The film begins with Barton at the New York City opening of his socialist play, one that uplifts the proletariat and is informed by the rampant exploitation of workers by capitalist industrialists. I’m pretty sure this “play-within-a-movie” was based on Clifford Odet’s famous left-wing play, “Waiting for Lefty.” But it soon becomes clear that uplifting the working poor isn’t enough for the young Barton Fink. When Hollywood calls, telling him how amazing he is and how much they need his “Barton Fink magic” for the big screen, he jumps at the chance. It’s an ancient story for writers -- move to sunny L.A., make the big money, and go to glitzy parties where famous actors and actresses dance and maybe even hook up with anemic, socialist-leaning writers like Barton Fink. Needless to say, complications ensue, and hilariously so.
The Studio Boss From Hell
Barton works for an egotistical and insane studio boss who spends half his time celebrating Barton (“we need some of that Barton Fink magic out here in movie-land!”) and the other half mocking him (“you’re the over-educated intellectual, Barton, and I’m just some schmuck -- figure out the movie plot but just put some dames in it and a few fights, people go to the movies to see dames and fights.”).
Barton gets assigned to write a wrestling move, a formulaic B-picture genre with a good guy, a bad guy, a climactic wrestling match, and some dames (love interest). Needless to say, this isn’t quite what Barton had signed up for. He tells the studio head that he “wants to write important scripts that address pressing human concerns of the moment.” The studio head laughs in his face and tells him to have a script ready in a month. Barton goes back to his hotel and doesn’t know how to begin.
Barton tries to delay the studio head, who berates Barton (again) when he has no outline or proposal to show at the next meeting. The clock is ticking and Barton needs to produce a wrestling script or his life in Hollywood is over. Under pressure, Barton finally starts working.
He finds his inspiration and, as the muse speaks to him, spends hours in his lonely hotel room typing up the screenplay. Working day and night, he gives his wrestling movie “that Barton Fink magic” -- the script addresses social struggles around inequality and injustice. It seeks, through the arc of the story, to resolve many of the ills that have beset humanity for centuries. In the climactic scene, those issues are literally grappled with and pinned to the mat: humanity has won, good had overcome evil, and everyone is happy as the film fades to black.
Exhausted, sweating, and having typed his last sentence, Barton assembles the pages, puts them on his desk, and goes out on the town to celebrate his literary triumph. It’s the middle of World War II, so Barton finds himself at a dance organized by the USO (an agency that entertains service men and women). The ballroom is filled with sailors on leave from the Navy. They are drunk and dancing with dames and acting rowdily, as sailors do on leave. Barton looks around at the scene before him, raises his arms in triumph, and, in a celebratory mood, yells “I have redeemed you; I have redeemed you all!” A sailor passing by bumps into Barton, pushes him, and then punches him in the face. A big fight breaks out and Barton, more literary than pugilistic, ends up on the wrong side of it, with a big black eye.
But Barton still has the triumph of showing his “redemptive” wrestling movie script to the studio head, which he does at a meeting the next morning. The studio head carefully reads through the script and peers across the desk where a black-eyed Barton is sitting expectantly, eager for the recognition he feels he deserves. Finally, the studio head looks up from the pages: “What’s all this egghead crap?!” I didn’t bring you out here to write this tutti-frutti political garbage! People want to be entertained, to see gorgeous dames, big strong men in tights beating the crap outta each other, and stuff like that!” He throws the pages across the table at Barton, who looks utterly defeated. “Do it over, Barton, and let’s stay away from all this tutti-frutti political bullshit. I’ll expect the new script next week, or else you’re through Fink, through!”
3 Key Lessons from “Barton Fink”:
1. Be careful about what you want. If Barton really wanted to write about social justice and the problems of capitalist exploitation, he probably should have stayed in New York and built his career as a playwright first. Once he became attracted to the bright lights (and money) of Hollywood, he lost his creative control to a studio head who could be both flattering and bullying, often in the same sentence. Barton was ill-equipped to cope under these circumstances.
2. When you decide to sell out, you can’t do it halfway. Barton tries to have it both ways, to gain the benefits of Hollywood (money, fame, etc.) without compromising his left-leaning political views. His B-movie wrestling movie script that “redeems” the working poor and resolves social injustices isn’t what Hollywood wanted from him. They simply wanted a “better” but still formulaic wrestling movie. When you sell out, you have to go the whole way.
3. Do your work for its own sake and don’t look for gratitude, love, attention, money, or whatever. For me, the funniest moment in Barton Fink is when he looks around at the drunken sailors dancing with dames, looking to “get lucky,” and yells “I have redeemed you all!” These people don’t want to be redeemed, Barton. They want to get drunk, fight, and have sex, not hear some “egghead” explain how they’re being exploited in a capitalist system that’s rigged against them, especially not through a wrestling movie.
Whenever I feel myself elevating above the page, thinking I’ve resolved some universal human concern through the “magic” of my prose, I think about Barton Fink yelling in that dance hall and getting punched in the face by a drunken sailor. This doesn’t mean I don’t think writers have an important role to play in our culture. I do. But I do think that writers need to understand the complexities of social change and how it will take far more than words on a page to redeem the human race. We need to live our values and share them, but to be humble too. That said, I’ve written the last word I’ll write (at least for now) about the beloved Barton Fink. Go see the film.