Oscar Directors: Levinson, Barry

Barry Levinson’s sensibility as a filmmaker was unmistakably shaped by his hometown, Baltimore, the setting of his personal film trilogy, Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon. Both tough and funny, the trilogy reeks with the smell of ordinary lives and gritty realism.

A stunning directorial debut, Diner was an affectionate, semi-autobiographical evocation of coming-of-age in the late 1950s. As the ultimate male-bonding film, it instantly established itself as the American counterpart to Fellini’s masterpiece I Vitelloni, a film that continues to exert impact on American movies, most recently Palookaville and Swingers.

A bunch of men in their early twenties are beginning to move in different directions, but they continue to hang out together, still clinging to their late night sessions at the Fells Point Diner. When they’re together, the boys are so relaxed that they sound worldly and even quick-witted. However, when the boys are out with girls, they’re nervous and constricted.

Levinson showed a sensitive ear for the nuance of authentic conversations, as they take place in all-night sessions. The movie isn’t so much about sex as the quest of sex–typical male obsessions with scoring. Diner provides an intriguing look at the eternal battle between men and women just before the sexual revolution, arguably the last era in American history when people could joke about it.

At the diner, the boys are storytellers, taking off from each other, feeding each other lines, playing simultaneously the dual roles of the performers and the viewers. There are snappy jokes but there are no punchy lines.

A high-spirited, naturalistic slice of life, full of individually fleshed characters. Levinson digged deep inside into the characters, which basically belong to his own generation. Authentic minutiae that captures the mood and look of Baltimore, circa l959, and the half a dozen male characters who find it impossible to communicate with women.

One of the film’s distinctive aspects is that the marginal characters (the adult world) are also fully rounded–the parents are not the one-dimensional, villainous caricatures one encounters in most youth movies.

A critical success that suffered from studio indifference and poor marketing, Diner somehow managed to acquire a cult following. The movie never got the audience it deserved, despite unanimous critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. However, positive word-of-mouth–kept growing through repeated TV showings and video rentals until Diner entered the collective consciousness and became a break-out kind of an art movie, emulated by many young filmmakers.

After his stunning debut, Levinson became a director-for-hire. The Natural (1984), arguably one of his most sentimental pictures, Levinson transformed the dreams and nightmares of baseball into a fantasy-like vision of the game. In Malamud’s novel, the national pastime is mocked with tart humor and derision. Levinson, however, used the film to express his love for an American game as it prevailed before becoming professionalized and taken over by TV. The elegiac mood was reinforced by opening–and closing–the film with images of a boy-playing ball with his father in golden wheat fields.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), scripted by Chris Columbus and produced by Spielberg, which followed, had considerable charm, but it was not a personal film.

Tin Men put Levinson back in the right track. Going back to Baltimore, this time around he set the story in 1963 and made a poignant comedy-drama about a hustler (Richard Dreyfuss) and a loser (Dany DeVitto), both in the aluminum-siding business, whose paths cross after their cars collide in an accident. Though accomplished, Tin Men was not as good or authentic as Diner, but it delivered.

A melancholy film memory concerning the disintegration of Levinson’s closely-knit family, Avalon completed the trilogy that began with Diner. Tracing the fortunes and misfortunes of an extended family of Jewish immigrants over three generations, the film was intermittently enjoyable, but too soft and episodic, lacking the narrative focus of either Diner or Tin Men.

Levinson’s career demonstrates a sad but well-documented principle in the American cinema: the more personal and intimate a film is, the less chances it has to generate strong box-office results. Indeed, his first–and still best–feature, Diner (1982), and Tin Men (1987) garnered Levinson critical kudos and reputation as a creative and idiosyncratic filmmaker, but proved to be commercially disappointing.

Some of Levinson’s most popular enterprises, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and Rain Man (1988) are, artistically speaking, among his least interesting films.  Effortlessly hopping from one genre to another, Levinson has successfully resisted Hollywood’s tendency to typecast filmmakers. Levinson has often undertaken large-scale Hollywood projects just to prove that he can handle the size and the budget. Some critics dismissed Rain Man as “a test of managerial skills,” because many previous directors have tried their hands. A smash-hit, it garnered on Levinson the Best Director Oscar and catapulted his name to the A-List.

