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Baltimore 1959. A group of guys in their early 20s are alternately struggling to find their way into adulthood and avoiding it at the same time, making stabs at responsible lives but capping their days with carefree guy time at their local diner hangout. One of the group, Billy, returns home from college to serve as the best man at the wedding of Eddie, who refuses to go through with the marriage unless his future wife can pass a football trivia quiz. Among the other young men are Boogie, a womanizing hairdresser with a gambling problem; Shrevie, the one married man, having difficulty sharing his life with wife Beth; and Fenwick, a troubled, hard-drinking trust fund kid. Above all, what they are most preoccupied with are women, who are an unending source of mystery, desire, fear, and anxiety to them.
Director: Barry Levinson
Producers: Mark Johnson, Jerry Weintraub
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Editing: Stu Linder
Art Direction: Leon Harris
Original Music: Bruce Brody, Ivan Kral
Cast: Steve Guttenberg (Eddie), Daniel Stern (Shrevie), Mickey Rourke (Boogie), Kevin Bacon (Fenwick), Tim Daly (Billy), Ellen Barkin (Beth), Paul Reiser (Modell)
Why It's Essential
It's always heartening to see an enduring classic grow from a little movie that practically no one in Hollywood believed in-certainly not its studio, MGM/United Artists. Even more inspiring is the story of the film's near oblivion at the hands of executives disappointed not to get another teen gross-out comedy like Porky's (1982), only to have it resurrected by a critics' campaign that embarrassed the studio into releasing it. And all of this was done without compromise by the film's first-time director, Barry Levinson, working off an episodic, character-driven script taken from his own experiences as a young man in Baltimore in the late 1950s.
So just what was the studio's problem with the picture? More of that is detailed in the pages to follow, but in a nutshell, take the scene in the diner when Modell (a brilliantly improvisatory Paul Reiser) and Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) argue over a roast beef sandwich. Executives asked Levinson why that scene had to go on so long, why Eddie couldn't just give the food to Modell and get on with the story. Levinson replied that the roast beef sandwich, or at least the dialogue about it, was the story. Not the kind of thing a Hollywood bigwig wanted to hear in a year that included big-budget, high-concept sci-fi blockbusters like E.T. and Star Trek II; prestigious historical dramas like Gandhi; and, of course, Porky's. Diner wasn't something that fit neatly into any specific genre or niche. Was it a comedy? A drama? (Today, when many more films and TV shows emulate its style, we'd call it a "dramedy.") An exercise in fashionable nostalgia? A male buddy flick? Well, perhaps all that, but what the critical champions saw was a film about the way young men stumble into adulthood trying unsuccessfully to cope with their fearful, conflicted feelings about women, adolescents past their time whose only real solace is each other's company, like a bunch of little boys in a "girls forbidden" tree house (i.e., the diner).
Partly because it resonated so strongly with the men who had passed through that phase of life and the women who recognized their men in it, the film was rescued from obscurity and got out in front of audiences, not large ones at first, but better than initially expected, and growing over the years. Still, it might have been forgotten soon after by all but its most loyal fans if it hadn't also practically invented a style that was more widely appreciated about a decade later and remains key in popular culture through today.
To sum up that impact in a single word: Nothing. What the studio executives saw (and feared) were conversations about nothing, at least as far as advancing plot was concerned, dialogue Levinson assured them was entirely the point. In the 1990s, that invention became the hallmark of the sitcom Seinfeld (which proudly declared itself to be about nothing) and movies like Pulp Fiction (1994), one of the most influential films of its time, both of them prominently featuring guys sitting around diners and coffee shops throwing out pop culture references and speaking of little that could be mistaken for conventional plot. As an article by S.L. Price in Vanity Fair put it in March 2012, on the 30th anniversary of Diner's release: "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."
