Barry Levinson and his wife woke up yesterday morning around 5-ish, West Coast time, and wondered, "Well, should we turn on CNN?"
They did, and their decision not to roll over and fall back asleep was rewarded with this news: the former Baltimorean's most recent movie, "Bugsy," was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, more than any other film this year.
"Ten is something that doesn't happen that often," the filmmaker said with characteristic understatement during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. " 'Rain Man' only got eight. I'm just real excited."
"Bugsy," an elegant and literate saga about gangster Bugsy Siegel and his dream of Las Vegas, was nominated for nearly all the top Oscars -- best picture, director, screenplay and actor, among them.
Mr. Levinson, whose films have ranged from affectionate, autobiographical tributes to his native Baltimore ("Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon") to major blockbusters like the Oscar-winning "Rain Man" and "Good Morning Vietnam," said he hopes the 10 nominations will boost the box office appeal of "Bugsy."
Despite near unanimous critical acclaim, the movie has yet failed to draw large crowds.
"I think we've had an uphill struggle because the public felt it had been burned by the other gangster movies," Mr. Levinson said. "We had a lot to prove, that we were not a gangster movie. So [the nominations] give us some validity."
For all his stature as one of Hollywood's top directors, Mr. Levinson said movie-making continues to remain a struggle.
"The struggle just keeps changing. With 'Rain Man,' getting it made at all was the problem. With 'Bugsy,' the perception was it was just another gangster movie. So it was hard to get it into the good theaters. Plus we don't have a happy ending -- not that you can't have a good time watching a movie without a happy ending, but we're just not another slap happy film," Mr. Levinson said.
Mr. Levinson won't predict how many Oscars the movie will win, only to say it won't be all 10. He barely recalls what it was like in 1989 when he was honored as the best director for "Rain Man."
"The only thing I can remember was being fairly calm during the entire time, then my name being called," Mr. Levinson said. "Then the next thing I remember was going backstage. I have no idea what I said."
"Rain Man" won four Oscars -- best picture, director, actor and original screenplay -- of the eight that it had been nominated for. It was the most nominated picture that year, as "Bugsy" is this year.
Like "Bugsy," "Rain Man" also did not open to large crowds. But its audience built up through word-of-mouth, and it eventually grossed more than $100 million. "Bugsy" drew only the fourth-best box office receipts the week it opened, sinking to ninth its second week.
"Bugsy" has already won the Golden Globe for best drama and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's awards for best picture, director and screenplay of the year. The Writers Guild of America has also nominated "Bugsy" screenwriter James Toback for an award. Those awards will be announced March 22.
Mr. Levinson, however, isn't just waiting for the awards to be handed over. On Monday, he begins filming "Toys," with Robin Williams. The movie, a comedy about a weapons factory that makes toys, is slated for release next Christmas.
And now the only question left is this: When you coming home, Barry?
"I hope soon. I'd like to do [a Baltimore movie] after this one, but we'll see," he said. "It's never out of my mind. It's best to shoot there when it's crab season."