'Bandits' helmer nabs more career kudos

Some people, like Barry Levinson, are born to direct,” says Cate Blanchett.

Blanchett, a Screen Actors Guild supporting actress nominee for Levinson’s “Bandits,” considers him “a natural-born storyteller. He’s the most astonishing raconteur. It’s hard to categorize his films, which is what makes them so rich. In a strange way, Barry is his own genre. He has a marvelously skewed, bizarre take on the world.”

Blanchett’s enthusiastic estimate is seconded by the American Cinema Editors, which will present the helmer with its Golden Eddie Filmmaker of the Year award Sunday. The kudo is being given to Levinson, the org says, for “a body of work that represents consistent excellence of content, craftsmanship and integrity.”

Versatility has been Levinson’s byword since his days as two-time Emmy-winning writer (1974 and 1975) for “The Carol Burnett Show,” and comic actor in “High Anxiety” and “Silent Movie.”

“I have an eclectic career,” says Levinson, “and I love jumping around. I like the quirky things like ‘Wag the Dog.’ Then there are times I want to do a Hollywood type of film, like ‘The Natural’ or ‘Bugsy.’ But when I’m questioned about style, I feel it’s dependent on the work. I don’t impose my style on the story I’m telling. I let it speak for itself.”

Dustin Hoffman, who worked with him on such films as “Rain Man” and “Wag the Dog,” applauds Levinson’s approach: “What makes him unique is disdain for conventional structure, formula — and ultimately, resisting making film as product. He has created a canvas of irony and humanity. … His vision is not derivative.”

A mentor named Mel

Although Levinson’s family in his native Baltimore never encouraged him (“Not at all — they never understood it”), he followed his individual path, which led him to early mentor Mel Brooks.

“I worked on the ‘High Anxiety’ script with Mel for three years. We met every morning, had breakfast, wrote, had lunch, wrote some more. We were there during the shoot and the edit. It was like the University of Mel Brooks. I told Mel about my idea for a story set in Baltimore and he said, ‘Write about that!’ One day ‘Diner’ came to me and I did write it. He was extremely influential.”

Levinson moved from wartime comedy (“Good Morning, Vietnam”), baseball (“The Natural”) to psychological study (“Rain Man”) and lighthearted caper (“Bandits”).

“I particularly love the Baltimore films,” he says, referring to a series of films that began with 1982’s “Diner,” moved on to 1987’s “Tin Men,” 1990’s “Avalon” and was capped by 1999’s “Liberty Heights.” “It’s my birthplace, the world I know. Certain moments hit a nerve, like the fight in ‘Avalon’ over cutting the turkey. People always tell me it was like their dinners, not just Thanksgiving.”

Biographically inspired

This quartet of films blends comedy and drama, genres that offer specific challenges.

“Again, it starts with the script,” Levinson says. “You can’t take a drama and make it funny, unless it has logical moments for that. You can’t let someone slip on a banana peel unless it’s natural. Natural humor comes out of honesty. And sometimes it can be misread. ‘Diner’ is funny, but it was misunderstood initially. They called it dark and depressing. Someone sees a film alone, and they view it one way. Then they go with a group and it looks different. ‘Bugsy’ has some funny scenes in it, but it’s certainly a drama.”

“Barry makes working an incredibly joyous experience,” says Barbara Hershey, who co-starred in “Tin Men” and “The Natural.” “A lot is his writing. He has humor, originality and soul. And when trouble comes, he helps and inspires you.”

Hoffman agrees, noting, “He likes actors. He makes doing a movie feel like hanging out. He shrewdly removes the pressure without your being aware of it.”

There could have been pressure during “Rain Man,” as Hoffman felt insecure. “When I started,” he says, “I felt I couldn’t cut it. His challenge was not letting me leave town.”

Hoffman not only stayed in town, he won the actor Oscar for the role in 1988. The movie won best picture, while Levinson took best director and Ron Bass best screenplay.

Bass attributes Levinson’s emotional connections to his character-first attitude.

“With so many other directors, you feel the technique, intrusion of the camera,” he says. “Barry’s films have the technical, visual elements but they’re quietly supportive of the story. They have heart as well as conflict.”

Billy Bob Thornton (“Bandits”) credits the director with giving the cast freedom to do what they felt. “He would take off on things we would do … notice traits you have in real life and put them in the movie.”

None of these onscreen elements could coalesce without skillful editing, and Levinson feels fortunate to have worked exclusively with the brilliant, introverted Stu Linder.

Texture of the piece

“Editing,” says Levinson, “is an understanding of all things, the performance, the text of the piece, and the decisions that need to be made, of which there are thousands, including when not to cut.”

Linder, who scrupulously avoids the limelight, returns Levinson’s admiration, calling him “one of the great film editors of our time. We see eye to eye … at different times, as I’m editing one film, he’s writing another.” What Linder also enjoys is Levinson’s prolific mind, which is always bursting with ideas he wants to try.

A mind so active needs different outlets for its creativity, and Levinson has carved out an equally impressive television career.

“I came from TV,” Levinson says, “and certain things are more suited to one medium than another. When I was given ‘Homicide’ as a feature idea, I thought it would work best for TV. I never felt features were more prestigious, that you had to differentiate.”

Small-screen saga

He directed, and won an Emmy, for the pilot episode of skein “Homicide: Life on the Street.” which he executive produced. The series ran seven years on NBC. Currently he produces HBO’s “Oz,” a brutally honest look at prison life.

“Oz writer Tom Fontana had the idea,” Levinson says. “It was a bold step, but HBO said, ‘Let’s go with it.’ They’re always willing to take risks, rather than play it safe. Trying to be safe is never going to win anything. You’re not going to get those breakthroughs.”

Two other hard-hitting Levinson-produced dramas for HBO also earned positive notices: “A Familiar Path,” dealing with President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War, and “Shot in the Heart,” about killer Gary Gilmore and his brother.

2002 will feature a host of varied Levinson projects. A feature, “Possession,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow and directed by Neil LaBute, will come out this spring. “Analyze That,” a sequel to the Billy Crystal-Robert De Niro comedy “Analyze This,” will start filming in March. Also in the works is a fourth autobiographical venture.

Levinson’s career validates Blanchett’s summation: “He keeps actors on their toes, but not in a saccharine way. He makes you want to reach out to him, and therefore an audience. He’s hypnotic, I think … a true original and a wonderful guy.”

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