Delivering this strange new style was a cast of young actors whose careers were given a boost by this film. Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Tim Daly, and Paul Reiser would all go on to have long and varied careers. The men in particular rose to the task of investing enough vulnerability and recognizable confusion into characters whose behavior wasn't always very likeable. Thanks to the ability to handle Levinson's digressive dialogue so naturally and winningly convey the sense of people entering adulthood with all their adolescent fears and flaws intact, the entire cast, down to the smallest supporting roles, helped make his offbeat, talky script into something people still quote from and remember with great fondness today.
by Rob Nixon
Barry Levinson collaborated with singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow to create a musical stage version, which despite some setbacks, was still expected to debut on Broadway in 2013, as of this writing.
Writer Nick Hornby, whose novels Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, both about young men struggling with life, responsibilities, and relationships, have been made into movies, is such a big fan of the film that he recently cornered Kevin Bacon in a London nightclub and regaled him with lines he memorized from the movie. Hornby's books have some apparent connection to Diner, with main characters obsessed with sports (like Eddie in this movie) and pop music (like Shrevie).
Diner is considered a big influence on much pop culture since its 1982 release, including the styles of such TV shows as Seinfeld and movies like Pulp Fiction (1994), in which characters sit in diners and have meandering conversations about virtually nothing-certainly not always relevant to the plot, if there is any. In 2009, New Yorker TV critic Nancy Franklin, writing about the television series Men of a Certain Age, noted that "Levinson should get royalties any time two or more men sit together in a coffee shop."
John Wells, executive producer of the 1990s hospital TV series ER and former president of the Writers Guild of America, saw the movie 30 times when it came out, he estimates, drawn to Levinson's "tremendous empathy for those characters even when they were being idiots," according to an article on the movie's legacy in Vanity Fair in March 2012, the film's 30th anniversary. Wells said he still makes a point of watching Diner once a year.
Stephen Merchant, co-creator with Ricky Gervais of the British TV comedy The Office, acknowledged their debt to Diner in the same Vanity Fair article by S.L. Price. "Ricky and I often talked about how, in The Office, we featured life's boring bits-the bits other shows would cut out. That's something Diner taught me: that there is charm and interest and value in capturing the way real people behave. You don't have to have 90 minutes of shouting or fist-fights or blue aliens. Eavesdropping on the people who drink in your local bar can be just as interesting."
The article goes on to talk about the movie's influence on producer-director Judd Apatow, who sneaked in alone as a young teen to see the R-rated Diner in Huntington, Long Island, then pestered his mother to take him again. S.L. Price writes that ever since then, Apatow has been trying to emulate "the shaggy, improvised dialogue that Levinson encouraged during his tabletop scenes." Apatow says, "Anytime I have four or more people sitting around a table, I think about Diner. It's a different spin and more my experience, but the naturalness and the humor that he created-that's the bar I've always tried to reach. Whether it's in The 40 Year Old Virgin , where everybody's sitting around talking about sex and you realize [Steve Carell] doesn't know what he's talking about, or 'You know how I know you're gay?,' or any of the scenes with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen in Funny People -they're all at some level influenced by the dialogue style that Barry Levinson is the master at."
In addition to all the popular songs of the late 1950s featured on the soundtrack, the film makes references to popular movies of the times (The Seventh Seal, 1957; A Summer Place, 1959) and TV shows (GE College Bowl, Bonanza).
One minor character in the film is so obsessed with the movie Sweet Smell of Success (1957) that his only dialogue is exact quotes from the picture.
In 1983, Levinson created a pilot for a TV series based on the movie with Paul Reiser recreating his role as Modell, Michael Madsen as Boogie, and James Spader as Fenwick. The show, which was never picked up by any network, would have more prominently featured the wives of Eddie and Shrevie.
Levinson has likened his affinity for making pictures in his native Baltimore to an "obsession." His four most personal films have come to be called his Baltimore series: Diner, Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999). Several of the characters in Diner are Jewish, like Levinson; he more fully explores his heritage in the later two movies.
As he was prepping the diner set, Levinson was explaining to the assistant director the way the real diner of his youth was laid out. "Over here are the older guys. A lot of tin men sit here," he said, referring to the salesmen of the then burgeoning aluminum siding industry. He suddenly realized he could make a movie about them, too, and did: Tin Men, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito.
by Rob Nixon
In 1999, Barry Levinson directed Original Diner Guys, a documentary that followed the lives of the men who were the models for the characters in the movie. Filmed between 1990 and 1997, it follows the guys through reunions and celebrations, capturing their humor, interactions, and lifelong connections.
