I first saw Barry Levinson‘s Diner 30 fucking years ago at the Magno (now Dolby) Screening Room at Sixth Ave. and 55th Street. It might’ve been late January rather than early February 1982…I forget. But I remember going “wow! this is definitely the shit!” in my review, and then interviewing Levinson at the Sherry Netherland and then Kevin Bacon for an Us magazine piece.
I wish now that I’d landed a Mickey Rourke interview because I could now say I talked to the guy during his magic-ascendancy period (Body Heat to Angel Heart) before the downturn and the facelifts and all the other weird stuff.
Like everyone else I loved Diner‘s jazzy, meandering late-night guy talk, and the way the narrative never really took shape and kind of floated around. Levinson’s film understood waiting, stalling and aimlessness. I remember telling my friends “it’s the American I Vitelloni!” Speaking as a survivor of a harshly competitive teenage existence in Westfield, New Jersey (which seemed similar to Levinson’s Batlimore environs, and which also included endless late-night banterings in diners and bars), Diner felt fresh and authentic — a low-budget but utterly genuine American film about a mentality and milieu that any urban or suburban guy who’d bopped around during the ’60s or ’70s knew backwards and forwards.
Why, then, haven’t I rented or bought a Diner DVD since? I might’ve seen part of it once in the ’90s on the tube…I can’t remember. I’m kind of into seeing it again after reading S. L. Price‘s recently-posted Vanity Fair piece (“Much Ado About Nothing”), but I’d rather see a Bluray version…which hasn’t been made. You know which Levinson-Baltimore film I’d really like see again? Tin Men.
Here’s a portion…okay, a large portion of Price’s article:
“Made for $5 million and first released in March 1982, Diner earned less than $15 million and lost out on the only Academy Award — best original screenplay — for which it was nominated. Critics did love it; indeed, a gang of New York writers, led by Pauline Kael, saved the movie from oblivion. But Diner has suffered the fate of the small-bore sleeper, its relevance these days hinging more on eyebrow-raising news like Barry Levinson’s plan to stage a musical version — with songwriter Sheryl Crow — on Broadway next fall, or reports romantically linking star Ellen Barkin with Levinson’s son Sam, also a director. The film itself, though, is rarely accorded its actual due.
“Yet no movie from the 1980s has proved more influential. Diner has had far more impact on pop culture than the stylistic masterpiece Blade Runner, the indie darling Sex, Lies, and Videotape, or the academic favorites Raging Bull and Blue Velvet. Leave aside the fact that Diner served as the launching pad for the astonishingly durable careers of Barkin, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern and Timothy Daly, plus Rourke and Bacon — not to mention Levinson, whose resume includes Rain Man, Bugsy and Al Pacino‘s recent career reviver, You Don’t Know Jack.
“Diner‘s groundbreaking evocation of male friendship changed the way men interact, not just in comedies and buddy movies, but in fictional mob settings, in fictional police and fire stations, in commercials, on the radio. In 2009, The New Yorker‘s TV critic Nancy Franklin, speaking about the TNT series Men of a Certain Age, observed that ‘Levinson should get royalties any time two or more men sit together in a coffee shop.’ She got it only half right. They have to talk too.
“What Franklin really meant is that, more than any other production, Diner invented…nothing. Or, to put it in quotes: Levinson invented the concept of “nothing” that was popularized eight years later with the premiere of Seinfeld.
“In Diner (as well as in Tin Men, his 1987 movie about older diner mavens), Levinson took the stuff that usually fills time between the car chase, the fiery kiss, the dramatic reveal — the seemingly meaningless banter (‘Who do you make out to, Sinatra or Mathis?’) tossed about by men over drinks, behind the wheel, in front of a cooling plate of French fries — and made it central.
”It influenced a whole generation of writers,’ says director John Wells, “revolutionizing the way characters talk and how realistic we were going to be. And it was particularly influential with actors — this notion that you could play someone who was extremely real and at the same time be humorous and emotional. It had a complexity that not a lot of movies at the time had.’
“While movie audiences lived in an outside world cluttered with names and faces from newspapers, TV, politics, and the products of the Hollywood machine, movies themselves didn’t much reflect popular culture. There was, beyond plot, a practical reason: TV was still viewed by movie executives as the enemy, and to acknowledge its omnipresence must have seemed like free — and suicidal — advertising. So even movies set in the here and now played out in a hermetically sealed universe: the bank robbery, the romance, or the bankrupt farm was the only story to tell.
“Diner threw open the windows to a constant flow of brand-name appliances and soda, TV shows from soap operas to Bonanza to GE College Bowl, Bergman films, President Eisenhower, newscasts, real N.F.L. players like Alan Ameche, and real actors like Troy Donahue. Levinson even playfully mixed his own dialogue with that of a background TV.”
Whoa, wait a minute — Bonanza was a conversation in Tin Men, not Diner.
“While Jerry Seinfeld mass-marketed Levinson’s focus on minutiae, the ultimate film geek made it cool. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction won praise for its ultra-stylized, ultra-violent take on the L.A. underworld. But what made the movie click were the jazzy back-and-forths between hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson about Big Macs, foot massages, and the virtues of eating pork like ‘that Arnold on Green Acres.’ Tarantino’s genius, first demonstrated in 1990’s Reservoir Dogs, sprang from the decision to make his reprehensible characters sympathetic through dialogue that any truckdriver would recognize. Guy talk. Diner talk.
“Pulp Fiction became, arguably, the most influential movie of the 1990s, but Levinson’s reach didn’t end there. Between the release of writer-actor Jon Favreau‘s Swingers — with its dinner-table riff on Reservoir Dogs, no less — in 1996, and the debut of HBO’s Entourage.
“Diner is, as I Love You, Man director John Hamburg says, ‘the Cadillac of male-bonding movies,’ and no one has tapped that vein better in recent years than director Judd Apatow. With The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, Apatow was credited with creating the ‘bromance,’ one of the few genres capable of luring the increasingly elusive male audience into theaters. When Apatow was asked in the spring of 2009 to speak at the U.S.C. film school and screen his favorite movie, the choice couldn’t have been easier.
“At 14, Apatow sneaked in alone to see the R-rated Diner in a Huntington, Long Island, theater, then pestered his mother to take him again. Ever since, he’s been trying to match the shaggy, improvised dialogue that Levinson encouraged during his tabletop scenes. The part in Knocked Up when Seth Rogen and his pals are talking about the vengeance-seeking Eric Bana in Munich? “That was my version of a Barry Levinson run from Diner — finally they’re letting Jews kill people,” Apatow says.”
All well and good, but you’ll never get me to believe that a guy could get a girl to touch his gross animal member by cutting a hole in the bottom of a popcorn container and then stick it through the hole and wait for the woman, eating the popcorn, to work her way through to the bottom. The gag wouldn’t work unless he was “standing at attention”, of course, and are you gonna tell me a guy can maintain stiffitude for eight or ten minutes (if not more) while his organ is surrounded by warm popcorn? I never bought that, and I never will.
Appropos of nothing: I ran into Tim Daly at LAX on my way up to Sundance last month. I didn’t say “hi” but there he was. The only conversation starter I could think of was that I enjoyed his recurring guest role as Christopher Moltisanti’s A.A. sponsor, J.T. Dolan, in four Sopranos episodes (In Camelot, Mayham, Stage 5, Walk Like a Man).