Levinson honored for his writing

Baltimore native looks back on unexpected career

February 21, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

Saturday night in Los Angeles, Baltimore native Barry Levinson received the Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America, given whenever the WGA wants to recognize a screenwriter who has "advanced the literature of the motion picture." The previous winner, in 2008, was the late, great Budd Schulberg. He wrote "On the Waterfront," one of Levinson's all-time favorite movies.

Last week Levinson laughed over the phone from Pasadena and said, "I guess at a certain point in time, you sort of have to admit that you are a writer."

Levinson cut his teeth as a gag man and sketch artist for comedians such as Tim Conway and Carol Burnett. He broke into the motion-picture big time as part of Mel Brooks' writing squad for "Silent Movie" (1976) and "High Anxiety" (1977).

With Valerie Curtin, he wrote three character-based comedy-dramas, including 1979's "... And Justice for All," his first Baltimore picture. As a solo writer-director he has created personal fictions - "Diner" (1982), "Tin Men" (1987), "Avalon" (1990), and "Liberty Heights" (1999) - unparalleled in American features for their novelistic explorations of a changing physical and cultural landscape: Baltimore from the Truman through the Kennedy years.

So he must confess that he is a writer, even though he doesn't fit his own "image" of a writer. As he puts it, "I've always thought of a writer as somebody who sits down at the typewriter, now the computer, and then you think, and you think, and you suddenly get up and you wander around and then you sit back down. All these pictures in my head show this very deliberate, romantic process, maybe coming from the pictures I've seen in the movies. You know: the ashtray filling with cigarettes. Or someone like Hemingway, going off to a retreat somewhere - in Cuba! But when I'm actually writing, it's like talking voices come to me, and I just have to get them down on paper, and sometimes I do it in longhand, and sometimes I do it with dictation."

Levinson's writing is rooted in acting, though he never intended to tread the boards. When he left Baltimore for Los Angeles, the first thing he did on the West Coast was take classes at L.A.'s Oxford Theater. He learned how to leap into theatrical situations and suss out comic or dramatic possibilities. "Suddenly, it's - OK, I'm in a scene, and this is what's going on and now I'm going to improv it. You aren't bound by inhibitions in that kind of acting class because you are working constantly and you feel free. And then you're saying things you had never even thought about before."

At the Oxford Theater "real writing" began for him. "Rather than just trying, mechanically, to write dialogue, I started writing out of characters and the circumstances surrounding them. In some way, everything came from that experience, including stand-up comedy and screenwriting."

He says writing movies for Mel Brooks "was very much like variety shows and sketch comedy. You write a bit, then people jump in and add to it." Levinson helped craft the funniest prank in Brooks' parody of Hitchcock, "High Anxiety." Through a window, the camera observes two people dining; it gracefully, tactfully, moves close to them. Then the camera cracks the windowpane.

"Working with Mel was a great learning process from the standpoint of everything," says Levinson. "The preproduction, the shooting, the editing process - it was like Mel Brooks University."

Brooks urged Levinson to put together his stories of hanging out with his buddies at the Hilltop Diner in Baltimore for the film that became "Diner." Brooks "mentioned Fellini - 'I Vitelloni' [the Italian director's classic about five arrested adolescents] - and I thought about that."

Levinson had no fear of flying solo on a script. But he realized he needed a firmer idea of what the film would be about than he ever did before. Critics often praise the textures of his Baltimore movies. What's essential for Levinson from the get-go is grasping their underlying themes.

In "Diner," set in 1959, it was "all the guys hanging out like a tribe that didn't understand the other tribe" - the opposite sex. "Tin Men," set in 1963, took that idea farther into "the death of the Rat Pack" and its ideal of masculine glamour as practiced by aluminum-siding salesmen. With "Avalon," set mostly in 1948 and 1949, it was "the breakup of the extended family with the rise of television." And "Liberty Heights," set in 1954 and 1955, explored "the racism and class distinction and anti-Semitism in that period."

Still, Levinson doesn't make message movies. For Levinson, the theme provides a framework in which to conjure conflict and emotion. "The theme is for me," he says. "Otherwise, I wouldn't know what I was writing about. But the fun of it is wrapping it all in larger behavior and in character."

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