Most of the characters are based on people Levinson really knew. There was a real Boogie, who was known for being a good fighter, and Eddie was based on his cousin, Eddie Kirk, who liked to sleep late and when he arose, would pull on the shirt he had worn the night before and removed without unbuttoning it, just as Steve Guttenberg does in the movie. The real Eddie also gave his wife-to-be a football test before their wedding. In an interview for TCM, Kevin Bacon talked about how the guy his character, Fenwick, was based on was murdered over a bad debt from some shady deals and how the real Boogie showed up on the set in a limo driven by a bodyguard, very flashy. All of the cast members had different notions about which character might represent Levinson himself, with the strongest opinions placing him as Billy, the guy who goes away to college and sees sides of life and culture the others never get. But Levinson has said that while there was a little of him in all the characters, none was actually based on him.
Levinson abandoned his plans to become a lawyer (like Boogie in the movie) to go into show business. With actor Craig T. Nelson (Poltergeist, 1982; the TV series Coach), he began writing comedy routines, which eventually sold. In his early years, he worked on The Carol Burnett Show, earning Emmy Awards for his writing. He was hired by Mel Brooks to write for Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977), and with his first wife, actress-writer Valerie Curtin, wrote ...And Justice for All (1979), the critically acclaimed Inside Moves (1980), the semi-autobiographical Best Friends (1982), and other scripts, including Toys (1992), which was set to become his directorial debut in 1981 until it was shelved by a new regime at Twentieth Century Fox. Besides the other three films in his Baltimore series (Tin Men, 1987; Avalon, 1990 and Liberty Heights, 1999), he has directed The Natural (1984), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Wag the Dog (1997), and Rain Man (1988), which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Screenplay, and Director, as well as numerous other awards and nominations throughout the world. In spite of that picture's great critical and commercial success, Levinson has had a bumpier career road in a Hollywood he says increasingly favors "writing by committee" and movies that lack logic and good characterization but are excused because they are fun "thrill rides." His most recent releases at the time of this article were the TV movie You Don't Know Jack (2010), with Al Pacino as assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kervorkian, and the found-footage shocker The Bay (2012).
Mark Johnson, whose faith in the script helped get financing for Diner and earned him his first producing credit, produced 11 of Levinson's features. Most recently he has produced The Notebook (2004), all three Chronicles of Narnia movies, and the television drama Breaking Bad.
Oscar®-winning editor Stu Linder (Grand Prix, 1966) has edited 17 of Levinson's films, working with the director almost exclusively since Diner.
Cinematographer Peter Sova also shot Levinson's films Tin Men, Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), and Jimmy Hollywood (1994).
Baltimore native Michael Tucker reprised his character "Bagel" in Levinson's movie Tin Men. The actor is probably best known for his role as Stuart Markowitz in the long-running television series L.A. Law.
Levinson and first wife Valerie Curtin were divorced the same year the film was released. While shooting in Baltimore, he met a local woman, Diana Rhodes, a production designer for TV commercials. They married in 1983 and are still together. Rhodes' daughter played the flower girl at Eddie's wedding in the movie.
Ellen Barkin said in a documentary about the making of Diner that she identified so fully with the character of Beth that 20 years later it was still the role that was the closest to who she really is.
Kevin Bacon shot a scene that was not used in the movie. His character, Fenwick, was constantly ducking a guy named the Gripper, a big scary person he owed money to, who would put a really painful vise grip on people who crossed him. In the scene, Bacon as Fenwick saw him approach and ripped an antenna off a car and waved it at the Gripper like a sword to try to fend him off.
Except for Michael Tucker, who appeared in Tin Men, and Paul Reiser, who reprised his role as Modell in the failed pilot for the Diner TV series, Levinson only ever directed one member of his principal cast again. In a 1990s interview with TCM about the picture, Kevin Bacon said he always wanted to work with Levinson after Diner but that he thought he was too identified as Fenwick in the director's mind to ever get another shot at a role. He did, however, in the thriller Sleepers (1996).
