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TMI Spotlight: 5 Breakout Movie Roles Of Ellen Barkin

Ellen Barkin has been working in film and television since the 1980s, gaining acclaim for early roles that pushed the envelope for sexually driven and independent characters. Trained as a method actor, her unique look and voice made her instantly appealing and won over critics and fans alike, starring in a number of highly successful films.
Ellen Barkin
Animal Kingdom, 2016 ©Warner Horizon

Modern audiences might most recognize her from her TV roles, such as her current hit, Animal Kingdom (2016), where she stars as Janine “Smurf” Cody, the tough-as-nail matriarch of the Cody family. Earning high praise for her performance, we thought it would be a good time to look back and remind ourselves of where this talented woman got her start, so here are five breakout roles that made her a household name.

Diner (1982)

Ellen Barkin
Diner, 1982 ©MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

Might as well begin where she got her start. Playing Beth Schreiber, the young wife of Shrevie (Daniel Stern), she is a supporting player in a story about a group of life long college-aged friends in 1959 Baltimore, who are having some trouble transitioning to the responsibilities of adulthood. They spend much of their time hanging out at the local Fells Point Diner, reflecting on days gone by and the road that lies ahead.

A mix of comedy and drama, Barkin makes a powerful debut as a new wife in a relationship she can’t quite get hold of. As her husband obsesses about his record collection, the two drift further apart and Barkin, as the only real female lead, makes a strong, emotional presence. She can play our records anytime.

Johnny Handsome (1989)

Ellen Barkin
Johnny Handsome, 1989 ©Tri-Star Pictures

Mickey Rourke stars as the titular Johnny, a criminal with a disfigured face who is betrayed by his partners, Sunny (Barkin) and Rafe (Lance Henriksen), ending up in jail, where he swears revenge when he gets out. Inside, he meets a surgeon (Forest Whitaker) who offers him a chance at a new cosmetic procedure that makes him completely unrecognizable. Once free, he starts to make a new life, but can’t shake his bad boy calling and takes after Sunny and Rafe, along with a cop (Morgan Freeman) close by. 

Barkin is all sex appeal here but with a sharp, brassy attitude that makes her a particularly intimidating character. Cool, and collected, she is the opposite of her growling partner Rafe, and her big hair and big ideas makes her a big presence, even with limited screen time.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Ellen Barkin
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!, 1984 ©20th Century Fox

What was meant to be the start of a fun sci-fi adventure series stopped with the first entry as audiences didn’t quite get what was happening in this quirky comedy about a rock-star scientist (Peter Weller) and his team of genius musicians who battle beings from another dimension. It has since become a beloved cult classic, kicking off the start of a few careers, including John Lithgow as a villain for whom we’ve already expressed our fondness.

Barkin plays Penny Priddy, a down on her luck girl Banzai meets in a bar, who turns out to be the twin of his dead wife. Once again, she is the only female in a large male ensemble cast and while she is relegated to being the damsel in distress, she does it with some punch and sassy sex appeal. We’d follow her to any dimension.

Sea Of Love (1989)

Ellen Barkin
Sea of Love, 1989 ©Universal Pictures

Al Pacino plays New York City homicide detective Frank Keller, who partners up with fellow detective Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) to try and track down a serial killer. They only have a few clues, one of which is a spinning 45rpm record called “Sea of Love,” though they also have a cigarette laced with lipstick, a want ad in the paper, and most importantly, a set of fingerprints. Now Keller goes undercover to try and get a match.

They plan to use the same kind of ad to lure the killer out, whom they suspect is a woman. Posing as a date, one girl is Helen Cruger (Barkin), but she doesn’t play fair and soon Keller finds himself sexually attracted to her. They begin a secret torrid relationship, all the while with her under suspect. Ridiculously sexy (she makes going to the market fun in a scene that caused her some tension), Barkin plays her as a smart and intimidating woman that keeps us guessing and Keller never sure but always under her spell. Much like us.

The Big Easy (1987)

Ellen Barkin
The Big Easy, 1987 ©Columbia Pictures

New Orleans Detective Remy McSwain (Dennis Quaid) investigates the murder of a local mob boss but realizes that his own department might be corrupt so in comes Anne Osborne (Barkin), a state district attorney to give things a closer look. Sure enough, she sees things are not all on the up and up and in fact, thinks McSwain himself is a little less pure than he says. They begin a relationship but when he is suspected of taking bribes, she must prosecute.

The Louisiana setting provides the atmosphere but Barkin brings the steam. A sultry, sexually-charged performance, it is also half of a sublimely good acting partnership with Quaid, the two effortlessly falling into the roles of a couple in a dangerous game of love and lies. A fantastic thriller, it is Barkin’s 80s calling card and a bold announcement that she was here to stay.