Movie shows it's not all glitter in Tinseltown Levinson's take on Hollywood

March 30, 1994|By Lea Saslav | Lea Saslav,Special to The Sun

LOS ANGELES — It's hard to believe that Baltimore-born film director Barry Levinson got fired from his first job waiting tables in Hollywood, a scene that he wrote into his new film, "Jimmy Hollywood," which opens today.

"That's right. It really happened to me," says the affable 52-year-old Oscar-winning director with a laugh.

"I had all these orders working, and I turn around, and everyone's watching a robbery in progress," he recalls while sitting in a comfortable Beverly Hills hotel easy chair, an Evian bottle close at hand. "And I had all these plates; I didn't know who got what, and everyone's so involved with the police, the robber and so on, and so I put down the food wherever. The owner came out, saw what happened and fired me on the spot."

Too bad for the food industry. Lucky thing for filmgoers.

Today, more than 20 years later, Mr. Levinson is an A-list director ("Diner," "Avalon," "Tin Men," "Rain Man") who commands top casts in Hollywood. For "Jimmy Hollywood" he served as director, producer and screenwriter.

Mr. Levinson, a graduate of Baltimore's Forrest Park High School, says he came out to Hollywood with "barely a clue about what to do in life."

"It wasn't like I was coming for something . . ., " he explains. "There's no roots to this place; not like my roots in Baltimore. It's like the palm tree out here. Its roots just aren't very deep. Everything's temporary. Disposable, in a way."

Mr. Levinson tapped his own life experience in writing "Jimmy Hollywood," which explores a gritty, down-and-out side of the city of celluloid dreams.

In the film, Joe Pesci lends an edginess to the role of Jimmy Alto, a would-be actor who can't get arrested in Hollywood and makes a dangerous alter ego to gain attention. Christian Slater plays his sidekick with a memory problem.

"I think as a writer, you write about the things around you," says Mr. Levinson. "Growing up in Baltimore, I wrote about the diner. I lived in Baltimore, I was around tin men [aluminum siding salesmen]."

In L.A., Mr. Levinson became disturbed by the deterioration of old-time Hollywood. It was when he was scouting locations for "Bugsy" that he came to understand the urgency in keeping alive these memories.

"Someone suggested we go to the famous Sunset and Vine, where the old NBC Studios used to be. But there was nothing there. Then we said, 'OK, well, the Brown Derby.' Well, the Brown Derby is gone. It's a burned-out building.

"So that all stayed in my head," he says. "Then you're suddenly and constantly reading about the drugs and the crime, and then your friend's car gets stolen. . . .

"All of a sudden, it's the kernel that ultimately launched the piece."

The movie is described as an examination of American urban decay, a bittersweet story of one individual who is literally willing to die to "make it" in Hollywood as a real-life shooting star.

Joe Pesci, an Oscar winner himself for "Goodfellas," understood the irony of playing Jimmy Alto. Mr. Pesci worked at everything from a singing waiter to laborer while trying to make it.

"I love this character," says Mr. Pesci. "I've been acting since I was 5, but coming to Hollywood there are all the frustrations trying to get in. You just have to be lucky."

Jim Toback, who wrote "Bugsy," recently told the New York Daily News that Mr. Levinson is one of a handful of directors who can get personal movies made.

"He's quick, smart, funny, likable and creates an ideal atmosphere on the set," Mr. Toback says. "And he makes great pictures about real life."

One way Mr. Levinson gets to make low-budget personal movies like "Jimmy Hollywood" is by alternating them with commercial movies such as "Rain Man" and the forthcoming adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Disclosure."

But first, Mr. Levinson has a wish -- to attend opening day at Camden Yards. "It's the best stadium in baseball," he says proudly.

Maybe the old adage is true: You can take the boy out of Baltimore, but you can't take Baltimore out of the man.

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