None of the male principals in the cast worked together in movies again, although Daniel Stern directed an episode of The Paul Reiser Show on television in 2011 and Kevin Bacon appeared as himself in a 1996 episode of Reiser's sitcom Mad About You. Stern and Bacon previous to Diner had small parts in Starting Over (1979).
Ellen Barkin appeared with Daniel Stern in Daniel (1983), with Kevin Bacon in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1983), and with Mickey Rourke in Johnny Handsome (1989).
After his appearance here as the disgruntled customer shopping for a TV, former Federal Aviation Administration engineer Ralph Tabakin had bit parts in every Barry Levinson film through Liberty Heights (1999).
Memorable Quotes from DINER
MODELL (Paul Reiser): You know what word I'm not comfortable with? Nuance. It's not a real word. Like gesture. Gesture is a good word. At least you know where you stand with gesture. But nuance? I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong.
MODELL: When you make out, who do you listen to, Sinatra or Mathis?
MODELL: What is that, roast beef?
EDDIE (Steve Guttenberg): Don't ask me this any more, Modell. Yes.
MODELL: You gonna finish that?
EDDIE: Yeah, I'm gonna finish it. I paid for it. I'm not gonna give it to you.
MODELL: If you're not gonna finish it, I'll eat it, but if you're gonna eat it...
EDDIE: What do you want? Just say the words.
MODELL: Nah, go ahead, eat it if you're gonna eat it.
EDDIE: Say the words. I want the sandwich. Say the words and I'll give you a piece.
MODELL: You know what your problem is? You don't chew your food. That's why you get so irritable. Lumps, you have like roast beef in your heart. It just stays there.
FENWICK (Kevin Bacon): You ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?
SHREVIE (Daniel Stern): Every one of my records means something! The label, the producer, the year it was made. Who was copying whose style, who was expanding on that, don't you understand? When I listen to my records they take me back to certain points in my life, okay? Just don't touch my records, ever! You! The first time I met you? Modell's sister's high school graduation party, right? 1955. And "Ain't That a Shame" was playing when I walked in the door!
BILLY (Tim Daly): I'll hit you so hard, I'll kill your whole family.
EDDIE: You think I'm doing the right thing, getting married?
BOOGIE (Mickey Rourke): Eddie, I can't tell you.
EDDIE: I keep thinking I'm missing out on a lot of things.
BOOGIE: That's what marriage is all about.
BILLY: The whole thing with girls is painful. And it seems like it keeps getting more painful instead of easier.
BOOGIE: You know I got plans.
BAGEL (Michael Tucker): Always a dreamer, eh, Boog?
BOOGIE: If you don't have good dreams, Bagel, you got nightmares.
MODELL: We all know most marriages depend on a firm grasp of football trivia.
Compiled by Rob Nixon
Barry Levinson was born and raised in Baltimore and, although he would have been slightly younger than his characters in this movie, he knew well the milieu, particularly the nights young men used to spend at the local diners. When he was in high school, he and his friends used to gather at the Hilltop Diner, "the place to go after you took your date home. ... That's when the night really started. You'd get there at two in the morning, and you stayed until daybreak."
While working as a writer on Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977), Levinson would tell director Mel Brooks about his experiences at the Hilltop Diner. Brooks said they reminded him of Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953) and encouraged him to build a screenplay around them.
At first the idea of putting together a story based on his memories of the guys he knew in Baltimore wasn't appealing to Levinson until he realized that all of the stories were really about women. "When I figured that out, I realized why we guys behaved the way we did; that the whole idea of hanging out at the diner together created this amazing naivet in terms of women, and then I could begin to try and deal with it."
While his wife and writing partner Valerie Curtin was away on an acting gig, Levinson sat down and wrote the script for Diner on a legal pad in three weeks. He never went back and rewrote it, although the finished film would incorporate a great deal of improvisation.
