My kids have a new book, C is for California, from WestWinds Press. Twenty-six pages, starting with “A is for Alcatraz,” “B is for Beach” and “C is for Cinco de Mayo.” How many of the remaining pages can you name?
At Variety On the Air, I offered a largely positive take on new NBC musical drama Smash, but with a few scattered misgivings about some aspects of the show, including a couple of the musical set pieces in early episodes. Above is one of those numbers, the baseball (cough)-infused “The National Pastime.” Apologies for the spoiler for my West Coast readers.
Smash depicts the making of a Broadway show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and her relationship with Joe DiMaggio is apparently one key part of the fictional fiction. That explains the genesis of the above number, which despite the enthusiastic performances (and barely bridled sexuality) of Megan Hilty and friends, is kind of a nightmare. Corny doesn’t begin to describe it.
When I watched it a second time Sunday, months after seeing the screener last summer, to see if I had been too harsh in my initial assessment, I decided that I was – that it only ranked about an 8 on the nightmare scale, as opposed to a 10. But what still bothered me the most was how beside herself with joy Debra Messing’s character, the songwriter, was at the number. Her revelry at seeing “The National Pastime” wrapped in this kind of glory made me fear for the musical she was co-creating in the show.
I mean, in the world of this musical, you’ve got about two hours to tell the story of Marilyn in a meaningful way, and you’re going to spend three precious minutes with this? Surely there’s a better way that doesn’t involve making me wish baseball had never been born.
Some will enjoy “The National Pastime” just fine, and in any case, the rest of Smash is much better than this. But I can’t help it: “The National Pastime” is a big fat swing, leg-kick and a miss.
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.
Passing by a billboard for the upcoming movie “Safe House” Monday on Westwood Boulevard, my wife and I were having some fun with the slogan, which is just a little too obvious in its twistiness. We kept on thinking of different examples as we drove along …
THERE ARE NO VITAMINS Vitamin Shoppe
NO UNDERGROUND TRAINS HERE Subway
THESE CHICKENS DON’T COME HOME TO ROOST California Chicken Cafe
It’s as if Linda Richman had taken over the studio marketing campaign. Discuss …