A new light In 'Liberty Heights,' the Baltimore-born director is taking a harder look at his beloved hometown.

LEVINSON IN

November 22, 1998|By Ann Hornaday

Three teen-age boys sit in a red vinyl booth in the Hollywood Diner, slurping Cokes and chocolate milkshakes. They're talking about girls and cars and music. And an impending double date. Does Sylvia "put out"? Do you think she might put out? How about her friend?

After some more adolescent banter, Sylvia's date - an angelic-looking kid with soft brown curls and even softer green eyes - produces a quarter from his pocket and tosses it. The coin will decide which of his two friends will be the fourth at a James Brown concert, the adventure's sexual anticipation made even more tantalizing by the prospect of crossing the color line.

Green-eyes slaps the coin down on the tabletop with the thwack of a fate sealed.

Cut.

"Good. Let's keep it going."

It should come as no surprise that the man orchestrating this particular vignette is Barry Levinson. And it should be even less surprising that the Toscanini of adolescent male sexual angst is presiding over yet another symphony of testosterone, anxiety and bonding in the very diner that started his career as a film director.

Scrunched with 30-odd cast and crew members into the narrow Saratoga Street eatery on a chill November afternoon, Levinson has returned once again to the place in Baltimore with which he is most identified. The Hollywood Diner played the title character in the first movie Levinson ever directed, "Diner" (1982). Called the Fells Point Diner back then, it returned to the screen for a cameo in "Tin Men" (1987), where it again served as a male redoubt against the incursions of time, women and other abominations. It was absent but still felt in "Avalon," Levinson's 1991 film about Baltimore just after World War II.

And here it is again, this kitschy, chrome-plated phallic symbol, the perfect architectural trope for the Baltimore men whose tribal rituals Levinson has built so much of his career documenting.

Levinson has come back to film the fourth installment of his Baltimore cycle, a film called "Liberty Heights." And yes, it is sure to be another affectionate glance back to his hometown of yore. But there are signs that this new film will be a significant departure from its predecessors. From its emotionally charged genesis and socially charged themes of racism, anti-Semitism and segregation, to its bold visual style, "Liberty Heights" promises to be a slightly less honeyed vision of Charm City.

Baltimore's most benevolent cinematic Boswell - the earnest yin to John Waters' yang - has indeed returned to the town he loves. But this time, the love is going to be a little tougher.

Maybe the most surprising thing about "Liberty Heights" is that this 1950s coming-of-age tale emerged from the murky depths of Levinson's tepid science-fiction thriller, "Sphere." It was last February, when Levinson read a review of "Sphere" in Entertainment Weekly, that he started fuming - and pacing.

The film, which starred Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, was almost universally maligned. But it wasn't a poor review that brought Levinson to his feet. It was a passage in which the critic described Hoffman's character as "Norman, the empathetic Jewish psychologist," adding insult to indignity with terms like "noodge" and "menschlike."

Levinson was enraged, and becomes enraged again recalling the moment.

"The movie has nothing to do with religion!" he says, his color rising. "You know, whatever you think of the movie is whatever you want to think of it. But why would that be - I mean, you wouldn't say that Mel Gibson [in "Ransom"] is a Catholic businessman whose son is kidnapped."

For three days, Levinson paced around his Marin County, Calif., home, "driving my wife crazy," he says. "Then all of a sudden, it snapped."

Levinson did what he always does when an idea "snaps": He took a notepad and a pen in hand, ensconced himself in a room, switched the satellite music system to the sounds of the 1950s, and wrote. And wrote.

Three weeks later, he emerged with the script for "Liberty Heights," the story of Ben Kurtzman, a 17-year-old Jewish boy growing up in the northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Forest Park.

The year is 1954, when black and white students first begin attending school together. In one subplot, Ben makes tentative romantic advances to an African-American classmate named Sylvia. Ben's father, Nate - portrayed by Joe Mantegna in the film - is a devoted family man who owns a strip club on the Block called the Gaiety (the real-life Gayety was rechristened for better spelling). Nate is also a small-time numbers runner dealing with police crackdowns and the advent of state-sponsored lotteries. Ben's older brother, Van, a sensitive student at the University of Baltimore, is in hot pursuit of a gorgeous girl who happens to reside in one of Baltimore's most patrician WASP precincts.

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