Few films in movie history — and maybe no other film by a first-time writer-director — proved to be the breakthrough moment for as many talents as a made-in-Baltimore comedy-drama called "Diner."
Viewers still respond to all the people in it, not as old friends but as fresh discoveries. That seductive fellow with the voice that flows as fluidly as his pompadour — my God, it's Mickey Rourke. That gal with the asymmetrically alluring mouth and the heartbreaking way with a line — could it be Ellen Barkin? And that eccentric, dangerous charmer who beats Cornell and Bryn Mawr to the answers on "College Bowl" as it plays on his TV — yes, it's Kevin Bacon.
Along with Paul Reiser, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg and Tim Daly, they're part of why "Diner" still feels spanking new — remarkable considering that it's a comedy-drama about guys hanging out in 1959 Baltimore.
Its writer-director, Barry Levinson, who later won a best directing Oscar for "Rain Man," will mark its 30th anniversary at a gala fundraiser for the Maryland Film Festival on Saturday. And next year it will come out in a whole new form – a musical, on Broadway, with a score by Sheryl Crow.
These days casting for big-studio movies often comes down to deal-making. So signing a cadre of future stars for "Diner" seems even more remarkable, considering how Levinson put together his ensemble.
"I never looked at anybody's resume," Levinson said. "I never looked at what someone did before."
Levinson focused only on bringing his script to life. He judged his actors on whether "they were good for the purposes of the movie — whether they could figure out the characters I had put on the page." He envisioned how they'd project as complex individuals and how they'd click as a group.
In the process, he crystallized the "observational" humor that would dominate American comedy for decades, whether in TV series like "Seinfeld," Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or Judd Apatow's stream of big-screen hits.
Reiser, who played a scrounging diner guy named Modell, said the work he did with Levinson on topics as mundane as roast beef on rye opened up that whole world of humor.
"It helped clarify what could be funny naturally — when the guys are just talking, not reaching for a joke, funny things happen," Reiser said. "Barry is brilliant at toeing the line between funny and not funny."
Watching Bacon, Stern, Rourke, Reiser, Guttenberg and Daly play Mobtown guys who think they can reach manhood on an installment plan — and Barkin as the odd woman out (the Stern character's wife) and Michael Tucker as an elder statesman among diner guys — you understand why they became marquee names for film, stage and television.
Under Levinson's deceptively casual spell, everyone's creative instincts flourished. The movie is about coming of age – or maybe not completing that journey. But for audiences of all kinds — male, female, baby-boomer, Gen X, Y or Z — it functions like a fountain of youth.
Fear and anxiety meet comedy
Reiser played the "sixth man" of the movie's friendship group, coming off the bench in the diner scenes to give them a wild, sneaky spin.
Levinson had never put this character's dialogue on the page. He knew that studio executives would not know what to make of emotion-charged kibitzing that turns jockeying for a half-eaten sandwich into a comic cry from the heart. (Levinson was right. The studio execs didn't understand it even after he filmed it; they wanted it cut out. But Levinson held firm and got his way.)
"Moviemaking is not a science," Levinson said, "even though studios think they can turn it into a science." He can't fully explain why and how he mixed and matched pieces of real-life people into vibrant characters, cast his galaxy of not-yet stars and merged them into an ensemble that had Baltimoreans — and city-dwellers all over the country — saying they knew people just like them.
Take the boy-man at the movie's center: Eddie (Guttenberg), who is getting married on New Year's Eve — except that Eddie resolves he won't get married at all unless his fiancée passes a test about the Baltimore Colts, complete with true and false, multiple choice and short-answer questions. Levinson did have a cousin named Eddie who gave his wife-to-be a football test.
"I wasn't there, and it never took place that way," Levinson said. "It was something I remembered from some conversation. But when I put that in, it evolved to what it is in the movie — having the wedding in the Colts' colors seemed natural. You take little things and you refashion them and build them up and make it feel as if it's truth."
Eddie's fear of marriage ignites his pal Shrevie's realization that his own marriage is unsatisfying. (Stern plays Shrevie.) And it resonates in different ways with everyone in the movie. Boogie (Rourke) likes women and has a rapport with them, but when there's a problem with them, he runs away.