On cusp of film's 30th anniversary, creatives target Rialto

“Diner,” written and directed by Barry Levinson, is a wonderful movie.

That simple sentence began a lengthy, thoughtful review by Pauline Kael in the April 5, 1982, New Yorker, a review that saved a cinematic gem from quick extinction — and, as it turned out, helped pave the way for a Broadway musical decades later.

This spring will mark the 30th anniversary of “Diner,” Levinson’s inaugural effort as a helmer, which simultaneously celebrated and deconstructed the late-1950s Baltimore of his youth. Come the fall, Levinson’s “Diner” tuner adaptation, with music and lyrics by Sheryl Crow, and with Kathleen Marshall directing, will bow on the Rialto.

Set design has begun, with final casting to take place in the spring in advance of what will be an out-of-town test run in the summer.

The rebirth of “Diner” has stirred excitement about the musical (mixed with guarded curiosity) from those who remember the film for both its comedy, centered on the exploits of six Baltimore buddies, and its insightful commentary on communication bumps and bruises between the sexes.

In an age of four-quadrant blockbuster mindsets, the blossoming of what was such a personal project into a franchise is noteworthy. Though movies of such intimate scale often disappear, a few can pay off for decades.

Still, if the legit adaptation has any naysayers, that would only make sense. Ultimately nominated for an original screenplay Oscar, a Writers Guild award and a Golden Globe, “Diner” would have been relegated to an MGM dustbin if not for the power of Kael’s pen, say Levinson and his colleagues.

“The studio so disliked the movie,” Levinson says, with execs surprised to find the final product didn’t resemble “Porky’s,” which hit theaters about the same time. “They even disliked it when it was breaking house records. … I said at some point, ‘This is not like a foreign film here. It’s not like it’s subtitled. Why is this so strange?’ ”

But executive producer Mark Johnson, who like Levinson was a rookie in his role, had an ace to play; his mother had become a good friend of Kael’s.

“So I used that to sneak the movie off to show it to Pauline,” Johnson says, “because at that point she was so powerful, she could make or break a movie. And she loved it, and called up MGM and said: ‘You guys are going to have egg on your face, because you’re gonna have this movie with this rave review, and it’s not going to be around. Nobody’s going to be able to see it.’ So they reluctantly opened it in one theater in Manhattan.”

Filmed on a $5 million budget that Levinson had earned thanks to script work on such films as “And Justice for All …” and “High Anxiety” (Mel Brooks suggested Levinson turn his rich Baltimore anecdotes into a feature), “Diner” grossed $14 million despite its limited release.

“They never made more than 20 prints of the movie,” says Daniel Stern, who played Shrevie, husband to Ellen Barkin’s Beth, in the film.

Nevertheless, “Diner” enjoys passionate respect, for the exceptionally authentic and funny interplay between the characters, Levinson’s meticulous direction and the breakout performances of its young cast. Stern, along with Kevin Bacon, Barkin, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg, Paul Reiser and Mickey Rourke, formed a core of up-and-coming actors who went on to long careers.

Though studio execs had their own vision problems for the film 30 years ago, Levinson’s audition process had laid solid groundwork. Given how dependent the pic was on naturalistic chatter, he had to look not only at how the actors would play the part, but how they would play against each other.

“Ellen Barkin, oddly enough, is the only person I met for (the role of) Beth,” Levinson says. “She came in, I met her, that was it. Five or six hundred guys, one person for Beth.”

Rourke, who was coming off a memorable supporting turn in “Body Heat,” probably had the highest profile at the time, but future “Mad About You” star Reiser wound up playing a key role as well, even though his was the smallest part among the guys and his casting was fairly accidental.

Reiser came to the auditions not in hopes of a part but just to keep a friend company. Levinson says that casting director Ellen Chenowith noticed Reiser in the hallway and called him in. Arguably as much as anyone, Reiser raised everyone’s game.

“When we got to the improv-y stuff, we had a professional comic in our midst who was going to eat us alive if we didn’t stay on our toes, Stern says. “There was a line that Reiser had. Somebody said, ‘You think she’ll go down for the count?’ Reiser, out of nowhere, said, ‘No, but I heard she blew the prince.’

“We had to stop shooting that day, because we got so hysterical. Tried for half an hour, and they finally shut us down.”

While encouraging the freewheeling exchanges, Levinson naturally had other challenges in his first directing assignment. But he knew the characters and situations so intimately that he soared past the learning curve, Johnson says.

“If he didn’t know how to get something, he could say, ‘This is what I want,’ ” Johnson recalls. “A lot of first-time directors can only get to what they want by telling you what they don’t want.”

Johnson found himself fascinated — if a little frightened — by Levinson’s desire for what he called “shots just to have.” Example: After supposedly having wrapped for the night, Levinson held the crew back for a shot in the diner of one ketchup bottle being drained into another, even though there was no specific point for it in the script.

Later, he inserted it into the film for atmosphere.

“You see it in the movie — it’s brilliant,” Johnson says. “He instinctively knew that.”

