“Do you ever get the feeling that there’s something going on that we don’t know about? ”
“Boog, the bet was ‘touch your pecker’ not ‘pecker in popcorn’.”
“What is she … twelve?”
“She’ll be twelve.”
“That’s what you get for going out with 11th graders. Their brains aren’t developed yet.”
“Yeah, but her tits were.”
“Elise’s mother’s on the phone. How’s she doing?”
“The guys think it could go either way.”
“Either way. Okay.”
“You sonofabitch … You’re a virgin.”
” …. Technically.”
“Boy, you’ve got a lot to learn.”
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.
Posted, naturally, in the Mickey Rourke category