Diner (1982): “We All Know Most Marriages Depend on a Firm Grasp of Football Trivia.”

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“Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about? ”

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“Boog, the bet was ‘touch your pecker’ not ‘pecker in popcorn’.”

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“What is she … twelve?”
“She’ll be twelve.”

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“That’s what you get for going out with 11th graders. Their brains aren’t developed yet.”
“Yeah, but her tits were.”
“Uh-uh. Falsies.”
“Were they?”
“First-hand info.”
“Aw, shit.”

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“Elise’s mother’s on the phone. How’s she doing?”
“The guys think it could go either way.”
“Either way. Okay.”

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“You sonofabitch … You’re a virgin.”
” …. Technically.”
“Boy, you’ve got a lot to learn.”

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Pauline Kael on Diner, 1982:

A wonderful movie, set in Baltimore, around Christmas of 1959. A fluctuating group of five or six young men in their early 20s hang out together; they’ve known each other since high school, and though they’re moving in different directions, they still cling to their late-night bull sessions at the diner-where, magically, they always seem to have plenty to talk about. It’s like a comedy club-they take off from each other, and their conversations are all overlapping jokes that are funny without punch lines. Conversations may roll on all night, and they can sound worldly and sharp, but when these boys are out with girls, they’re nervous, constricted, fraudulent, half crazy. Written and directed by Barry Levinson, DINER provides a look at middle-class relations between the sexes just before the sexual revolution, at a time when people still laughed (albeit uneasily) at the gulf between men and women. It isn’t remarkable visually but it features some of the best young actors in the country: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser, and Timothy Daly.

This is one of those rare moments when a critic actually had something to do in a tangible way with a film’s success. And not just success – but its survival, its existence. The fact that we have it and were able to see it can be traced, in part, to Kael’s review.

I can think of an example of this from the theatre world, when Ashton Stevens championed this new-fangled dreamy play Glass Menagerie written by a newcomer with a weird name, Tennessee Williams. It had opened in an ice-coated Chicago and had not found an audience. Stevens had seen the play and knew something amazing was happening here. Not just in Laurette Taylor’s once-in-a-century performance – but in the play itself. It MUST survive. Stevens felt it MUST survive – this small delicate piece of nostalgia. So he hammered away in his columns, begging the Chicago populace to brave the wintry blast and go see it. Celebrities from New York and Los Angeles started flying in to Chicago, or stopping off via train, to see the show. It was one of those moments that happens once in a lifetime – it really COULDN’T happen more than that – because work, in general, just isn’t usually that good. But here it was … and Stevens went to town, drumming up an audience. It worked. That play could have closed in Chicago for good, changing American theatrical history as we know it. Tennessee would obviously have gone on – he had already had a couple of flops – he was the ultimate survivor – and perhaps his “time” WOULD have come later, if it hadn’t come with Menagerie – but we’ll never know that. It happened the way it happened. The cast, crew, composer (Paul Bowles) … everyone was working at the top of their game … but Stevens is a huge part of that story.

When the studio execs first saw Diner, they didn’t want to release it at all. Nobody got it. There were no stars in it. Nothing seemed to happen. Diner was going to be shelved. Paul Reiser, who played the mooch Modell (“You gonna finish that?”) says in a behind-the-scenes documentary I watched:

There’s a story that Barry always told afterward when the movie came out, how executives didn’t know what to do with it, the studio guys, and they watched a rough cut of it, a screening, and they said, ‘Look, like that scene in the diner when they’re arguing about the sandwich – why doesn’t he just give him the sandwich and get on with the story?’ And Barry said, ‘Because there is no story. That is the story. The fact that they’re hocking each other for 15 minutes over a sandwich is the story.’

In the middle of this back-and-forth with the studio, someone showed a copy of it to Pauline Kael. At this point, there wasn’t even a release date. It couldn’t be seen anywhere. Not in New York, Los Angeles or anywhere else. But she wrote a glowing review in The New Yorker – of a film that no one, at that moment, could see.