Johnson, in turn, had to convince the studio that all these subtle touches were worth keeping, and that the film didn’t need bombastic moments to compensate.

“He was a ballsy young producer to protect Barry’s vision,” Stern says.

Levinson’s savviest decision was to save the actual diner scenes until the end of production, helping ensure that the cast had the kind of chemistry, for scripted and improvised dialogue alike, needed for a movie that so emphasized character over story.

“You wanted to have the diner talk be as natural and as spontaneous as possible,” Levinson says. “So the more these guys knew each other, the more time they’ve spent with each other, there’s a shorthand to it all.”

Says Guttenberg: “It wasn’t a competition between us. It was a competition to ourselves and actors to get the opportunity to really be the best. … You want all the moments in the scene to work, so if you got a great moment, it’s not to the exclusion of the other people in the scene. You’re not dunking the ball; you’re passing the ball between you.”

Yet if you ask Levinson, he’ll tell you that for all the razor-sharp exchanges, he couldn’t have written “Diner” if he hadn’t sussed out the element that tied it all together: the guys’ lack of understanding of women, with its most famous set piece — the 100-question Baltimore Colts football quiz an unseen fiancee must pass before her wedding — rooted in the fear that if she failed, she and Guttenberg’s Eddie would have nothing to talk about.

” ‘Diner’ is a great period piece — a look at middle-class relations between the sexes just before the sexual revolution,” Kael wrote in the New Yorker. “If any men (or women) think they regret the changes, this is the movie they ought to see. … the last period in our history when people could laugh (albeit uneasily) at the gulf between men and women. It takes place just before this gulf became an issue of sexual politics — before it began to be discussed as a problem.”

Johnson and Levinson agree that Kael’s review opened minds to a film that was unique in its sensibility.

“Kael kind of set the course on the movie,” Levinson says. “She laid it out, she explained it and the other critics picked up on it. Somehow you were past that (initial) roadblock.

“We weren’t this full-blown comedy; we weren’t this dramatic piece of writing. … We were just lightly outside of the box, where you very easily could be misunderstood.”

Eventually, “Diner” earned enough appreciation that a 1983 CBS pilot was ordered, with Reiser reprising his film role in a cast that also included James Spader, Michael Madsen, Mike Binder and Alison La Placa. That went nowhere.

For the upcoming musical, hopes are high — if still appropriately in check, according to Base Entertainment co-CEO Scott Zeiger, whose stage producing credits include “The Producers.”

“I think there was a unique pressure on Mel Brooks to put ‘The Producers’ on Broadway from the moment the film opened,” Zeiger says. “Various people had been approaching him over his entire career to make that happen.

“I think our aspirations are to be a bit more boutique … to create something that is not quite as high-profile from day one, but will enjoy some of the success of ‘The Producers,’ ” he says.

The evolution of “Diner” makes sense on one level, given how integral music was to the pic, with more than a couple dozen songs used, including the hilarious but heartbreaking scene in which Stern berates Barkin over her misuse of his records. Still, its path to a Broadway tuner wasn’t an obvious one.

“It was mentioned quite a long time ago, and I had no interest in it because I could only see ‘Diner’ as a dramatic comedy,” Levinson says. “‘Grease’ is extremely successful, ‘Hairspray’ is very successful, but I couldn’t see ‘Diner’ in those kinds of terms.”

Levinson says Zeiger helped him see that Broadway possibilities for “Diner” were brighter.

“What (Barry) was concerned about is that in the tradition of musical theater, there’s a lot of bombastic, successful musicals where actors sing lines to each other instead of talk,” Zeiger says. “What we discussed was that these characters could sing and potentially reveal emotions and inner thoughts that are more interesting and more unique and more ethereal, if you will, than singing dialogue.

“The frustration the Beth character might feel, in her fractured marriage, could be expressed not solely in a tear in a closeup, or frustration in her face, but through a song, sung out emotionally.”

Subsequently, the introduction of Crow to the mix proved pivotal. Levinson felt a kindred spirit in her storytelling, while Crow, he says, proved to have an excellent understanding of the movie.

“I think her range in the piece is great, because there’s a great intimacy to some of it,” Levinson adds. “There are some bigger numbers, but I think it feels very compatible to ‘Diner.’ The songs don’t feel big and sort of cartoony. The music has the same kind of naturalism.”

And, in fact, Levinson, Crow and Marshall haven’t allowed themselves to become slaves to the music.

“I’d say it’s a little more music (than book) because that’s just normal,” Zeiger says, “but there are some iconic scenes from the film that have to be presented in a book-like fashion. … We’re not muscializing the sports quiz — it’s just too iconic.”

Whatever happens, “Diner” will always be music to its fans’ ears.

“The movie is a love song,” says Guttenberg. “And that’s why it has such resonance after 30 years. It’s a love song to Baltimore, to youth, to coming of age, to life, drama, friendship, romance. … Great love songs don’t go away.”

Read the original Variety review

Watch the original trailer

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