King of the nebulous

C. Fraser Smith

June 02, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith

HE WANTED to be an income tax lawyer because he'd seen a movie called "The Young Philadelphian," starring Paul Newman as a young lawyer. He liked the lawyer's suits. In college, though, he learned that extensive study in accounting lay between him and the nice threads.

Debits and credits were beyond him.

"I couldn't even get a pencil sharp enough to write in the small spaces," he said.

So Hollywood director Barry Levinson, who says he ranked 460th in a graduating class of 460 at Forest Park High School, cut accounting and went to the public library. He found a book on television.

He kept reading -- especially during accounting class. In an aptitude test, he showed talent in the arts -- "that nebulous field," his adviser said.

Nebulous, indeed.

Mr. Levinson, 51, was remembering all of this in Baltimore last Monday. He'd been summoned by The Johns Hopkins University, which gave him an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.

Standing in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library with his black scholar's robe and sun-yellow cap, suitably trimmed and draped with braided tassel, the man who made "Diner" and "Tin Men" and "Avalon" seemed just slightly stunned.

An honorary degree? From Hopkins? Get real.

"What did you think of Hopkins when you were growing up here?" the celebrated director was asked by the university's public relations representative, Ghita Levine.

Actually, he said, the thought did not arise. "I just knew I couldn't go here."

He told the students he felt a bit uncomfortable as a commencement speaker. He recalled sitting in an orientation session at the old Baltimore Junior College and hearing a dean say: "Look to your left and look to your right. One of those two people will not graduate from college."

"I looked at the guy on my left and said, 'Congratulations! You've made it, because I know I won't be here in four years.'"

The dean was half right. Mr. Levinson dropped out of the college three times.

In his speech, Mr. Levinson said his generation, one of the most aggressively idealistic in history, had gotten thoroughly confused, partly as a result of the media's ability to persuade almost everyone that shopping is the ultimate American value.

Television, he said, has no understanding of its own power, no "sensibility." Viewers could comprehend its impact, but they're still in its thrall. Hadn't his own life been directed by the power of image: Paul Newman and those suits?

"When I went to college this country was rich, there was very little crime and there was a spirit of optimism. There were problems, but nothing in comparison to what we face today. It was like living in an Andy Hardy movie as opposed to maybe 'New Jack City'."

Like the student who couldn't keep his figures in the neat boxes, Mr. Levinson has tested the boundaries of film and film-making.

"If you don't push the edges, you're in a nice soft space," he said.

If you do push them, you could be watching a TV show like his "Homicide," the critically acclaimed cop show set in Baltimore that NBC has declined to place in its fall schedule. Public television may try to take it on, he said, or perhaps some other option will arise. The whole experience was frustrating, he said.

"We had just scratched the surface. There was so much more to be explored." What he had wanted was an approach to the reality of crime that did not paint the criminal or the cop as neatly circumscribed human beings. Too much of television suggests there are "simple victories" or "clarity" in the outcomes. The heroes and the victims are always more complicated, less glamorous than television renders them.

Before Mr. Levinson's speech, his friend Chip Silverman was talking about how the master of the nebulous arts, along with one of the other "diner guys," Boogie Weinglass, was looking to buy the Orioles.

Was this a movie? Could you make this up?

Without immediate reference to himself, the filmmaker observed that most television these days is ripped right out of the headlines.

Nobody does much fiction anymore, he said. Reality is too compelling.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Evening Sun and The Sun.

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