John Turturro lives within the margins.
Normally, that might not be considered a complimentary thing to say of an actor. Yet, in Turturro’s case, I feel there is no better way to describe him. The first role Turturro ever had was “Man at Table” in Martin Scorsese’s great 1980 film, Raging Bull. He started small, an extra, and from there he only began to slowly fill up the margins of cinema history. There are stars like, say, Tom Cruise or Daniel Day-Lewis who are born leading men, and aside from a few notable exceptions (Tropic Thunder for Cruise), stay in the front lines until their career ends, if it ever really does. Turturro is not a leading star in the traditional sense. His name does not grace the front of multiplexes across the world and he almost never stars in anything one would call a “summer blockbuster,” although he did have a supporting role in the first three Transformers movies. No, Turturro keeps it small, and in doing so, can truly flourish. Take one of his most memorable roles as the pedophiliac Latino bowler, Jesus Quintana, in the Coen Brother’s 1998 masterpiece, The Big Lebowski. It is a wonderful performance full of quirks and excellently delivered lines like, “Let me tell you something, pendejo. You pull any of your crazy shit with us, you flash a piece out on the lanes, I’ll take it away from you, stick it up your ass and pull the fucking trigger ’til it goes ‘click.'” It’s an absurd role that could lose a lot of its hilarity under much less talented hands. Yet, the character of Jesus Quintana is barely in more than three scenes in the film, despite being remembered very well and very fondly by fans of the movie. Why? Two words: John Turturro.
Before and after Lebowski, Turturro starred in numerous films by the great filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. The trio is, without a doubt, one of the most underappreciated actor-director duos/trios in the past half century or so. While some may look to John Goodman or even Steve Buscemi for evidence of the Coen’s best in their repertoire of actors, I firmly believe Turturro is the greatest example of this. I have already alluded to The Big Lebowski, but Turturro has risen far above Jesus Quintana in his range and skill under the tutelage of the Coen’s. In one of his better known leading roles as the titular Barton Fink, Turturro brought his own brand of understated manic genius to a character that needed precisely that. Fink is a quiet, quirky, nebbish and writer who only wants to make something great. Turturro makes the character as funny and desperate as he needs to be while still making him relatable and, in an odd sort of way, a hero to root for.
After his heyday in the ’90s, Turturro went on to star in many seminal pieces of American cinema (even before The Big Lebowksi and Barton Fink, he had already had a significant part in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing along with other excellent films). He was never quite a Tom Cruise figure, but in the world of side roles and independent cinema, Turturro is a towering giant. So why exactly is John Turturro deserving of Cinema Sainthood? Simple: Nobody fucks with the Jesus.