American spirit makes a Barry Levinson Film a Barry Levinson film

January 02, 1992|By Judy Gerstel | Judy Gerstel,Knight-Ridder

A BARRY Levinson Film."

That's what appears above the title of "Bugsy," right after the names of its stars, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

"A Barry Levinson Film" is an official label.

But unofficially, too, because it is darkly comic, high class and commercial, "Bugsy" is A Barry Levinson Film.

And while any more blathering by or about Beatty or Bening is about as interesting as wadded Christmas wrapping paper right now, Barry Levinson remains as intriguing as an unopened present.

"Diner," his first movie made in 1982, was clearly A Barry Levinson Film, about a bunch of guys growing up in Baltimore. The semi-autobiographical story became a trilogy with "Tin Men" and "Avalon." His production company is even called Baltimore Pictures.

But movies as different as "The Young Sherlock Holmes," "The Natural," "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Rain Man" are also Barry Levinson films.

What makes A Barry Levinson Film?

Despite the fact that some of the most high-profile movies of the past few years are labeled with his name, Levinson finds it unnerving to talk about himself as if he were a genre.

"I'm just kind of meandering through these movies," he says at first. "I've never been conscious of where I've gone, so I never know where I'm going."

But then, after more questions that must seem to him like torture, he admits, "Certain common things may emerge -- something particularly American about most of these pieces, the American spirit and the American character." About "Diner," he says, "You can't get any more American than that."

And somewhere in that spirit and character, Levinson always finds humor, albeit the humor of the outsider, the survivor.

It's not exactly that a Barry Levinson film needs to have comedy, he says. "I think it's sort of inherent in the situations that are taking place. 'Rain Man' never originally had much comedy at all. It was almost devoid of any kind of comedy. But I saw the comedy that I thought was much more honest than not having it.

"Humor and truth at the same time," says Levinson, "that's very exciting."

Otherwise, what all Barry Levinson films have in common is that they appeal to Barry Levinson.

"You always start with yourself," he says. "It's the same thing as 'Gee, this is good, taste this.'

"I don't think I've ever had an audience tell me anything. My feeling is that you cannot pander to the audience, because many times you'll pander to them and suddenly they're not there. They've moved. I think you have to set the standard."

Despite the fact that he once worked as a stand-up comic and now is a big-time Oscar-winning director with $30 million budgets and superstars such as Beatty, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman to do his bidding, Levinson is basically just a shy guy from Baltimore.

He's always been skittish about interviews, and though he makes occasional appearances on talk shows and the "Tonight" show to promote his movies, he says, "I enjoy it but each time the idea of doing it again is scary."

And when he starts a movie, "I start with the idea that I don't know if I can do it. It's always a risk. Sometimes you just don't get those things happening. It just doesn't connect. It's one of the great unknowns. Somehow you lead the actor to water. Somehow it has to happen. You have to feel somehow you're going to be smart enough to pull it off."

Levinson, in fact, was smart enough to pull off "Rain Man" after several other directors, including Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack, stepped aside. "You've got two people on the road and one's autistic. It's a fluke it got made," he says. "And it's sort of a fluke that somehow an audience responded to that degree."

"Rain Man," of course, became the box-office topper of 1988, earning about $500 million and sweeping the Academy Awards with eight Oscars, including those for Best Picture and Best Director.

Just recently, the Los Angeles Film Critics named him Best Director and "Bugsy" Best Movie of 1991. Come April, the month Levinson turns 50, he'll likely appear at the Oscars again as a Best Director nominee for "Bugsy."

But success for Levinson doesn't come in the form of gold. "I keep responding to things that seem stimulating," he says. "I can't be fearful of words like 'success' and 'failure.' "

Early in 1992, a decade after his debut as writer-director, he'll start production on the movie he wanted to make even before "Diner." Titled "Toys," it's about a weapons factory that manufactures toys and will star Robin Williams.

"I don't even know how to describe it," he says. "Unusual" is the word he keeps reaching for -- "two key women, but they're very, very unusual; it's got pretty unusual-looking sets."

Doesn't "unusual" worry him in a movie market as deflated as this one? "I sleep pretty good," he says. "If 'Toys' bombs, I'll get to make some other movie, whatever the hell it is -- smaller budgets, more unknowns, whatever. That's what I love doing."

Levinson is surprisingly sane about the Hollywood scene and his revered status as a top-rank director. At holiday time, he takes his family -- wife and two sons -- to a home they maintain near Baltimore so his kids can play with their cousins.

Aren't successful Hollywood directors supposed to be less sane, more neurotic? "Some are," he says with a smile. "I've got some friends who can't make a move for four years trying to decide what to do next. I mean, what, is 'Citizen Kane' going to fall in your lap?

"You step up and go after something that you can be passionate about, something that involves you, and you chase it. I love it. I'm enjoying myself."

And that, of course, is what makes A Barry Levinson Film.

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