John Turturro did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite winning Cannes, for portraying the titular character of Barton Fink.
Barton Fink is a director's film in many ways as Coen brother films often are. Their films though always allow actors to give performances that are interesting all their own while serving the needs of the film. Many of the performances in this film are heavily stylized and effectively so, they tend to fit a particular type and they do this well. Two performances do not do this, one who I will get to soon enough, and the other one is by John Turturro. Although Turturro does fit a particular type Turturro very much goes about playing Barton Fink as a normal human first even though he does happen to fit a certain type at the same time, but he is not defined by this in the same way say Tony Shalhoub's fast talking film producer, or John Mahoney's drunkard writer are.
We first meet Barton as he clearly is presiding over a great success in his first produced play. Turturro doesn't shy away here from being a bit alienating as Fink reacts to the production.Turturro does two things here quite effectively. On one hand he does show a man who honestly reacts to his first play being put on with the proper unease as it is unfolding, but eventually a certain disbelief as he sees his play being love by all. He sets him up as a bit of retiring sort who is quite a peculiar sort in a way a certain type filled with shyness and hesitations. On the other hand though Turturro sets up Fink's pretentiousness with a great deal of believability. Turturro in this moment gets across Barton as almost over thinking this success, and perfectly realizes Fink as a man who think that though his play is loved by all it still is not that great.
Barton quickly finds himself even less comfortable than before as he moves into the strange hotel known as the Earle. Turturro does something particularly special as Fink in these scenes as he makes him a compelling character to follow despite how self absorbed he keeps his character. Turturro takes his role straight as this Clifford Odets type of playwright who is always very much concerned about his craft. As Barton goes to write film merely to finance more "important" plays Turturro portrays Barton almost as ready to be disinterested by the whole thing, and entirely out of his element. Turturro makes him a man who honestly doesn't understand, and is not at all prepared just to write a b-movie wrestling picture. He stays very subtle, but is quite great in that his realization of Barton is just so pure.
John Turturro just is Barton Fink the playwright who has talent, but his aspirations are far greater than they probably should be. Importantly Turturro does not ever turn Fink into a caricature as it would so easy to have done considering how obtuse Fink is in certain ways. Turturro though is excellent though in his refusal to do this and because of that he succeeds in creating Fink into a truly complex character. Turturro's performance strives well the line of doing what exactly Fink is while still making him a man we can relate to in at least some way. Turturro purposefully does not make Fink a character we easily emphasize with. He does though make Fink human in that his reactions to the more normal things he has very truthful moments that perhaps show Fink without any pretension.
Turturro is actually extremely sweet in his more tender moments like when he goes about meeting one of his writing idols W.P. Mayhew, who he ends up finding rather pathetic and becomes far more interested in Mayhew's secretary/mistress Audrey (Judy Davis). Turturro is terrific in the scenes with Davis because we see a vulnerability as he tries to reach out to her for some sort of companionship as he suffers from some intense loneliness. The way he uneasily tries to ask her out, and later speak to her is all brilliantly handled by Turturro as he shows Fink to be deep down just a normal guy with the needs of any normal man. Turturro treads so well though pitching through the complexities of Fink in those scenes and of course his scenes with John Goodman as Charlie Meadows an insurance salesman who also is staying at the hotel Earle.
Goodman and Turturro have perfect chemistry as two very different men. In these scenes Turturro goes through the whole of Fink. In one instance we see him as the sensitive writer as he expresses Fink's troubles and his inability to write his wrestling picture. He moves so well though as he espouses about his big ideas about the theater of the common man. Turturro is amazing with the amount of passion and energy he expresses in Fink's philosophy loudly but fitting of Fink as this is what really drives Fink to write. At the same time Turturro is so great because the pretentiousness of his ideas, and the fact that Fink really is not all that well versed with the common man is not avoided at all. He makes it all part of the singular man that is Fink the same Fink.
Turturro in his scenes with Goodman is both the alienating Fink as he seems too self absorbed in his own ideas to really even understand what is going on around him, but as well the vulnerable human being who creates a honest friendship with Charlie despite Fink's assuming nature. They are everything together really as Turturro shows that disconnect from the apparently normal man Charlie, and are quite humorous together in the dynamic they create between the two styles that differ so much between the two men. They are quite moving too though when the do reach a connection in some way and the friendship is made quite genuine by both Turturro and Goodman as Barton and Charlie do meet some sort of mutual understanding between the two.
I can't praise this performance enough Turturro is just so good. Turturro never falters once in his vivid creation of this very particular playwright. It is entertaining performance, funny at times, but most of all it is an endlessly captivating performance as we go through the mind and experiences of this man. Turturro not only acts as just a fascinating figure on his own but he also brings us into this strange world that he experiences both inside and outside of the hotel. Turturro does something so incredible here that he is just captivating in simply looking forward in confusion, understanding, or anything. He makes a stare something to behold all in itself doing so much even in the slightest moment, and he is the one who keeps this film as a singular whole. He matches the film wholly throughout never being overwhelmed instead working in tandem to make the film the unforgettable experience it is.