Levinson's creativity in writing the script was fueled by not only his general theme-the difficulty young men have with women-but by the challenge of making his movie as close as possible to true life. "I want to make the movie seem as if it's happening in front of you," he is quoted in Jesse Kornbluth's introduction to Three Screenplays by Barry Levinson (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), explaining that he often doesn't believe the dialogue of movies he sees. "In life, conversations aren't very accurate or focused. We are fairly inarticulate. We get screwed up, we go sideways. ... There's overlap. ... In a mystery film, the script and language must be specific. The closer you get to life, the more you find digressions."
Levinson took his screenplay to Mark Johnson, then head of production for producer Jerry Weintraub. Johnson appreciated what Levinson was doing in the script and brought it to his boss. Neither Weintraub nor executives at MGM understood what they were really getting, but they were impressed with Levinson's screenwriting track record (including the two Brooks movies and another two he had co-written with Curtin, the Al Pacino vehicle ...And Justice for All,1979, and the critical indie hit Inside Moves, 1980) and with the fact that Fox had given him the go-ahead to direct his and Curtin's script for Toys (eventually made in 1992 after a change of hands at the studio derailed the original offer). Assuming they had an inexpensive teen comedy or another nostalgia piece like American Graffiti (1973) on their hands, they gave him a budget of $5.5 million and sent him off to Baltimore to begin production.
by Rob Nixon
Levinson auditioned about 600 actors for the five lead roles. The actors he chose were not widely known but were also not complete newcomers. The best known of the group at the time was probably Daniel Stern, who made his debut in the Oscar®-nominated Best Picture and Best Screenplay winner Breaking Away (1979), about another group of young men coming to terms with approaching adulthood. Mickey Rourke had done only a few small roles before he was cast here, although the picture did get some boost by his powerfully understated supporting performance in Body Heat (1981), a film he did after he was cast in Diner but which was released before. Steve Guttenberg had a handful of small feature roles and a short-lived TV series under his belt, as well as a leading role in the box office bomb Can't Stop the Music (1980), a disco musical featuring the Village People. Kevin Bacon had been in Animal House (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) and did a stint as a troubled youth on the soap opera Guiding Light. Even Tim Daly, making his feature film debut, had some stage and television experience and came from an acting family that included father James Daly and sister Tyne Daly.
Ellen Barkin was, as Levinson recalls, the only woman he saw for the key role of Beth, Shrevie's wife. He realized immediately that she was perfect for it, although producer Jerry Weintraub balked, claiming she wasn't conventionally pretty enough. She and Levinson got along very well during the shoot. "I had an instant rapport with Barry," she later said. "Maybe it was two urban Jews together."
Guttenberg said he brought a lot of himself to the role, both his outward macho swagger and his inner conflict and insecurity. Levinson thought he was perfect as the guy who gives his fiancée a football test before their wedding. "He could be thickheaded, stubborn, appealing and likable, like Eddie."
Bacon had just decided not to renew his soap opera contract, and the audition for Diner was all he had on the horizon. But on the day he was scheduled for a screen test, he was very ill with the flu and a fever of 104. It was his intention to read for the part of either Boogie or Billy, but the illness gave him just the right "spaced out, not-all-there aspects of the character," as he later put it, to get him the role of Fenwick.
Bacon has said he was never very good at improvising like several of the other actors, so he would just sit and listen and grin, which turned out to be right for his character, who he considered "a reactive sort of character, someone who's kind of on the outskirts."
Levinson got all his cast down to Baltimore a week or so before shooting but didn't really rehearse them more than an hour or so a day. The idea was for them to just start hanging out together and getting to know each other. Levinson also said that for him rehearsal takes the edge off things. "I prefer to let the actors be almost struggling with their lines and worrying about how they are going to cope with certain things," he said in Levinson on Levinson (Faber & Faber, 1993). "If, as in the case of Diner, you are selecting certain actors who are not so far removed from their characters, then they are in the ball park already. So you want them to sneak up on that behavior without feeling they have to do lots of acting."
Kevin Bacon said first-time director Levinson hadn't yet learned to hone his skills in talking to actors. According to various cast members, he was so green-and perhaps so caught up in the process-that on the first day he forgot to say either "action" or "cut."
Despite his inexperience, Levinson was described later by Daniel Stern as "the most confident director you could imagine, especially considering none of us had any idea what we were doing."
