You can’t make this stuff up. That’s become something of a cliché when discussing today’s salacious headlines. Imagination pales in the face of daily events.
The clear exception is Barry Levinson, the legendary writer, actor, and producer whose work serves as nothing less than a roadmap for the country’s direction and a prequel to even the most improbable of today’s outré moments.
Take “Wag the Dog,” Levinson’s black comedy in which Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro play a spin doctor and a Hollywood producer who fabricate a war to distract voters from a presidential sex scandal. Dismissed as an implausible political satire when it was released in 1997, it now seems prescient and has become a touchstone for television talking heads.
Or “Diner,” the 1982 comedy about, well, nothing at all. Widely dissed as a “little movie” without a story when it opened, it created a tectonic shift in popular culture. As Vanity Fair noted on its 30th anniversary, the film, which Levinson wrote and directed, invented the concept of nothing, foreshadowing our culture by paving the way for Seinfeld, Pulp Fiction, The Office, and Judd Apatow’s career – not to mention making stars of Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, and Paul Reiser.
“No movie from the 1980s has proved more influential,” S.L. Price wrote five years ago in the magazine. “Diner has had far more impact on pop culture than the stylistic masterpiece Bladerunner, the indie darling Sex, Lies, and Videotape, or the academic favorites Raging Bull and Blue Velvet. . . Diner’s groundbreaking evocation of male friendship changed the way men interact, not just in comedies and buddy movies, but in fictional Mob settings, in fictional police and fire stations, in commercials, on the radio. In 2009, The New Yorker’s TV critic Nancy Franklin, speaking about the TNT series Men of a Certain Age, observed that “Levinson should get royalties any time two or more men sit together in a coffee shop.” She got it only half right. They have to talk too.”
Or “Man of the Year,” the 2006 film in which Robin Williams plays a late-night political talk show host who runs for president simply to shake up the political system, never expecting to win. Remind you of anyone? Or “Rain Man,” the iconic buddy movie featuring a materialistic salesman for which Levinson won an Academy Award as best director. Or “Analyze This,” the 1999 comedy that previewed social narcissism. Or “Tootsie,” another of his collaborations with Williams. Or “Homicide: Life On The Street,” which demystified detective and paved the way for “The Wire” while earning multiple kudos as “the best cop show of recent times” and complimentary comparisons to James Joyce’s “Dubliners.”
Known for his affection for small-time con men and his disdain for their political betters, Levinson started his career as a comedy writer, working for Carol Burnett and Mel Brooks, with whom he collaborated to create the iconic farces “Silent Movie,” “High Anxiety,” and “History of the World, Part I.” During that time, he also co-wrote the screenplay for the crime drama “And Justice for All,” which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. He continued to earn acclaim with such films as “The Natural,” which starred Robert Redford as a mythical baseball hero; “Young Sherlock Holmes;” “Tin Men,” the bookend to “Diner” about two older aluminum siding salesmen; and the sarcastic comedy “Good Morning, Vietnam,” about a military disc jockey played by Robin Williams.
After “Rain Man,” a stinging hate letter to greed, he once again previewed our political passions with the 1990 immigrant story, “Avalon.” The next year came “Bugsy,” the saga of the Las Vegas mob that earned ten Academy Award nominations and now seems prescient. His more recent work has flipped the coin, focusing on reportage, such “Poliwood,” an in-depth documentary about the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions, “The Wizard of Lies” about Bernie Madoff and “Paterno,” starring Al Pacino. Released this year, it examines the career of legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and his dismissal following the university’s child sex abuse scandal.
All proceeds benefit Greenwoods Counseling Referrals, Inc., New Milford Hospital, and Susan B. Anthony Project.
Sunday, August 26, 3 – 4:30 pm
Tickets: $45 – Individual; $250 per person – “Angels on the Green” tickets, include preferred seating and a chance to meet the speakers at a cocktail reception following the conversation.
St. John’s Church
9 Parsonage Lane