‘Diner’ turns 30


This one was a real labor of love for me — my Variety story on Diner looking back at the movie on its 30th anniversary and looking ahead to its reincarnation on Broadway this fall.

This film is one of my early inspirations: so funny and so poignant. Here’s how the story begins …

“Diner,” written and directed by Barry Levinson, is a wonderful movie.

That simple sentence began a lengthy, thoughtful review by Pauline Kael in the April 5, 1982, New Yorker, a review that saved a cinematic gem from quick extinction — and, as it turned out, helped pave the way for a Broadway musical decades later.

This spring will mark the 30th anniversary of “Diner,” Levinson’s inaugural effort as a helmer, which simultaneously celebrated and deconstructed the late-1950s Baltimore of his youth. Come the fall, Levinson’s “Diner” tuner adaptation, with music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow, and with Kathleen Marshall directing, will bow on the Rialto.

Set design has begun, with final casting to take place in the spring in advance of what will be an out-of-town test run in the summer.

The rebirth of “Diner” has stirred excitement about the musical (mixed with guarded curiosity) from those who remember the film for both its comedy, centered on the exploits of six Baltimore buddies, and its insightful commentary on communication bumps and bruises between the sexes.

In an age of four-quadrant blockbuster mindsets, the blossoming of what was such a personal project into a franchise is noteworthy. Though movies of such intimate scale often disappear, a few can pay off for decades.

Still, if the legit adaptation has any naysayers, that would only make sense. Ultimately nominated for an original screenplay Oscar, a Writers Guild award and a Golden Globe, “Diner” would have been relegated to an MGM dustbin if not for the power of Kael’s pen, say Levinson and his colleagues.

I watched this movie on a regular basis in my teens and 20s, but when I checked it out again last month in preparation for this story, it was heartening to how fresh and vibrant it was. It holds up remarkably well, something I would attribute to Levinson’s absolute precision with the material and the great work by the cast, which made a moment in time so timeless.

In a sense, this was Seinfeld before Seinfeld: light on plot but heavy on conversation and just trying to make it through the simple and the ridiculous parts of life. But it has a yearning that Seinfeld dropped pretty much by its second season. These guys (and Beth) want something better for themselves, but they don’t really know how to get it — in fact, most of them can’t even admit they want it.

Seinfeld would have the equivalent of the football quiz, the Carol Heathrow bet at the movie theater, “Are you gonna eat that?” But it wouldn’t have had Shrieve’s at once hilarious and harrowing verbal beatdown of Beth over his records. It didn’t, and wouldn’t, have had the ending that Diner had.

Not that I intended this to be a Diner vs. Seinfeld discussion. Both are classics.  But while I loved Seinfeld, writing my own Diner would be my dream. There’s hardly a moment in the film that isn’t kinda quietly brilliant.

They made it look so easy, Levinson and his gang. They’re just stories, right? Just people talking. And yet it’s so rich. Most of the stuff I’ve ever written on my own has aspired to be like some combination of “Diner” and a few other movies like “The Misfits” mixed in. Someday …

So, I hope you enjoy the story. For me, it’s a smile.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    New post up top on the Coffey signing. 

  • John Stodder

    I, too, love “Diner” and have loved it since I first saw it on first release.  Could that really have been 30 years ago? 

    I admire Barry Levinson for being able to mix in his Baltimore films with this more obvious commercial plays.  ”Diner” was followed by “Tin Men,” which looks at adult male behavior in the same time period.  People don’t love it as much — it’s not as lovable, but it’s a very good movie.  Then came “Avalon,” which looks at the middle-class life in Baltimore a generation earlier.  

    I wanted Levinson to be the August Wilson of Baltimore Jews.  But unless I missed one, he stopped at three movies on this topic.  Maybe he’ll go back to it — a movie set in a Baltimore old folks home circa 1963 about a bunch of WWI  vets might be interesting. 

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

       There was Liberty Heights after Avalon …

  • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

    Great piece, Jon. Remember seeing this as a lad and really liking it, and then the film held of course more resonance to me as an adult. And then, like you, I checked it out again recently and was pleased it still holds up!  Man, I always loved me some Daniel Stern.

  • http://twitter.com/adamluther55 Adam Luther

    Contains one of the more outstanding scenes ever filmed depicting the differences in the sexes – and does it in less than four minutes.  ”Don’t touch my records ever!”  ”I just want to hear the music.” Jazz, JAZZ!!  ”What’s on the flip side!!?”  ”And ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ was playing”…Barkin’s eyes at the end of that scene.

  • michaelspiegel83

    My buddies and I watch Diner every December.  It is a winter time classic.  Great acting, good music, and the comedy will never get stale.