2021 MOVIE DRAFT- ROUND 2 PICK 6- MUSIC CITY MIKE- SERIES- BALTIMORE SERIES- DINER/ TIN MEN/ AVALON AND LIBERTY HEIGHTS.
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January 23, 2021
FAVE SERIES – Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Series”: Diner (1982) / Tin Men (1987) / Avalon (1990) / Liberty Heights (1999)
It didn’t take long to choose Diner as a film I wanted to write about. However, having already selected another movie as my Fave Drama, I was reluctant to cheapen it by labeling it as my Fave Comedy. While it sure has its funny moments, I got more out of Diner than just its laughs.
Then, a simple solution came to me. Never much one for episodic adventure series like Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc., my struggle to have to pick my Fave Series became a no brainer. Without a doubt, it would be the series of four semi-autographical films, of which Diner was the first, that Barry Levinson wrote and directed primarily about his late 50s and early 60’s childhood days in the city of Baltimore.
Levinson’s film and television resume is one of the most impressive you’ll ever find. And while these four films were not among his most commercially successful, to me they are his crowning achievement. There were 17 years between the making of the first and last films in the set, including a nine-year gap between the third and fourth. In fact, at one time the first three were prematurely released in a VHS box set labelled “The Baltimore Trilogy.”
Although Levinson is about 15 years older than me, our East Coast upbringings as a member of a European immigrant family had enough in common for his stories to resonate so well with my own youth. Most memories from these days are joyous. These times that seemed so much simpler and more family-centric than life today and these films are just chock full of heartfelt sentimental nostalgia. Even the bad things that happened in these films don’t seems so bad since we also all seemed to be more resilient back then.
Diner, likely the most popular film of the four, set the series in motion with a look at a group of young men just out of high school struggling to grow up and become adults. The connection that I have to this movie is strong for two reasons. First, visiting the local diner at 2am was a common thing to do and second, each of the yokels in this gaggle reminds me of someone I knew in real life.
Although I know you could look it up, I will spare you the wait by telling you how impressive the collection of young, then mostly unknown, actors Levinson assembled was. Get this: Steve Gutenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin and Paul Reiser. Wow!
Then there are those classic scenes that always found a way to be somehow relevant to something going on in the last 38 years. The young husband-wife spat about misfiling his record albums. The football quiz about the Baltimore Colts that the young bride-to-be had to pass for the wedding to take place. The popcorn box trick with your date at the moves. And by far the best one, eating the whole left side of the diner menu at a single sitting. (“Even the chicken platter?”)
Loved by critics, Diner earned Levinson an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Tin Men was next and came with the strong twin billing of Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as competing door-to-door aluminum-siding salesmen. I remember as a kid that this business had a rather sleazy reputation which Levinson works well into his storyline. These guys didn’t earn their dollars in the most honest of ways and will do just about anything to close a sale. Levinson does a great job of showing what prosperity looked like back in the late 50s with their flashy clothes and shiny cars with long tail fins.
When these two characters meet in a fender bender of their prized Cadillacs, the incident leads to an exacerbated rivalry that even goes so far as one of them messing around with the others’ wife. It was just the kind of scandalous small-town gossip that the early 60s thrived upon and woman discussed at the hairdressers. Troubles of all kinds start to happen and eventually both fall prey to justice and become friends in the end.
Music fans will get a kick out of the 80’s band Fine Young Cannibals appearing in the film and contributing to the soundtrack.
Next up was the gorgeous Avalon. Of these four films, this epic is the most cinematically majestic with memorable spectacular scenes of celebratory fireworks and tragic fires. Its story is built firmly on the importance of family and how as immigrants, they together sought to assimilate into this land called America.
Avalon looks back on a time when families kept their hometown loyalties and three generations comfortably lived under the same roof, even when success provided the opportunity for the young flock to spread their wings and leave home. And while there is so much depth to the family’s story, I find its most memorable moments are found in the simple dialog amongst the family members during the times they spent all together.
Music fans will enjoy Avalon’s Randy Newman score and Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth Perkins are brilliant in their roles as first-generation Americans. Again, Levinson received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in addition to the film also getting a much-deserved nod for Best Cinematography.
The final, and perhaps least recognized film in the saga, is Liberty Heights. Among the family issues its deals with is one involving a young interracial high school romance. Considering where our world is right now, we are sadly reminded of a time when racial prejudice was much more blatant and systematic. There was an implied set of rules that you were expected to follow, and a white boy simply was not supposed to date a black girl (and vice versa).
Apart from this heavy subject matter, like Diner, Liberty Heights is lightheartedly chockfull of fun moments of kids growing up in the post-war 50s. Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna and Bebe Neuwirth lead the cast in this one.
If there is anything that I desire to communicate through this writing, it is for each reader to be sure to watch these films. They are a brilliant collection of work that together document a precious time in American history. Like any era, there were both times good and bad. But regardless, these were the times as they were, and Levinson has preserved them beautifully. If only I could write screenplays like this about growing up in New Jersey in the 60s!
PS – Levinson later took one more look at his Baltimore days in his 2003 novel Sixty-Six. This book comes highly recommended as well.