HE DEFIES Hollywood’s penchant for pigeon-holing by making a different movie every time, but why does Barry Levinson constantly return to his Baltimore roots? He spoke to Tony Earnshaw.
WHEN contemporary cinema giants like Steven Spielberg return to their childhoods, the results are often overwhelmingly coated with a suffocating topping of sentimentality which cloys even the nostalgic feel of the piece he creates.
Barry Levinson, like Spielberg a Jew who grew up in the Fifties, prefers an altogether different direction, working from the concept that childhood is a snapshot of life – an “indelible time” rather than the halcyon days of youth seen through rose-tinted spectacles or a middle-aged man’s dewy eyes.
“Childhood is a huge learning experience with all those elements which are painful and fantastic. You keep learning things by degrees,” he says.
“You can grow up, like I did, in a Jewish area, and you think ‘Okay, the whole world’s Jewish.’, and then you realise the world’s a little bigger than that. So by degrees you begin to get a better understanding of what’s going on in the world.
“I don’t look on my childhood as a piece of nostalgia, I go back and think ‘This is what was really going on’, and so [the film] becomes about race, religion and class distinction. I wanted to show all the range of things: those which are obtainable and those which, ultimately, never will be.”
Levinson, the man behind such varied product as Rain Man, Bugsy, Good Morning, Vietnam and Wag the Dog, periodically drifts back to his early years through a group of pictures which have come to be known, somewhat unexcitingly, as ‘the Baltimore series’ after the town in which they are based.
The critical and commercial success – a clutch of Oscar triumphs and nominations – which has greeted 58-year-old Levinson’s prolific output has meant he can step away from the movies which Hollywood wants him to make – among them the flops Toys and Sphere – to craft these intimate studies of life long ago.
The Baltimore series, previously a trio comprising Diner, Tin Men and Avalon, is now a quartet with the inclusion of Liberty Heights, a drama of race, first love, crime and teen angst set against the backdrop of social exclusion and the effects of the McCarthy anti-communist witchhunts of the early Fifties.
American critics have described it variously as a movie in which nothing of import happens, and “a masterpiece”.
Like Diner (three buddies congregate at their old meeting place and contemplate impending adulthood), Tin Men (an escalating feud between two aluminium salesmen) and Avalon (the story of a Jewish immigrant family over three decades), Liberty Heights is semi-autobiographical.
“It’s probably based 95-per-cent on things that I experienced or was a part of in some way, or knew about. I lot of things happened to my cousin Eddie, such as dressing up as Adolf Hitler on Halloween.
“Who am I in that? I’m a little bit of a lot of the characters.”
Levinson began his career as a broadcast journalist, gaining TV experience before breaking into writing as a gag writer for Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman. Since Diner, his first movie as director in 1982, he has cast his net wide. There have been the smash hits – Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam, the latter merely a plot sandwiched between Robin Williams’ sketches – and the dismal failures, not least the meandering Michael Crichton tale, Sphere.
Levinson, with the clout of such studio successes behind him, can take his career in any direction he likes. He’s unafraid to tackle a biting political satire like Wag the Dog – American spin doctors convince the nation the US is waging war on Albania – with acting titans like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in his cast.
Then again, he can wander off into the strange netherworld of Toys, a peculiar fantasy which may have looked good on paper but which, on screen, satisfied no-one.
“I like a lot of different kinds of movies. I don’t always want to see suspense films or action movies, I jump around. As a director I do that as well.
“There’s no pressure on me to come up with something different, I just sort of do. I’m not working to a plan where I’ve got to keep doing different things. It just happens that way. My interests are extremely varied and so I just find things that I get excited about.
“In some ways it’s better to work in a certain area because then you build an identity. That’s why there are people who saw Rain Man who never saw Diner. So you get different people saying ‘Oh, you did that movie?’
“It may be more complicated in terms of how I may be viewed, but from my standpoint it’s more fun because I have a chance to be more eclectic.”
He adds: “It’s the same when you work with superstars. You’re not trying to get a credible performance, you’re just doing refinements of that. So De Niro can give you seven different shadings, and Dustin can give you all the little nuances within that.
“I was really excited by the people in Liberty Heights because quite a few had never acted at all, so it’s a different way of approaching it all. Both can become quite fascinating.
“Except for some movies which are sequels and they have their own style, you can make mistakes, especially on movies which are about the human condition, which can completely bury you. The whole thing is a risk.”