Ellen Barkin, who plays Beth, the suffering wife of Shrevie, the music fanatic, says:

They didn’t want to release it at all and I think it was only released out of embarrassment. They thought, how do we have a movie sitting here that Pauline Kael says is so great, and we’re not releasing it … So let’s throw it out there.

And so they did. It certainly wasn’t a blockbuster, and it didn’t make a ton of money, but you would be hard pressed to find a bad review of the film. And not only that, but it has just grown in stature over the years, for all sorts of reason. It was the launching of the career of Barry Levinson, first of all, and the first of his Baltimore movies. Like Steve Guttenberg says, “Every city would be lucky if it could have a biographer like Barry.” But it has also grown in stature because of the long careers that virtually everyone involved has gone on to. It’s remarkable. These were all young guys, starting out, green … they all talk about being terrified at the beginning because they barely knew what they were doing. They also talk about the “green”-ness of Barry and how he would forget to say things like “Action” and “Cut” … they were newbies. But every single name in that picture has gone on to amazing success. Ups and downs, sure, but look at the longevity and diversity of these people. They are ALL still around. Tim Daly, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin, Steve Guttenberg and, of course, Mickey Rourke. Remarkable.

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Posted, naturally, in the Mickey Rourke category

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22 Responses to Diner (1982): “We All Know Most Marriages Depend on a Firm Grasp of Football Trivia.”

  1. DBW says:

    It’s interesting. I’ve always liked Diner, but I somehow completely forgot that Tim Daly is in the movie. That’s kind of strange for me. I could have easily named all the other male leads.

  2. DBW says:

    Of course, I can’t remember what I did last weekend anymore, so there is that dynamic.

  3. ted says:

    My three favorite Diner scenes:
    “You gonna finish that sandwich?” “Why do you want some?” “Well, not if you’re going to eat it.” “You always do that.” “What?” “Say the words, ‘I want a piece of the roastbeef sandwich,’ and I’ll give you a bite.”

    When Kevin Bacon’s character sets up the fake road accident.

    Ellen Barkin and Danny Stern – “What’s on the flip side?”

    I think I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times. You’re right – is there any other film you can think of that introduced so many promising young actors, gave them really rich material, and used not only their looks but their personalities and their talents so well? Maybe School Ties (answering my own question)but Diner is less formulaic.

  4. JFH says:

    “I’ll hit you so hard, I’ll kill your whole family”

    “The wedding… is off!”

    “It’s a black-eye!”

    “Blue and White?.. Colts colors”

  5. red says:

    Ted – Mystic Pizza and The Outsiders come to mind as well – all of those people (well, except for the tragic exception of my favorite – Ralph Macchio) are still around – some, like Ms. Roberts and Mr. Couch-Jumpy, giant stars!

    But yes – School Ties too (just saw that again recently, love it).

    So many great scenes in Diner. I love the football test with the friends waiting outside, tense, and trying to answer the questions themselves.

    I like when the guys all come out of a movie and Tim Daly suddenly sees someone in the crowd, walks over, unprovoked, and punches the guy out. It was from an old baseball rivalry and Daly had only one guy left on the opposing team to punch out – and so when he saw his chance, he took it.

    I also love the scene where Mickey Rourke starts to come on to Ellen Barkin … mainly so he can win his bet for later that night. The levels he is playing in that scene – the self-loathing – it’s just a movie-star type of scene. He nails it.

  6. red says:

    Ted – oh, and in the documentary I saw – the stories all the guys tell of their time in Baltimore filming that movie are so so funny. There was a lot of sex going on, let’s just say that. And the interesting thing was that Levinson, very early on, let them all know that improvisation would not only be okay but what he wanted … so he’d let the camera roll after the script part of the scene ended – and that’s where a lot of the funniest lines happened – in the improvisation. I love that!

