Avalon (1990): Barry Levinson’s Third (and Weakest) Panel in his Baltimore Trilogy, Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl and Joan Plowright


A melancholy film memory, set right after WWII in Baltimore, “Avalon” is the story of Barry Levinson’s closely-knit family and how it disintegrated over the years. The handsome, conscientiously made film traces the fortunes and misfortunes of the three generations Krichinsky family, an extended family of Jewish immigrants.

“If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to have remember better,” a line spoken by Levinson’s grandfather (played by Armin Mueller- Stahl) in “Avalon,” serves as motto for the writer-director, capturing a theme that runs through most of his films: An elegiac but unsentimental exploration of the past. Most of Levinson’s films are set in America of yesteryear, distant or more recent.

Immmigrating to the US in 1914, Sam Krichinsky (Mueller-Stahl) joins his three brothers, Gabriel (Lou Jacobi), Hymie (Leo Fuchs), and Nathan (Israel Rubinek).  The brothers are wallpapers hangers during the week and musicians during the weekend.

Sam meets and marry va (Joan Plowright), and they bear a son, Jules (Aidan Quinn), who doesn’t want to be a manual laborer like his father or uncles. Instead, he becomes a salesman, and is often accompanied by his son Michael (Elijah Wood).

Michael watches as his father is stabbed by a mugger, and while recovering the oold man is given a special present that changes his lifestyle, a TV set.

Levinson is concerned with the complete breakup of the family structure in America, its drifting and coming apart, with primary relationships–the extended family, personal bonds–meaning less and less, and failing to monitor our conduct in any significant way.

Levinson’s uses the term Avalon in a deliberately vague way–it could suggest a neighborhood, a street, a building, it’s a concept that alludes to a historical time and state of mind when things were better. “Avalon” offers a gentle portrait of an immigrant family’s early life, one that considerably softer than Levinson’s youngsters in Diner, a better picture, would ever tolerate. The acting, particularly by Mueller-Stahl, Joan Plowright as his wife, and Aidan Quinn as their son, is good.

Like Kazan’s “America, America,” “Avalon” is a personal movie that Levinson simply had to make. This immigrant saga could be considered the third and weakest panel in Levinson’s “Baltimore Trilogy,” which began with “Diner” in 1982 and continued with “Tin Men” in 1987.  Now that it’s out of his system, perhaps he can make better pictures.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Screenplay (Original): Barry Levinson

Cinematography: Allen Daviau

Original Score: Randy Newman

Costume Design: Gloria Gresham

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

“Avalon” lost in each of its four categories: Original Screenplay Oscar went to Bruce Joel Rubin for “Ghost”; Dean Semler won Cinematography for “Dances With Wolves,” a movie that also honored composer John Barry for his Original Score. The French Franca Squarciapino won the Costume Design Oscar for “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Gerard Depardieu in the lead.