Levinson later characterized his directing style and skills as trying to find "the idea of controlled freedom. It seems very loose and open, but I know where I want to go," adding that he likes to give as little apparent direction as possible.
Levinson learned a lot on this picture, not least to trust his own instincts when it came to choosing locations. He realized that no matter how good a location looked, unless he had an immediate sense of where the camera would go and how the actors would move around in the space, the location wasn't right.
The camaraderie between the actors was crucial to conveying the sense that the characters had known each other a long time. An almost frat party sense of fun grew among them, or as Tim Daley put it: "A bunch of guys on a holiday in Baltimore, we were all pretty much in a sexual frenzy." They often went out cruising for women together (except for Stern who, like his character in the film, was the only one married at the time) and to strip clubs and bars. Sometimes they made up stories about who they were. Sometimes they claimed to be racecar drivers. One time, Daly came up with the idea of telling girls they were a group of engineers brought in to solve the problem of twisted plumbing in a revolving restaurant. Whenever Levinson perceived the bond between them was flagging and tension was growing, he would confine them to what became known as the "camaraderie camper," a small trailer on set they were crammed into five and six at a time to just hang out, talk, argue, whatever, "like a frat house, and it worked," Daly said.
In an interview with TCM years later, Bacon said Guttenberg used to eat "incredible amounts of food" and drink milk all the time, and that he looked up to Mickey Rourke as a kind of mentor or teacher. Bacon felt Rourke was very intense and skilled at being "very, very small" in terms of his subtlety, doing work "that you almost are unable to see being shot at the time, and then it gets on camera and it just, you know, explodes into something great."
Levinson shot all the diner scenes at the end of production when the bond between the actors was at its maximum.
Although not part of the "boys' club," Ellen Barkin got along well with the male actors. Guttenberg later noted how she was "really cool to talk to" and would set him straight about his own problems with women.
Michael Tucker, who played the small role of Bagel, had the greatest local advantage of the cast, being a Baltimore native who knew the accent exactly.
The greatest source of competition among the actors came about when they were called on to improvise, a skill in which they each had different abilities. Bacon, by his own admission, was the least adept at it. Tim Daly said it was hardest to top Paul Reiser's improv dexterity because "he's the sharpest, fastest guy alive."
The production had a diner location picked out but it was on a highway, necessitating shutting down traffic, and the owner wanted to charge them an exorbitant amount. Levinson and producer Mark Johnson found a diner "graveyard" in New Jersey where they could buy one and have it moved to Baltimore. The city gave them a plot of land to use on the waterfront. Levinson said the production designer originally planned to face the diner on the water because the view of the city out of the windows would be very picturesque, but the director insisted that diners need to face the road to attract customers driving by. The more experienced crew members kept arguing to face the diner onto the water, and Levinson wavered slightly, because he had never made a movie before. Finally, however, he put his foot down. "At some point you have to step up, otherwise you're lost, you might not make the movie you see," he said, citing this incident as another valuable lesson he took through his career. "I had to go on my intuitive feeling that this is what is right. In a sense, it's the only thing that I've used as a guideline. In every thing I've done, I can only go with what makes sense to me."
Levinson delivered the movie on time and about $500,000 under its initial budget of $5.5 million.
by Rob Nixon
Much of the material for this section came from the documentary by Bruce Stuart Greenberg, Diner: On the Flip Side (2000).
An autobiographical coming-of-age story set in 1950s Baltimore, Barry Levinson's Diner is over-flowing with terrific dialogue; it's probably the single most quotable picture of the 1980s, with comically drifting conversations that slyly hide the main characters' fears and frustrations.
Levinson's story - about a close-knit group of friends who orchestrate their lives in ways that conveniently side-step the knottier details of growing up - has a subdued, documentary feel to it. But its most realistic element is the minutia-filled banter. This is truly masterful movie dialogue; compare it to the clunky grandstanding of someone like Kevin Smith (Clerks, 1994, Dogma, 1999), who's supposed to be good at this sort of thing, and you'll recognize the sublime brilliance of Levinson's achievement.
