Levinson, Barry

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Nationality: American. Born: Baltimore, Maryland, 1942. Education: Studied Broadcast Journalism, American University, Washington, D.C. Family: Married 1) screenwriter and actress Valerie Curtin (divorced, 1982); 2) Diana Mona; three sons, one daughter. Career: Comedy performer and writer, Los Angeles, from mid-1960s; writer for TV, including Carol Burnett Show and Marty Feldman Show, winning three Emmy awards, from 1970; directed first feature, Diner, 1982; executive producer and director, for Homicide: Life on the Street, television series, 1993—; executive producer, OZ, HBO series, 1997—. Awards: Emmy Award, for Television Comedy Writing for Carol Burnett Show, 1975; Academy Award for Best Director, Directors Guild Award for Best Director, for Rain Man, 1988; Writers Guild Award for Best Screenplay, for Avalon, 1990; Associated Foreign Press Award for Best Picture, Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, for Bugsy, 1991; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Emmy Award for Best Director, 1993, Peabody Awards, 1993, 1995, Writers Guild Awards, 1994, 1995, Excellence in Quality Television Founders Award, 1994, 1995, Nancy Susan Reynolds Award for Outstanding Portrayal of Sexual Responsibility in a Dramatic Series, 1996, all for Homicide: Life on the Street.

Films as Director:


Diner (+ sc)


The Natural


Young Sherlock Holmes


Tin Men (+sc)


Good Morning, Vietnam; Rain Man


Avalon (+sc)


Bugsy (+ co-pr)


Toys (+ co-pr)


Jimmy Hollywood (+ co-pr, sc, role); Disclosure (+ co-pr)


Sleepers(+ co-pr, sc)


Wag the Dog (+ co-pr)


Sphere (+co-pr)


Liberty Heights (+co-pr, sc)

Other Films:


Street Girls (Miller) (co-sc, asst ph)


Silent Movie (Brooks) (co-sc, role as executive)


High Anxiety (Brooks) (co-sc, role as bellhop)


. . . And Justice for All (Jewison) (co-sc)


Inside Moves (Donner) (co-sc)


History of the World, Part 1 (Brooks) (role as column salesman)


Best Friends (Jewison) (co-sc)


Unfaithfully Yours (Zieff) (co-sc)


Wilder Napalm (pr)


Quiz Show (Redford) (role as Dave Garroway)


The Second Civil War (HBO) (+co-pr); Oz (exec. pr); DonnieBrasco (co-pr); Home Fries (co-pr)


The Perfect Storm (exec pr)


By LEVINSON: books—

Avalon; Tin Men; Diner: Three Screenplays, New York, 1990.

Levinson on Levinson, edited by David Thompson, London, 1992.

By LEVINSON: articles—

Interview with Stephen Farber, in New York Times, 18 April 1982.

Interview with R. Ward, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), June 1982.

Interview in Inter/View (New York), July 1984.

Interview in Screen International (London), 27 October 1984.

Interview with M. Cieutat and G. Gressard, in Positif (Paris), March 1989.

Interview with Alex Ward, in New York Times Magazine, 11 March 1990.

Interview with M. Chyb, in Filmowy Serwis Prasowy, vol. 36, no. 5/6, 1990.

Web site: Official Barry Levinson web site. http://www.levinson.com. May, 2000.

On LEVINSON: articles—

"Barry Levinson," in Film Dope (London), September 1986.

Alion, Y., "Barry Levinson," in Revue du Cinéma, July/August 1990.

Rothstein, M., "Barry Levinson Reaches out to a Lost America," in New York Times, 30 September 1990.

Yagoda, B., "Baltimore, My Baltimore," in American Film, November 1990.

"Retrospective," in Film Journal, October/November 1991.

McDonnell, Terry, "The New Barry Levinson Show," in Esquire, February 1992.

Carter, B., "Pure Baltimore, Right down to the Steamed Crabs," in New York Times, 24 January 1993.

Schwed, Mark, "Kill or Be Killed," in TV Guide, 30 January 1993.

Lehman, Susan, "A Man and His Toys," in Premiere, February 1993.

Fretts, Bruce, "The Dead Beat," in Entertainment Weekly, 5 February 1993.

Kornbluth, Jesse, "Wary Levinson," in Premiere, April 1994.

* * *

Although his Oscar-winning, and most lucrative, film, Rain Man, was set in conservative Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and several points in between, Barry Levinson has never forgotten his roots and is still regarded by Marylanders as the ultimate Baltimore filmmaker. Diner, the film that launched his directing career in 1982, was based in the Baltimore suburb of Forest Park, where he grew up. So was Tin Men, made five years later. And in 1989, at the age of forty-seven, following the success of Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam, Levinson was back again in Baltimore, to the delight of the Maryland Film Commission, shooting Avalon. It could not have been otherwise, since Avalon is based upon Levinson's own family, who emigrated from Russia to Baltimore in 1914. Baltimore is his city and his most personal films have focused upon ordinary people he might have met there while growing up during the 1940s and 1950s—the youngsters of Diner, the aluminum-siding hucksters of Tin Men. Levinson has internalized the values of middle-America and has succeeded most brilliantly when filming stories about characters who live by those values.

If some of the critics were disturbed that Robert Redford's Roy Hobbs was not as seriously flawed as the original character in Bernard Malamud's The Natural, it is perhaps because Levinson's interpretation of the character is governed by assumptions different from Malamud's and because Levinson's orientation is decidedly more optimistic. The fidelity of Levinson's The Natural can be, and has been, challenged on pedantic grounds. The film might better be regarded not as an adaptation but as an interpretation, able to stand on its own regardless of its source.