  7. nightfly says:

    Stupid observation – boy does Daniel Stern look Daniel Sternesque. Even then. I mean, it’s not like he should look like a young Monty Cliff or something, but … i dunno, it’s just funny to me that he’s got that goofy grace about him, so obvious even in still frames.

  8. red says:

    Speaking of Stern – of all of the cast members, Stern was the only one who was married. He had married young (relatively), 22, 23 years old … so while the rest of the cast were wreaking havoc amongst the young women of Baltimore on their off-hours (remember that nobody was famous yet!) – he hung on the sidelines. Which, if you think about it, is so perfect – because his character in the film is the only one who is married, too. So his scenes of feeling trapped, and the whole “flip side” argument really come from a real place. Wonderful.

  9. Lisa says:

    I want to punch Steve Gutenberg’s manager in the face. From Broadway to Diner to Cocoon to Tower of Terror and The Poseidon Adventure?

    Save yourself, Steve!!!

  10. red says:

    Hey, it’s a living! Regardless of the quality – you look at his IMDB page and he has 5 things completed … It’s not like it STOPPED. A living’s a living – and that guy has ALWAYS had a job.

    Now Ralph Macchio on the other hand …

    sniff, sniff.

    Won’t Quentin Tarantino or someone write something to resurrect HIS career?? And NOT Karate Kid 10, please – but something else!

  11. Lisa says:

    That’s true — he never has stopped working. But I’d love to see him in something better than Casper’s Big Adventure.

    I think Ralph needs a good villan part. Reinvent himself from Daniel-san.

  12. red says:

    Or even if he just had a small part in a big ensemble movie – like Dan in Real Life or something like that – where he can kind of remind everyone who has forgotten (but NOT ME) how good he is!

  13. red says:

    Or in a Richard Curtis movie – he can be the sweet bumbling American surrounded by Brits. Oh, please let it be so!!

  14. Lisa says:

    That would be AWESOME.

  15. red says:

    Lisa, uhm, check your email. I’m afraid I might have written something that a spam filter might find objectionable. I DIDN’T MEAN TO.

  16. That Diner screening:

    So I wrote some story I got second-hand about a screening of Diner – and now I read that James Wolcott was there at that screening. Yup. The love for Diner rolls on. I got together with Ted last night…

  17. Rob Anderson says:

    Goonies, The Breakfast Club, The Godfather (to get old school on you)…there have actually been quite a few movies with amazing casts of young folks who went on to great things. But I do like this collage from Diner. It makes me feel a bit old (I was a senior in high school when it was released), but I really like the collage.

  18. red says:

    Rob – I’m not sure where I say in the post that there are no other examples of movies that launched a bunch of careers. I noted a couple of others in my comments here, The Outsiders, Mystic Pizza – and Ted brought up School Ties – a cast made up of people who are now mega-stars. But few have the longevity (or the heavy-hitting importance) of the Diner cast (as I already said). And I disagree that Breakfast Club should be on that list. For most of those actors, that was the high point.

    Glad you liked the collage – it was really fun to put together!

  19. Bernard says:

    Nothing seemed to happen.

    And thus was born the idea of Seinfeld.

  20. red says:

    Seriously – I can’t think of anything more interesting than watching a bunch of people sitting around talking.

    My friend Mitchell and I have talked about this before. We prefer movies with minimal plot – movies that focus on the people, small stories where people sit around and you can watch behavior and listen to them talk. In my mind, there’s nothing better.

  21. kd bart says:

    Diner is one of my favorite films. I still remember seeing it in the theatre when I was in college. One of my favorite things in the film. The guy in the pool hall who has remembered all the dialogue to The Sweet Smell of Success and goes around quoting it to everyone.

  22. In which Michael, an ex-boyfriend, remembers more than I do

    Mitchell has always referred to me as “the Homer in our group of friends”, due to my propensity to write everything down and to retain EVERYTHING. I have a tendency to shock my friends with my memory about THEIR lives….