You're bound to feel a jolt of recognition while watching these guys dissect everything from the ultimate make-out records to the relative merits of the word "nuance." However, unlike TV's Seinfeld (which truly was "about nothing"), the conversations in Diner are believable, and they reveal important information about the people doing the talking.
It's odd that Diner is often described as a simple little movie; it actually contains enough plotlines to fill a Robert Altman picture: Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is about to be married, but decides he can't do it until his fiance passes a difficult football trivia quiz; Shrevie (Daniel Stern), is already married, but is having problems connecting with his young, restless wife (Ellen Barkin); Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is a brilliant guy who's estranged from his wealthy family; Billy (Timothy Daly) isn't completely sure he's ready for marriage, even though he's recently engaged; Modell (Paul Reiser) hangs around the periphery, giving sardonic play-by-play; and Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a lady's man who's in danger of being severely beaten by a loan shark. All of the guys sans girlfriends hang out and shoot the breeze at a local diner.
The diner is based on the very real Hilltop Diner, from the Baltimore of Levinson's adolescence. "I was in the 10th grade when we started going to the Hilltop," Levinson says. "The diner became the place to go after you took your date home. Sometimes you didn't have a good date, and then you couldn't wait to drop her off and get back to the action. You'd make these little excursions out with the girls then run back to the guys." "It was a different time," he says. "It was hanging out and wasting your life...I look back now and wonder what we talked about, and I can't tell you. I don't remember myself as the funny one in the sense of being outgoing funny. All I remember is that it was big, big laughs."
Levinson always felt that the gang's conversations were the key to the film, but the higher-ups at MGM never understood what he was doing. In fact, the first negative comment he received after screening a rough cut at the studio concerned the movie's funniest scene- a lengthy, deeply revealing argument between Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser, over which of them should eat Guttenberg's roast beef sandwich.
"That sandwich scene!" one executive shouted. "Throw it out! Get on with the story!" Levinson tried to explain that the scene actually was the story, that the movie was about close friends who talked about everything except friendship. He took a stand for his purposefully "inarticulate language" and the scene somehow managed to stay in. It's a good thing, too- had he caved in and cut every sequence that seemed to stop the momentum, there would hardly be any movie left to watch.
"I want to make the movie seem as if it's happening in front of you," he once said, and he's never again accomplished that feat as readily as he did with Diner. "I have a difficult time with a lot of other people's movies because my ear doesn't believe them a lot...in life, conversations aren't very accurate or focused. We are fairly inarticulate- I know I am. We get screwed up, we go sideways. You don't end your sentence before I talk; there's overlap. A certain amount of improvisation occurs."Levinson's faith in his own instincts was vindicated when Diner, which was dumped by MGM upon release, paid for itself and then some, and earned terrific reviews. Levinson was even nominated for an Oscar® for Best Screenplay, although he lost to John Briley, who wrote a slightly higher-profile picture called Gandhi. There was no time-stopping argument over who gets to eat the roast beef sandwich in that one.
Producer: Jerry WeintraubDirected by: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Barry Levinson
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Music: Bruce Brody and Ivan Kral
Editing: Stu Linder
Art Direction: Leon Harris
Set Design: R. Chris Westlund
Costumes: Gloria Gresham
Cast: Steve Guttenberg (Eddie), Daniel Stern (Shrevie), Mickey Rourke (Boogie), Kevin Bacon (Fenwick), Timothy Daly (Billy), Ellen Barkin (Beth), Paul Reiser (Modell), Kathryn Dowling (Barbara), Michael Tucker (Bagel), Jessica James (Mrs. Simmons), Colette Blonigan (Carol Heathrow).
C-110m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara
The Critics' Corner: DINER
"You have a lot to learn about filmmaking," an MGM executive told Levinson after seeing the picture's rough cut. The executive complained that Levinson let the roast beef sandwich scene go on too long instead of getting on with the story. Levinson explained to him that the conversation was the story, that what they were really talking about was their relationship, their friendship.