There is no gratuitous violence, no car chases and not much sex in Levinson’s films. As a filmmaker, he’s a firm believer in the “small,” seemingly uneventful moments of life, which he dramatizes effectively through sharp dialogue without the need of elaborate plot or narrative contrivances. His best work features quirky casting, off-center, male-oriented narratives about ordinary but likeable guys, who endlessly talk about women but basically don’t understand them.

The major shortcoming of his works that it tends to be episodic–he can’t always mold the diverse stories into a shapefully dramatic picture. Nonetheless, in each and every Levinson film, some individual scenes are so splendidly written, and staged that they often compensate for the lack of overall unifying vision.

Unlike Scorsese or De Palma, Levinson isn’t a “visual” director. His serio-comic sociological sensibility recalls the work of Paul Mazursky around the time of Next Stop Greenwich Village and Unmarried Woman. Like Mazursky, Levinson is a raconteur with plenty of fresh stories to relate.

Like Mazursky, Levinson adores actors–and greatly depends on them. As a director who’s also an actor, he has shown true fondness for his performers. Diner alone brought to the forefront a whole new cohort of eccentric actors: Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenburg, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser.

Later on, major movie stars took a risk and played roles in movies that deviated from their established screen image: Robin Williams received his first Best Actor nomination for Good Morning, Vietnam; Dustin Hoffman gave an Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man; Warren Beatty excelled as the eponymous gangster in Bugsy. And this year, Wag the Dog displays the best work that both Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro have done in years.

“If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to have remember better,” says Levinson’s grandfather (played by Armin Mueler-Stahl) in Avalon, a line that may serve as Levinson’s motto, capturing a theme that runs through many of his films: An elegiac, sometimes sentimental, exploration of the past. Most of Levinson’s films are set in yesteryear, from the distant past of Young Sherlock Holmes to The Natural’s 1920s ambience, from post-WWII in Avalon and Bugsy to Vietnam of the late 1960s in Good Morning, Vietnam.

The vagueness of the term Avalon–it could be a neighborhood, a street, a building–is purposeful, alluding to a time when things were better. The gradual breakup of the American nuclear family has been a thematic motif in Levinson’s work, which underlines how primary relations increasingly mean less and less, failing to monitor human conduct in any significant way.

Social relationships are at the center of Levinson’s oeuvre. He has said that he chose to direct Bugsy, not because he was interested in the crime-gangster genre, but because he wanted to explore an unlikely romantic relationship between …fill in.

Quite consistently, Levinson has been concerned with the question of how inner and outer forces have conspired to change a uniquely American way of life, forever banishing the promise of intimate relationships within the family unit. Levinson puts the blame in his movies on the advent of suburbia and its alienating effects, the invention of television and its inevitable effect on the privatization of leisure time, economic prosperity that resulted in anomie and emptiness. We are getting further and further away from Avalon.

Levinson understands that history and technology push American society forward with no possibility of return to the good ol’ days. The End of Innocence thesis applies as much to Levinson’s film output as it does to George Lucas (American Graffiti).

With the exception of Jimmy Hollywood, which was incoherent in its message, Levinson’s only cynical film is his latest, Wag the Dog (co-scripted by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin), a wickedly entertaining black comedy about the manipulative nature of politicians, which more and conduct their affairs like showbiz.

Levinson’s longtime pet project, Toys (1992), was unique in its childlike enchanting imagery, using a whimsical toy factory turned into a nightmare by his brother, an ambitious military dictator.  Dismissed by most critics, the film was a box-office flop.

Vital Stats:

Oscar Nominations: 2 (Rain Man, 1988; Bugsy, 1991)

Oscar Awards: 1 (Rain Man, 1988)

Age at Winning: 46

Career Longevity: over 30 years

Career Output: about 20 features

Career Viability: A decade (1982-1992)