The face looks as if it got broken and then was glued together by a small child. The smile is attached at an odd angle, the eyes are so far apart they could almost belong to different people, and it’s hard to look at the nose without thinking of Marvin Hagler. But it’s even harder to look at Ellen Barkin without thinking of sex. She has a body that could stop the fighting in Beirut, a voice that purrs (as one reporter put it) “like velvet rubbed the wrong way,” and enough sensuality to set your tie on fire. Tough as a Rock queen, vulnerable as a lost child, this 35-year-old nonesuch is the most improbable sex goddess since the young Simone Signoret (whom she eerily resembles), and in 1989 she made more converts than oat bran. In Sea of Love, a surprise smash expected to gross $60 million in the U.S. alone, Barkin mounts an erotic assault on Al Pacino that rivals anything seen on Wrestlemania; in Johnny Handsome, playing a spider woman who devours the males she mates, the lady almost persuades us that the world’s well lost for lust.
What makes Barkin so persuasive is the shimmering interplay between an impassioned intelligence and that mysterious film noir face. We’re dealing here with an actress, not a sex kitten. “Acting,” Barkin says, “is a matter of giving away secrets….You let [the audience] crawl inside you for a little while.” Inside Barkin’s psyche, audiences sense a street-smart kid from the Bronx who clawed her way up. Brutally informed by teachers that “I wasn’t pretty enough” to be an actress, she hung on to her dream for a decade before getting her first role in a feature film. Five years later The Big Easy (1987) made her a star, but stardom hasn’t softened her hard New York edges. Nor has a year of marriage to Irish actor Gabriel Byrne and two months of motherhood—in October she had an 8-lb. baby boy. Hollywood scripts, she says, are “big crap or lesser crap. Greatness I don’t hope for.” She refuses to perform with “actors that I don’t respect.” On set she fights like a guttersnipe for her creative vision. “I scream all the time at somebody,” she admits, “myself included.” Most directors say the gain is well worth the pain.