Library salutes Levinson's 'reel' contributions to American culture
Updated 6:39 pm, Thursday, May 31, 2012
A host of celebrities from Robert De Niro to Sheryl Crow were in virtual attendance at the Westport Public Library's 14th annual "Booked for the Evening" fundraising event Wednesday honoring director, producer and screenwriter Barry Levinson.
"Congrats on whatever you're getting down there at the library," a shirtless Danny DeVito said via video. "It's very nice of you to do this for the books and stuff."
DeVito starred in Levinson's "Tin Men" (1987) and was part of a cast of celebrity videos praising Levinson's talents in a film and television career spanning more than 40 years.
"No filmmaker, I think, has contributed more to contemporary American culture than Levinson," said Michael Sragow, a writer for the Baltimore Sun newspaper and contributor to the New Yorker since 1982.
Levinson, a Baltimore native, is best known for "Rain Man" (1988), for which he won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Director and the 39th Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. But guest speakers focused their tributes predominantly on "Diner" (1982), Levinson's directorial debut, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Sragow credited Levinson and "Diner" as the inception of the style of observational humor that has exploded in popularity in the last 20 years. Television shows such as "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and films including "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" owe their comedic roots to his unique approach to dialogue and the subtle rendering of relationships between characters.
"He makes every word count in `Diner,' " he said. "He definitively captured the sheer cluelessness of the American male in the mid-20th century and he did it in a way that changed American movies, TV and stand-up comedy. He concentrated on the connections characters made between punch lines when they seemed to be doing nothing."
Sragow said Steve Kloves, a screenwriter who worked on the Harry Potter films, credits "Diner" with showing him how to create a world within a world. A number of cast members from `"Diner" owe their breaks to Levinson -- including Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and Mickey Rourke, he added.
"The whole American film industry owes him big time," he said.
Other speakers included Michael Tucker and his wife, Jill Eikenberry, who co-starred in television's "L.A. Law." Tucker, who had roles in "Diner" and "Tin Men," said Levinson has made a unique contribution to the industry.
"His films have an emotional specificity to them," he said, "he has the ability to use a simple phrase to open up whole worlds."
He cited the "roast beef scene" from "Diner" as the perfect example of emotional specificity and how a simple conversation between four men over sandwiches could capture the subtle reality of relationships.
"It all comes back to little moments," Levinson said.
He cite two small but pivotal moments from his own life. As a kid cutting class he would sometimes find himself in the public library. He recalled bumping into a book about television that sparked his interest in film and led him to read every book on radio, theater and film in the library, he said, building his interest in what one of his school advisors termed, "the nebulous field of arts."
Another significant moment occurred for Levinson when he encountered the script for Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty," which included dialogue he credits with influencing his style. He recalled a boy in a coffee shop asking a friend, "What do you want to do tonight, Marty?" The friend simply responded, "I don't know Angie, what do you wanna do?"
"As a kid little I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever heard in my life," Levinson said. "It stayed in my head and I realized that little comment stuck, and that is basically the genesis of `Diner.' "
The power of the dialogue comes in the ordinariness of it all, he said, it more accurately reflects the reality of how people interact.
"The library is the heart and soul of the community," said Westport resident Lisa Rispol, a sponsor of the event. It was her first time at the library's "Booked for the Evening" event and she said she was a particular fan of Levinson's "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987). Robin Williams, who starred in that film, also paid video tribute to Levinson.
"It's good to know there are still libraries," Williams said. "We need books, we need to support them just in case all the Kindles go POOF!"
Levinson spoke of the importance of libraries and the influence they have had on his life.
"Libraries are an important part of society that cannot be dismissed," he said. "When a kid picks up a book his whole world can change," citing himself as a perfect example.