Barry Levinson uneasy directing P.R., but he can't afford to miss an opening The Big Picture

WASHINGTON — Washington -- Barry Levinson looks like a Grateful Dead disciple lost in the fancy of the Four Seasons Hotel on the edge of Georgetown. His gray hair backs up to a near-ponytail, and he's laid back enough that you want to plug him into an electrical outlet. Get some juice flowing through him.

He's gracious and probably bored. He wants hot tea, please. And you know, the air in hotels doesn't seem quite right for some reason.


This just isn't his scene.

To plug his latest movie, Mr. Levinson has to talk about the exact thing he does not like talking about. The exact thing he loves doing, but not talking about. Barry Levinson, the Baltimore native and filmmaker of "Diner" and "Rain Man," has to talk to the press about his new movie, "Disclosure."


The movie, which opens today, is based on Michael Crichton's best-selling novel. Stars Michael Douglas and Demi Moore. Nice guy is sexually harassed at work. Role reversal. Features cyberspace wonders. Features one of Mr. Douglas' patented is-it-sex-or-violence? scenes.

"I don't like the idea you have to sell your movie. I don't like the idea you have to talk about your movie," Mr. Levinson says. "The movie's the movie."

Regardless of how he feels, Mr. Levinson has the 9-to-11:30 a.m. interview shift in a room at the Four Seasons. Rows of reporters and breakfast fruit. The international press is here, including some long-haired French guy who looks too cool to be a reporter. Levinson, Douglas, Crichton and Co. are here, too.

After all, the movie must open big this weekend. Forget about word-of-mouth goosing the movie months from now, Mr. Levinson says.

"You either open that weekend or you are gone, gone," he says. "If you don't hit it right, you are history."

Barry Levinson, one of our native sons, still lives in California. He owns a home in Annapolis, but isn't there much. He does still grieve the loss of Baltimore's football team: "It drives me totally crazy. It's insanity." He refuses to call himself a Dodgers or Rams fan.

He can still pick out a Baltimore accent in any crowd. He even misses the cream spinach with an egg on top at Haussner's Restaurant in Highlandtown. The director enjoyed the dish when he was filming "Tin Men" -- the middle film in his Baltimore trilogy.

His television show, "Homicide: Life on the Street," continues to be shot in Baltimore and continues to struggle for a Friday night audience. Mr. Levinson plans on directing one or two of the final episodes this season. And he'll probably make another movie based in Baltimore -- if a good idea lights on him.


"Baltimore's in my blood," says Mr. Levinson, 52.

The writer/director/producer/bit actor has come a long way from a 1982 sleeper of a film about a bunch of guys growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, loving their Colts, trying to love and understand women, and eating a lot of fries with gravy at some diner. Word-of-mouth indeed made that movie.

His first film marked the birth of the one word that continues to hug Mr. Levinson: affection. His affection for small moments of truth. His affection for film. His affection for actors.

'Easy style'

"He makes you feel like you don't have to do anything. He has a very easy style about him," says Oscar-winner Michael Douglas. "After this many years in the business, it's enough with the intensity. This is not brain surgery."

"In every way he helped me. It has to do with affection and support," says "Disclosure" co-star Donald Sutherland, who reverentially lowers his voice when speaking of the director. To the point, actually, of not being heard.


Mr. Levinson's film career has gone from "Diner" to "Disclosure" in 12 years. It's hard to imagine two movies with less in common.

"Diner" laid low and reveled in small, rich moments from Boogie Weinglass' old gang in Baltimore. The movie's highlight might have been the bride-to-be taking a Colts quiz (and can you imagine a Baltimore movie now about someone having to pass a CFL quiz?).

Mr. Levinson's "Disclosure" furiously downloads on us. It's a thriller, for sure.

"What rules us is our secrets," says Mr. Crichton, the Harvard Medical School grad who also wrote "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain." Reportedly, Mr. Crichton is worth a little money. He's 6-foot-8, and the sight of him loping along Pennsylvania Avenue in Georgetown is somewhat startling.

Aside from its commercial and topical appeal, Mr. Levinson sensed something familiar and basic about Mr. Crichton's story. "Look, if it was just a thriller, I don't know if that would be enough for me," Mr. Levinson says.

"Disclosure" is more than a thriller. And it's more than a brief opportunity to enjoy Dennis Miller's speeding wit on the big screen. The movie presents another battleground for the sexes. In the world of sexual politics, the roles of men and women are mighty murky. When is sexual harassment merely inappropriate behavior?


Men vs. women

How does it feel for a man to be sexually harassed, and to attempt to make and stake his unbelievable claim?

"We have opened a can of worms," Mr. Levinson says. "In this time of transition, we really have to think of how we behave to each other."

In "Disclosure," the character Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas as another "average" guy stumbling into "average" sexual situations) is a Seattle executive at a high-tech firm. On the verge of a company merger, he expects to be named a big-time VP. But he's passed over for the job by his new boss and old flame, Meredith Johnson, who is played by Demi Moore.

Ms. Johnson invites Mr. Sanders to her new office at the end of the day and she ends up jumping his average bones. Without anyone undressing, the sexual harassment scene flirts with the film's R rating.

"The scene makes you feel uncomfortable. There's a sense of violence, although it's not violent. It's sexy, but no clothes come off," Mr. Levinson says. "We go right to the edge, and if the scene doesn't work, the movie is not launched."


In the scene, the man stops in mid-show after remembering his wife and family, etc. Ms. Moore's character yells at Sanders to finish the job he started, and by the way, your career is ruined, bub.

She tells their boss in the morning that she was sexually harassed. Then it all hits the fan.

The sexual harassment issue aside, the movie also deals with the same theme found in "Diner": Men and women are still trying to understand each other, still trying to find a way to communicate, to get along. Whether it's the 1950s in a Baltimore diner or the 1990s in corporate America, men and women remain strange creatures that bump into each other in the night and day.

"I'm not trying to chase it down and I certainly can't resolve it," the filmmaker says. "But this theme keeps coming up in my work."

The promoter

Seeing Barry Levinson at the Four Seasons Hotel, in his black jacket and ring engraved with "BL," seeing him ask someone/anyone why this movie junket happens to be in D.C. -- well, the scene reminds us of the opening of his first film, 12 years ago. Just think, for instance, of the difference in how "Diner" and "Disclosure" were promoted.


Mr. Levinson simply got his hands wet in cement in front of the Senator Theatre for the opening of "Diner." That was the marketing hoopla. "MGM just put this ['Diner'] on a shelf and figured that would be the end of it," he says.

There were no hospitality suites fitted with shrimps dangling their tails in ice. No "Disclosure" Interactive Information Kit passed out like peppermints. No talk of having to open big or be gone, gone.

Back then, however, there was the cream spinach at Haussner's.

With an egg on top.