Levinson told the New York Times Magazine that he does not consider himself as a writer or a "writer-director." As Alex Ward rightly suggested, however, Levinson can be considered an American auteur who will leave his personal imprint on any project he touches, through sentimental touches (in The Natural or Tin Men, for example), quirky casting, or inspired comedic improvisation. He has an unfailing sense of what might constitute the right touch in a given dramatic situation. "I don't like other people directing what I write," Levinson told Ward, "but I don't mind directing something somebody else wrote."

In fact, after moving to the West Coast from American University in Washington, D.C., Levinson worked for over two years as a writer for Mel Brooks on two pictures, Silent Movie and High Anxiety (also making his screen debut as an insane bellhop in the Psycho parody scene). While working with Brooks on High Anxiety he first met Mark Johnson, who later became the executive producer of Diner. At that point Levinson had already won three Emmy Awards, writing for the Tim Conway and Carol Burnett shows on network television, and went on to collaborate with Valerie Curtin (whom he met at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles) on two feature film scripts, . . . And Justice for All (for Norman Jewison) and Inside Moves (for Richard Donner), before writing the script for Diner. His debut film as director is about young men "hanging out" in Baltimore over Christmas of 1959, one of them (Steve Guttenberg) enjoying his last days of bachelorhood before his approaching wedding. Mel Brooks told Levinson that the script idea resembled I Vitelloni, but the writer-director had not even seen Fellini's film. He told Stephen Farber of the New York Times that the Guttenberg character was based upon his cousin Eddie, who "loved fried bologna sandwiches" and "slept until 2:30 in the afternoon." The cast also featured Mickey Rourke and talented newcomers Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin. It was the lowest-budgeted "sleeper" produced by MGM that year, and started slowly, but after reviews in Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, the movie built a following and acquired staying power. (The president for distribution at MGM/UA referred to it as "Lazarus.") Vincent Canby in the New York Times called it the "happiest surprise of the year to date," and Levinson was "discovered."

Levinson also collaborated with Valerie Curtin in writing Best Friends (starring Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn) and a remake of the Preston Sturges classic Unfaithfully Yours. The screenplay for . . . And Justice for All, meanwhile, was nominated for an Academy Award, demonstrating the quality of the Levinson-Curtin team. Levinson also directed the high-spirited fantasy Young Sherlock Holmes, but aside, perhaps, from Rain Man and The Natural, Levinson will best be remembered for his Baltimore pictures, drawn from his own experience and marked with his own special brand of compassionate humor and nostalgia. As a personal filmmaker he is perhaps the nearest American equivalent to François Truffaut.

During the 1990s Levinson scored a popular and critical success working with author James Toback on Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty as larger-than-life gangster Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel and Annette Bening as Virginia Hill. The film was much admired for its snappy dialogue and was named best picture of 1991 by the Los Angeles Film Critics, who also voted Levinson Best Director and Toback Best Screenwriter. Bugsy later earned ten Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

In 1992 Levinson misfired with Toys, an odd antiwar fable written by Levinson and Valerie Curtin, starring Robin Williams, Joan Cusack, and Michael Gambon. Levinson had had the project in mind for years and was able to direct it after the success of Bugsy, but although the idea that children can be conditioned by the kinds of toys they are given seemed viable, the resulting fantasy was too bizarre to be taken seriously. He misfired again in 1994 with Jimmy Hollywood, starring Joe Pesci as a loser and hustler, which was described in Variety as "an oddball attempt to mix offbeat comedy with social commentary."

In 1994 Levinson reclaimed his Hollywood clout with his expert direction of Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore and adapted by Paul Attanasio from the popular novel by Michael Crichton, who also worked with Levinson as producer. The controversial novel, concerning sexual harassment in the workplace, helped to generate interest in the film. But a far more important collaboration between Levinson and Paul Attanasio started in 1993 on the NBC television police series Homicide: Life on the Street, adapted from Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon's published memoir about policework in Levinson's hometown. The series was hailed by critics as the best police drama on television, giving it prominence over the flashier but more conventional NYPD Blue. As executive producer of the series Levinson also directed the pilot in 1993 and the season finale in 1995, thus helping Homicide to establish and maintain its quality and authenticity as an outstanding reality-based detective drama. The series, rated among the director's best work since Avalon and setting a new standard for television police drama, continued until 1999, with a feature film version under Levinson's executive producership, in the pipeline in 2000.

During the Homicide years Levinson also produced the acclaimed prison-set series, Oz and The Second Civil War for HBO, but was far from neglectful of the big screen, directing at least one picture per year and having a hand in the production of Donnie Brasco, Analyse This, and The Perfect Storm. His directorial efforts, however, have remained eclectic, variable, and variably received, with Wag the Dog, filmed as light relief between the harrowing abuse and revenge drama Sleepers and the second-rate Michael Crichton sci-fi saga Sphere, tickling the fancy with its pungent, astonishingly timely political satire and the delicious pairing of Levinson favorite Dustin Hoffman with Robert De Niro. After a hectic decade, Levinson capped his achievements with a long-awaited return to his more personal, semi-autobiographical Baltimore films with Liberty Heights. The fourth in the cycle that began with Diner, and something of a companion piece to Avalon, it is set at the social crossroads of the mid-1950s and explores themes of race, class, and religious division from the perspective of a Jewish family.

Once again, Barry Levinson's affectionate evocations of period, family, and coming of age sit well in the gritty atmosphere of his home town and its people, confirming that he is most at ease and continues to draw his happiest inspiration from simply chronicling the passage of ordinary life.

—James M. Welsh, updated by Robyn Karney

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