978-1-904048-39-8.  (Includes all films up to The Ladykillers and some subsidiary works [Crimewave, Down from the Mountain, Bad Santa].)
  • King, Lynnea Chapman (2014). The Coen Brothers Encyclopedia. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-8108-8576-9. 


  1. ^ a b According to the State of Minnesota. Minnesota Birth Index, 1935–2002. Minnesota Department of Health. Searchable at
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  33. ^ Patterson, John (December 21, 2007). "We've killed a lot of animals". The Guardian (London). Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  34. ^ Davis, Erik (November 27, 2005). "Clooney to direct Suburbicon". Retrieved February 26, 2008. 
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  36. ^ Mechanic, Michael (Sep–Oct 2012). "Michael Chabon's Vinyl Draft". Mother Jones. Retrieved September 9, 2012. 
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External links

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