The enigmatic Coen brothers, always content to amuse themselves in their own absurd realms, were feted as expected Sunday night at the Oscars, winning best picture for “No Country for Old Men,” best director(s) and best adapted screenplay.
“We’re very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox,” Joel Coen said, while accepting the award for best director.
And what a bizarre sandbox it is.
After years of genre mash-ups, cult classics and bloody capers, the Coens burst through to Oscar glory with their steely, violent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. A year after the academy finally honored Martin Scorsese for directing, the Coens’ wins had the feel of a similar reckoning, albeit expedited in far speedier fashion.
Though Joel and Ethan Coen’s many die-hard fans might say their win was nevertheless belated — it coming 24 years after their first film — their Texas crime film has generally been viewed as a culmination of craft for the brothers.
They are the first siblings to win the directing honor and just the second pair to share Hollywood’s top filmmaking honor, following Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for 1961’s “West Side Story.”
The Coens, in a rare occasion of working from material not their own, also won for best adapted screenplay for their script. Accepting the award, Joel Coen alluded to the brothers’ 2000 film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” which was (very) loosely based on “The Odyssey.”
“Whatever success we’ve had in this area has been entirely attributable to how selective we are,” said Coen, with McCarthy calmly looking on from the audience. “We’ve only adapted Homer and Cormac McCarthy.”
The Coens won for best original screenplay for “Fargo” in 1997, though they lost to Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”) for best director. Many view “Fargo” as the Coen’s finest film, which, like “No Country for Old Men,” portrayed violent crime across a desolate landscape.
To cultists, the directors’ most essential movie is 1998’s “The Big Lebowski,” for which fans still yearly congregate to celebrate.
After a series of box office and critical duds like the remake “The Ladykillers” and “Intolerable Cruelty,” “No Country” has emerged as the Coens’ biggest financial success, surpassing $60 million in theaters.
Accepting the awards, Ethan Coen, 49, was typically mum, choosing only to say, “Thank you.” The 53-year-old Joel, however, recalled their childhood origins as filmmakers.
“Ethan and I have been making stories with movie cameras since we were kids,” said Coen, recalling a Super 8 film they made titled “Henry Kissinger: Man on the Go.” “Honestly, what we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we were doing then.”
“No Country” was the favorite heading into Oscar night, and the awards went — unlike their characters’ exploits — largely according to plan, with the film capturing best picture honors. And Javier Bardem, who plays Anton Chigurh, an implacable killer with the hair of Prince Valiant, won supporting actor.
“Thank you to the Coens for being crazy enough to think that I could do that, and put one of the most horrible haircuts in history over my head,” said Bardem.
Bardem’s curious ’do was one of the Coens’ few characteristically idiosyncratic touches. For “No Country,” they primarily played it straight, portraying three twisting plots with steely quiet and frenzied explosions of sound.
One tantalizing opportunity was missed Sunday night when the Coens lost for best editing. They were nominated under their pseudonym Roderick Jaynes (which they use for editing credits), and the academy had said it would read that name should “Jaynes” win. Whether the Coens would have stood up to accept was unknown; instead, Christopher Rouse won for “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
Asked backstage how Jaynes was taking his loss, Ethan Cohen said: “We know he’s elderly and unhappy, so probably not well.”
The Coens seem to have realized adaptations might be worth it, after all. It was recently announced that they will reunite with “No Country” producer Scott Rudin to adapt Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”