- Golden Globe Awards
Ellen Barkin, 1991 on “Switch” – Out of the Archives
Ellen Barkin received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress – Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy in 1992 for Switch, written and directed by Blake Edwards from the 1959 play by George Axelrod, Goodbye Charlie.
She spoke to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in 1991 about playing a dead man reincarnated in a woman’s body as punishment for his misogynist behavior, and forced to confront his past from a different perspective.
This is how the actress reacted when Blake Edwards chose her for this role: “I wasn’t surprised when he came to me with this script and offered me the part. I didn’t feel like [what] you occasionally feel, ‘God, why would they want me to play that? That’s a strange choice.’ Now I understood because I do feel in touch with my masculine side. I guess you see it physically, and this might be what Blake was looking for.
“For better or for worse, I don’t see myself as a traditionally feminine type of woman. I mean, I never put a dress on, much to my husband’s (Irish actor Gabriel Byrne) dismay, or my husband would say, ‘Ellen, put your legs back together’ because I’d sit around with my legs spread apart like this and smoke cigarettes.”
Barkin explained why she felt that her real-life behavior was more masculine than feminine: “It’s not conscious at all. I guess a lot of it has to do with when I grew up in the world because I rode the crest of women’s liberation, which was being done by women older than I when I was 14. By the time I was reaching adolescence, women were breaking new ground so I didn’t have to switch.
“Women who were over my age had a point in their lives where they had to shift, and all of a sudden, they were expected to be something else. Whereas, when I was growing up, it was already okay. I mean, I didn’t wear a bra when people were burning their bras, and I see that as a metaphor for it. Also, I had a mother who worked all her life and helped support the family so that was what I saw.”
The actress appreciated Edwards’ directing style: “He’s probably one of the most collaborative directors I’ve ever worked with. For Blake, a movie is about the actors and the acting. He really doesn’t pay attention to anything else. I mean, he cares about it enough so the movie gets made but that’s not his focus. Now, for an actor, that is fantastic so I understand why people go back again and again to work with him. I would work with him again on just about anything he asked me to do.
“I learned more from doing Switch than I’d learned in years as a working actor. I don’t know how he does it but he creates such a fertile environment that he allows you to be incredibly creative. I took great risks, which I wouldn’t have been able to do with another director, and yet somehow with Blake, I felt safe. I knew that he would never lead me astray, and when I was in trouble, I always looked to him.”
Barkin described Jimmy Smits’ character, the man who falls in love with hers: “It was nice because Jimmy played the only redeeming character in the movie. Everybody was awful, even the women, except for this lovely man who was compassionate, caring and gentle. So he had the traits that are viewed by the world as traditionally feminine as opposed to masculine.
“I thought he was beautifully cast because he did seem to me to be that kind of man, and he enjoyed playing that part. And when I saw the movie, I was very impressed because he is this wonderful role model of a man.”
The actress did not feel she learned something new about men by playing this role but she did discover some aspects of women’s behavior: “I’m not of the belief that men are such a great mystery to us. We are probably more of a mystery to them, for no other reason except that women are conditioned to be much more open and straightforward about their feelings, and men are not.
“We spend our lives trying to figure men out, and I think we have, while they don’t do that with us. So I didn’t learn a whole lot about men in this film. I learned more about women and how we place ourselves in a male-dominated society. By doing the physical research, I learned that, when women are in crowds, they will take up a lot less space than men. They’ll get much closer to each other, while men demand a much bigger area around them that no one intrudes on.
“These are the facts, that when women ask for something, like if we are ordering dinner at a restaurant, our voices go up at the end as if we’re almost apologizing in a way. Men don’t do that. And that’s what I learned, which I found shocking.”
This is the advice that Barkin would give to women after having gone through this experience: “I would just say, ‘Don’t adjust,’ in all senses of the word because we all adjust ourselves physically and emotionally. I do it at home with my husband all the time, in tiny little bits; but we cannot do it because, on some level, it would be nice to see what it feels like to be responded to just as a person, not as a woman.
“I mean, I would like to believe that Jane Campion is a director, as opposed to a female director. That’s not to say that there aren’t great differences between the sexes and that they should remain there. I guess they will never disappear totally but it shouldn’t be a judgment call. It should be higher or lower, more or less, better or worse.”
Barkin continued to elaborate on how men are judged differently in the world, as opposed to women: “Men are responded to as people by each other and by other women. Every time we women see a man, we don’t immediately make those evaluations, sexual or otherwise but they (men) do, and I don’t blame men for it because it’s the way the world works.
“However, I feel that, because of the endless programming that has been shoved into our collective unconsciousness, women have ended with the better lot in the end. We are more attuned to everything, to ourselves and the world around us because we have to fit ourselves in, while men view the world as revolving around them. They are the center of the universe, and everything is about them.
“I mean, when they’re hungry, they eat, while when I’m hungry, I have to wonder if Gabriel is hungry now, and when he’s hungry, that’s dinner time. That’s just a simple example of it, and it’s not a man’s fault or anything. That’s their place in society while our place is like a shifting satellite but because of that, as women, we are more highly evolved.”
This was the hope that Barkin had for the future: “The point is that this is a male-dominated world, which is certainly hideous, but I don’t think we can expect anything else. To think that it would be any different is crazy. However, we must all fight to change it for as long as we’re on this earth. It has certainly changed a little in the last 30 years but it has not completed its evolution by any means.”