|"Does that include the Maryland fried chicken dinner?"|
Judy and I watched DINER (1982) the other night. It was the first time she'd seen it. I've lost count of how many times I've seen this film but I hadn't seen it in several years and it was a nice visit with an old friend.
Barry Levinson's semi-autobiographical film recounts a group of young men in Baltimore, 1959. The men are a close knit group. They've grown up together but now, in their early twenties, they're all struggling with different aspects of maturity, responsibility and becoming "adults". They want desperately to hold onto the past while simultaneously taking steps into the unknown future in which each must stand on his own in either success or failure.
The group includes Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), a spoiled mama's boy who still lives at home although he's engaged to be married to a never fully seen woman named Elyse. The marriage hinges upon whether or not Elyse can pass a brutal test of Baltimore Colts football trivia. She fails the test but Eddie goes ahead with the wedding ceremony anyway.
Shrevie (Daniel Stern), is the one married man in the group. His wife (Ellen Barkin), doesn't understand the connection Shrevie has with his buddies. Shrevie, an obsessive-compulsive record collector and music fan, works in an appliance store and seems happiest when he's talking music with the diner guys.
Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a smooth-talking ladies man who works in a beauty parlor by day and attends law school classes at night. He's also a man with a gambling addiction who finds himself in over his head with debts he cannot pay. He's eventually taken under the wing of Bagel (Michael Tucker), an older diner regular, who pays off Boogie's debts in return for work from the young man.
Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is an underachieving guy with a drinking problem. Although not formally educated, Fen has more innate knowledge about "stuff" than his peers but he has no drive to apply this knowledge to anything productive and instead lives off of trust-fund money.
Tim Daly is Billy, the only member of the group to leave town for college. He returns for Eddie's wedding and discovers that his platonic girlfriend is now pregnant, the result of a one-night stand in New York. Billy is an earnest young man who is determined to do the right thing.
Modell (Paul Reiser) is the least developed character but he does have several very funny lines ("You know what word I'm not comfortable with? Nuance.").
The final major player in the film is the Fells Point Diner where the guys hang out for late night bull sessions. They smoke, consume plates of french fires with gravy (with a cherry Coke) and relive their glory days. Much of this dialogue was improvised by the actors who spent a lot of time hanging out together and getting to know each other before the cameras ever started rolling.
DINER is a warm, funny, heartfelt coming-of-age film that never becomes overly sentimental. The film has a terrific soundtrack of period rock and r&b songs and the art direction is first rate. The clothes, cars and settings are all authentic and I'd forgotten just how good the film looks.
When Judy and I visited Baltimore last year, I was determined to eat at the Fells Point Diner. The concierge at our hotel swore it was a great place to eat and we hailed a cab and headed off for breakfast one morning. When we arrived at the location (not on the waterfront as in the film but in a dense, urban neighborhood), the diner was long closed and out of business. Someone needs to update their website.
There's a scene in the film in which Boogie is confronted by Tank, a gambling enforcer, outside of the beauty parlor where Boogie works. When I saw the scene this time, I immediately recognized it as a street that Judy and I had walked along near the Walters Art Museum (which was really interesting). Of course, I didn't recognize the street when we were there but I instantly knew it when I saw the film.
DINER had a huge influence on me and my buddies. We saw the film many times over the years and would regularly quote dialogue from the movie. We saw parts of ourselves reflected in the characters and their situations although we did not grow up in Baltimore in 1959. That doesn't matter. What the men in DINER experience is universal.
How big an influence was DINER? Well, when Judy and I were planning our wedding we had a great meeting with our photographer Mark Gaynor. He empathized that he loved to do creative, original, imaginative work, not the standard posed wedding stuff. We were his customers and he would take any pictures we wanted. I asked for two things from him and he delivered.
First, I asked that he photograph all of the groomsmen, ushers and myself in front of Dirty Martin's hamburger joint on the Drag. If any local restaurant would qualify as our "diner" it would be Dirty's. We've been regularly eating there since we were at Austin High in the '70s. Mission accomplished.
Second, I asked if he would do the "DINER shot" (see image above) of the men around the table staring into the camera with blank expressions. He did so and we have that picture (along with others from the wedding) framed and on display in our home. The shot includes myself along with my best pals: the late Ray Kohler, Steve Cook, Terry Porter and Robert "Smiley" Morgan.
How many other people have asked for that iconic image to be recreated as part of the most memorable day of their life? I don't know if there's anyone else out there who had this idea but I do know one thing.
The guys at the diner would be proud.