The studio decided to test market the film first in Phoenix, which Levinson said was like "testing Fiddler on the Roof in Cairo," and St. Louis. The response was awful. Then, MGM-UA tried to fashion the movie's marketing to appeal to the audience for teen gross-out comedies like Porky's (1982) and Animal House (1978). When that failed, the studio was ready to shelve it until one of their publicists insisted on screening it for New York critics. David Denby called it "a small American classic" and Pauline Kael hailed it as "a great period piece." When Kael said she would publish her review even if the studio pulled the picture from distribution, executives were embarrassed into releasing it, now using an ad campaign that stressed the very favorable notices.
The film was opened in one theater in New York, the Festival, where it broke the house record on a weekday and during a blizzard. But the studio was still hesitant about opening it wide and sent it to a cinema in Boston next where it had a very good first week and broke that house record the second. The same thing happened in Toronto, then San Francisco. Nevertheless, the studio never did let the film play wide in the U.S., having only 200 prints of it circulating because, as Levinson said, "they were so adamant it was not going to succeed, and nothing was going to change their minds." The movie eventually earned about $25 million.
Diner received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.
The Boston Society of Film Critics awarded its Best Screenplay honor to Barry Levinson and Best Supporting Actor to Mickey Rourke.
The picture received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture - Comedy/Musical.
The National Society of Film Critics named Mickey Rourke Best Supporting Actor.
Levinson's screenplay was nominated by the Writers Guild of America.
Years later, cast member Kevin Bacon said he was very disappointed when he first saw the movie. He thought it was too quiet, that the whole cast was mumbling, that audiences wouldn't be able to tell the characters apart, and that it was too dark. "All those things that I had a problem with are all the things that people love about it," he said.
"It's easy to tell that MGM-UA's Diner was chiefly conceived and executed by a writer. In his directorial debut, Barry Levinson takes great pains to establish characters so real and universal that it's doubtful anyone will escape without seeing someone they once knew. But for all his painstaking accuracy, Levinson has also concocted a dark and depressing period story devoid of a single person without a major problem or character flaw. That makes for an interesting picture difficult for most audiences to watch. And for MGM-UA, difficult to sell." - Variety, December 31, 1981
"A wonderful movie...like a comic version of [Fellini's] I Vitelloni (1953). ... Diner is a great period piece-a look at middle-class relations between the sexes before the sexual revolution. ... Levinson doesn't violate his characters by summing them up-he understands that we never fully understand anybody. ... Levinson likes actors, the way Mazursky does. ... Levinson has a great feel for promise. At the diner, the boys are all storytellers, and they take off from each other, their conversations are almost all overlapping jokes that are funny without punchlines...and the actors all get a chance to be comedians." - Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, April 5, 1982
"Diner is often a very funny movie, although I laughed most freely not at the sexual pranks but at the movie's accurate ear, as it reproduced dialogue with great comic accuracy. If the movie has a weakness, however, it's that it limits itself to the faithful reproduction of the speech, clothing, cars, and mores of the late 1950s, and never quite stretches to include the humanity of the characters. For all that I recognized and sympathized with these young men and their martyred wives, girlfriends, and sex symbols, I never quite believed that they were three-dimensional. It is, of course, a disturbing possibility that, to the degree these young men denied full personhood to women, they didn't have three-dimensional personalities." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 1982
"Diner isn't lavish or long, but it's the sort of small, honest, entertaining movie that should never go out of style, even in an age of sequels and extravaganzas. " - Janet Maslin, New York Times, 1982
"The film is wonderfully cast and played, right down to the bit player (Ralph Tabakin) who shops suspiciously for a TV set." - Richard Corliss, Time, 1982
"An extremely clever, slick male fantasy that takes some time to work out its mood and tone but ultimately blossoms into a moving film." - Boston Globe, April 16, 1982
"Not a lot to it, but the sense of period is acute, the script witty without falling into the crude pitfalls that beset other adolescent comedies, and the performances are spot-on." - Geoff Andrew, Time Out January 2006
"[Diner] influenced a whole generation of writers, 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-they tended to be tremendously dramatic or broadly comic-and this was landing in a territory between, where somebody could be entertaining and humorous and also make you cry." - John Wells, executive producer of the TV series ER, quoted by S.L. Price in Vanity Fair, March 2012
by Rob Nixon