Barry Levinson’s debut film, Diner–which came out in 1982 but is set in 1959–has movies on its mind, specifically ’50s movies. Start with the fact that its story, about a group of buddies in their early 20s who stubbornly refuse to grow up, is loosely adapted from Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), with the setting transferred from Fellini’s hometown, Rimini, to Levinson’s, Baltimore. Beyond that, the Diner kids are movie buffs. Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick has a poster for The Journey (1959) on the door to his room, and a minor character is obsessed with Sweet Smell of Success (1957); he sidles around quoting lines from the Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman screenplay, like, “JJ, it’s one thing to wear your dog collar, but when it turns into a noose, I’d rather have my freedom.” Movies even insinuate their way into TVs in the appliance store where Shrevie (Daniel Stern) works; a number of them are showing Little Women (1949) as Shrevie tries to make a sale.
The customer, played by Ralph Tabakin (who had small parts in every Levinson film from Diner through Liberty Heights in 1999), says he isn’t interested in one of the new color TVs. “Don’t like that color for nothing,” he says. “Saw Bonanza at my in-laws. It’s not for me. The Ponderosa looked fake. Hardly recognized Little Joe.” In Levinson’s world, nearly everyone–or every male–is a standup comic in waiting. One of the siding salesman in his 1987 movie about aluminum siding salesman, Tin Men, was played by a real-life comic, Jackie Gayle. He riffed about the successful TV western, too:
You got these four guys living on the Ponderosa and you never hear them say anything about wanting to get laid…. I mean you never hear Hoss say to Little Joe, “I had such a hard-on when I woke up this morning.”… You never hear Little Joe say, “Hey, Hoss, I went to Virginia City and I saw a girl with the greatest ass I’ve ever seen in my life.” They just walk around the Ponderosa: “Yes, Pa, where’s Little Joe?” Nothing about broads. … I’m beginning to think that show doesn’t have too much realism.
A couple of the Diner guys have adventurous tastes, going to an art-house screening of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). The camera stays on them as they slump down in their seats listening to Bergman’s portentous dialogue.
Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) stage whispers some standup-style riffing: “What am I watching? The movie just started and I don’t know what’s going on.”
Billy (Tim Daly): “It’s symbolic.”
Symbolism apparently doesn’t play in Baltimore; they walk out.
The big movie-in-movie set piece takes place at a showing of A Summer Place, which wasn’t a huge success in 1959, other than its ear-wormy theme, by Max Steiner, but was much more mainstream fare than Seventh Seal. Almost all the guys are there, in large part because they’re in on a bet: whether Boogie (Mickey Rourke) can get some action from his date. He succeeds, but the Fenwick call the bet off because Boog’s methods are deemed irregular.
It’s a noteworthy scene for two reasons. Most obviously, it puts on display the guys’ attitude towards women, which is basically “bros before hoes,” fifty years before the phrase was coined. The interesting thing is Levinson’s attitude toward the attitude. Sometimes–for example the depiction of Shrevie’s lack of interest bordering on contempt for his wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin)–he coldly and convincingly nails it. But other times, as in this scene, it’s played pretty much strictly for laughs and we feel complicit.
The other thing is Levinson’s use of A Summer Place, specifically that film’s last-gasp-of-’50s-repression treatment of sex and sexuality. In 1959, Hollywood’s morals-protecting Motion Picture Production Code (sometimes known as the Hays Office) was being pushed to the breaking point by such films as Suddenly Last Summer and Some Like It Hot. Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place–based on a novel by Sloan Wilson, author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit–wasn’t as explicit as those films. But not only is it suffused with unexpressed sexuality, such repression is one of its themes. In one of the scenes shown in Diner (and by the way, Levinson takes poetic license in this sequence, jumping around and presenting highlights from various points in Summer Place), teenage Molly Jorgenson (Sandra Dee) is on a boat with her father, Ken (Richard Egan), and looks through binoculars at a nearby island.
Molly: There’s a boy up there watching me!
[He runs off]
There he goes. Funny feeling being looked at without knowing it. Remember that family that lived next door to us back home?… Their son used to look at me.
Ken: Without you knowing it?
Molly: Well, his bedroom was right across from mine and… one night I felt naughty and went right on undressing so he could see. Then all of a sudden I… I got terribly ashamed and I ran and pulled the curtains down. I’ll never forget… I had hot and cold flashes all over me afterwards. Wasn’t that awful?
Ken: Well, I guess every human being on earth has a few things he’s ashamed of.
We’re in a sort of time warp. A Summer Place was made and set in 1959 but is a decade or so behind the times when it comes to sex. Diner, you feel, is unrealistic (as Jackie Gayle’s character would put it) the other way; its look back of 1959, while not grossly anachronistic, is colored and informed by all the sexual changes of the ’60s and ’70s.
The other movie-in-movie scene in Diner is short and easy to overlook, but it’s my favorite scene in the movie. Alcoholic, dissipated, and self-loathing, Fenwick is a total fuck-up. But then we see him in his bedroom, slumped in an armchair. On the TV (black and white) is GE College Bowl, a quiz show featuring college students that aired from 1953 to 1970. Every question posed by the host, Allen Ludden, Fenwick nails. We glimpse that maybe he’s not such a loser after all. Then Boogie walks in and asks Fenwick for some money, and the spell is broken.