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The filmmaker: The critic who didn't get 'Diner'

There are a lot of stories I remember reading in The Sun, many of them about sports — the story about Baltimore getting an NFL football team, and the story about the St. Louis Browns moving to Baltimore. But the review of "Diner" is the one that sticks out, because "Diner" was the first movie I wrote and directed, and The Evening Sun's Lou Cedrone, who reviewed it, was an established and important critic in Baltimore at that time.

It was one of those reviews where you pick it up and go, "Oh, my God. This is devastating." It was an incredibly vicious piece to read while I was having my morning coffee. One thing has always stood out for me. He says I have "the quintet patronize a diner at Fells Point, a location that may never have seen one, not one like this. He also has the boys patronize the Strand Theater and meet in locales like Canton and Worthington Valley, a territorial spread that suggests that Levinson was determined to give his five men a large degree of fiction, else lawsuits may result." That's what he wrote. It rattled my brain.

Lawsuits? Really? It seemed as if he had a real hatred for these characters and certainly a problem with the geography! Now, if someone was watching from another state, it's doubtful that person would say, "Oh, they're going to a theater that would be on the wrong side of town compared to where Fells Point is." It would be OK for somebody from Baltimore to make the comment; still, you'd think a film critic would give you some leniency in locales. But I was shocked when I read his review. He was saying the reason I was using these spread-out locations was to protect me from having lawsuits — that I had so defamed the characters that I was literally looking to protect myself.

He also wrote, "Two or three are Jewish. Levinson is vague about that." Well, as a Jewish person who writes and directs, no, I didn't send some special signal out, so an audience goes "Oh, there's a Jew — they're Jewish." But at the end, at the wedding, how vague can I be when I show Boogie wearing a yarmulke, as well as Eddie, Shrevie and Modell? Billy and Fenwick don't have yarmulkes on. I'm not being vague or hiding who is Jewish or not. The point I was making is: We don't always know who's Jewish and who's not. They're just guys. They happen to be friends.

You get positive and negative reviews when you work in the film business — it comes with the territory. But this review stung.

Ironically, he picked on certain scenes as being unbelievable when those scenes really did happen. He refers to them as "peculiar scenes" — "one has Eddie's mother go at him with a knife. She's kidding, we assume, but we also wonder." Now, if I had a pocket tape recorder back in those days — that scene was exactly the way it happened. It was a peculiar scene, and it is a peculiar scene. Exactly. Life is peculiar. That's what I was trying to express. It's not just a son telling his mother, "I want a fried bologna sandwich," and his mother saying, "I'm not cooking for you." Instead she has this knife and they go through a whole crazy ritual. That is life.

He talks about this "unlikely encounter between Boogie and a Valley lass who, in real life, wouldn't give this guy the sweat off her horse." That scene doesn't have to be true, but the fact is he picked on one of the few scenes that really was true, and it happened to me! When she says her name is Chisholm, like the Chisholm Trail — that's real. I didn't know what the Chisholm Trail was. The invented line was Fenwick saying, "Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?"

It was hard sitting there having my coffee as the reviewer referred to the people in this movie as "creatures who are not so much from Baltimore as they are from another planet." Well, I wasn't trying to say we were all wonderful people back then. We were young guys and, in fact, we were insulated from the real world, in our own cocoon. When it came to certain things, especially the relationships between men and women, we could spout things that were crude and stupid, and we didn't see things as we should have. Other critics finally picked up that that was the point of the film — we were so isolated in our own tribe. Cedrone went after Shrevie telling Eddie he couldn't have "five minutes of conversation" with his wife, and says Shrevie "probably isn't capable of having five minutes of conversation with anyone." We understand he's having conversations with the guys. But he hasn't broken away from them yet; he hasn't made that commitment to marriage or a wife.

The review does say, after all these horrific attacks, that it's "not a bad film."

So you can understand why this one Sunpaper piece stands out in my mind.

As told to Sun critic Michael Sragow.

Baltimore native Barry Levinson is an Oscar- and Emmy-winning director, writer and producer.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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