Once upon a time, Hollywood directors were encouraged to be versatile. It’s hard to believe that Rob Reiner directed “This is Spinal Tap,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Misery” or that Adrian Lynne did “Fatal Attraction” and “Jacob’s Ladder” or that Jerry Zucker did “Airplane” and “Ghost.” In the 80s, voices were encouraged, R ratings were wonderful and good stories were sometimes the center of gravity. The most versatile, and my favorite director from that era is Barry Levinson.
Faber and Faber actually did a film book called Levinson on Levinson (Directors on Directors Series) that spans the versatile visionary from working with Mel Brooks up until the strange, big budget Robin Williams bomb, “Toys.” Like Woody Allen and later Judd Apatow, Levinson once wrote sketches. This culture taught him how to write quickly and meet deadlines. He claims to have never spent more than 4 weeks to write a screenplay. Woody Allen boasts the same speed (of course if I knew my movie was pre-financed, 4 weeks would not be a problem).
But Levinson claims something perhaps more extraordinary than Woody Allen. He wasn’t just writing and directing personal films about his hometown of Baltimore (“Diner”, “Tin Men,” and “Avalon”), he was an insanely good director for hire. There’s his Oscar classic, “Rain Man,” the bittersweet “Good Morning Vietnam” and the highly underrated “Disclosure” (my favorite of his films); not to mention, the damn good Jack Kevorkian HBO movie, “You Don’t Know Jack” and the straight up masterful “Wag The Dog.” Yes, Barry Levinson directed all those movies (check out his IMDB and tell me you’re not stunned at how many good movies this mofo did).
It was Levinson who developed the current version of “Rain Man” when half a dozen other directors, including Spielberg, couldn’t figure it out. He was right at home with the theme of miscommunication. That’s why he cast an Italian woman with a thick accent (she was written as a typical blonde American) to play Tom Cruise’s girlfriend, to amplify that every character was struggling just to say anything to each other.
Levinson was perhaps not the artist that Paul Verhoeven was and did not have the voice of Martin Scorsese, but he was a born Hollywood director who was more consistently good than any of his peers (really, check out his IMDB and tell me I’m wrong). He will go down as one of the best. This book is invaluable in terms of learning about the man’s process.
Written by: Norith Soth