Cover Story

Sex & Sensibility

Ellen Barkin's role reversal -- The actress learns how to walk like a man in ''Switch''

Maybe one reason Ellen Barkin is wound tight as a new Duncan yo-yo is that she grew up next door to a famous killer. The woman's name was Alice Crimmins, and in the summer of 1965 in Queens, N.Y., the accusation that she had murdered her two small children put her on the front pages of every tabloid in the city. ''It was one of those major life events as a child,'' Barkin says early on during lunch at a pleasantly un-hip bistro off the beaten track in Beverly Hills. Reluctant to discuss her own childhood, she has offered up the Crimmins story instead, as a kind of sacrificial tidbit. But the memory of her notorious neighbor quickly turns painful, and Barkin seems even more nervous relating this story than she is about telling her own. She pauses between the sentences. She was 11 that summer. ''Originally it was thought that the kids, Missy and Edmund, had been kidnapped,'' she says, fiddling with the silverware. ''We came downstairs one morning and the street was sick with cops. And I remember seeing Alice Crimmins walk out of the building with two plainclothes cops. They were taking her down to look at some bodies, and we waited all day ) to see what would happen. There was a lot of crying.'' The bodies of Crimmins' children didn't actually turn up until a few days later. ''It was earth-shattering,'' says Barkin. Her face looks like a clay mold a child would make with a frenzy of thumbs — the weird planes of it catch the light — and she hesitates again. ''All of a sudden it was not an innocent world anymore.''

The Crimmins children had been abducted through a window, and that too made a deep impression on Barkin. ''There was no air-conditioning in our apartment in those days — we couldn't afford it,'' she says. ''And I insisted that my parents not open any windows. Of course, (Crimmins) lived on the ground floor and we lived on the third.'' The Crimmins case dragged through the courts for six years of reversals and appeals, spinning off enough loose ends to leave at least some observers in doubt as to her guilt, despite her ultimate conviction on a manslaughter charge. Barkin remembers her not as a killer but as a glamorous cocktail waitress. More like a character she might play one day. ''She was a pretty flashy babe,'' Barkin says confidentially. ''She wore tight pants and had red hair. She was pretty great looking.''

There is something to be said for flashy-looking babes, a point that is hardly lost on Barkin. Everything about her — the attitude, the crooked smile, the off-kilter nose, the way her body fits into a red leather jacket as snugly as a butterfly in a cocoon — says, ''Look at me.'' There is also a certain appeal in being hard to pin down, in leaving a trace of doubt as to whether one is victimizer or victim. Barkin says she has always wanted to make a movie about Crimmins' life, but she already has proved herself a master of sinister ambiguity. Her frankly sexual performance in the 1989 thriller Sea of Love was convincingly unreadable — did she want to sleep with Al Pacino or kill him?

Sea of Love turned Barkin into a bona fide sex symbol, completing a transformation that had begun when she bedded Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy. It also moved her into Hollywood's top tier of actresses after years of critically acclaimed, quirky, vulnerable roles in small, literary movies like Diner, Tender Mercies, and Desert Bloom. Next week Barkin gets top billing as the totally female reincarnation of a Don Juan seeking redemption, in director Blake Edwards' latest sex farce, Switch.

''You can become a big movie star without being in a big movie, but it's difficult,'' she says. ''After The Big Easy I found myself contending with girls who could be considered movie stars. I might not have been getting the jobs, but I was in there with Michelle Pfeiffer and Melanie Griffith. Then I was in a movie — Sea of Love — that made a lot of money. And it was a sexy movie. I was already considered a serious actress. All of a sudden I took my clothes off in a movie and I became a movie star.'' She also became bankable. ''The money didn't go way up after The Big Easy,'' she says. ''But between Sea of Love and Switch? Gigantic.''

As she cements her star status with a big-budget comedy, however, Barkin still considers herself an industry outsider, a New York actress whose ambivalence toward Hollywood is evident. Even though she was in L.A. at the time, she turned down, then accepted, then turned down again the chance to be a presenter at this year's Oscars, and wound up not even going. ''The idea of presenting an Academy Award would make anyone nervous,'' she says. ''Now the day may come when I may have to go. My husband (actor Gabriel Byrne, who starred in last year's critical hit Miller's Crossing) might get nominated for something. I might,'' she concedes. ''So why put myself through all that tsouris if I don't have to?'' Possibly, I remind her, because the best Hollywood advisors urged her to capitulate that one time. ''But I have my own mind,'' she half-whines, as if it's the first time any movie star has ever voiced this thought.

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