Thirty years ago this week Diner opened, to little fanfare. It would go on to earn only 14 million dollars (against a cost of 5 million), and earn one Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. However, it has gone on to be an important part of the cinematic culture. It launched or furthered the careers of a number of performers, and was the directorial debut of Barry Levinson.
An article in a recent issue of Vanity Fair (not available online, sorry) proclaims Diner as the most influential film of the 1980s, primarily because of its free use of dialogue. The author cites the novels of Nick Hornby, the TV show Seinfeld, and the films of Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow as being influenced by Diner (Hornby and Apatow freely admit it). I’m not sure about most influential; all I can say is that I was entranced the first time I saw Diner (at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village, which is today the IFC Center) and have been the dozen or so times I’ve seen it since.
Ostensibly inspired by Fellini’s I Vitelloni, a film about young Italian men who can’t quite grasp maturity, Diner focuses on the longtime friendship of five men, now in their twenties and almost completely unmoored. One of them, Shrevie (Daniel Stern), is married to Beth (Ellen Barkin), but in a couple of devastating scenes we learn how doomed this marriage is. He tells Eddie (Steve Guttenberg), who is about to get married, that he and Beth have nothing to talk about: before the wedding they talked about sex, and then talked about the wedding, but now, though he can bullshit for hours with the guys at the diner, he can’t have a five-minute conversation with Beth. Later, Shrevie will erupt at Beth for misfiling his records, and daring to put James Brown in the rock and roll section instead of the R&B section. He then shows, callously, that his records mean more to him than she does.
Eddie, who still lives at home (we are unsure of his employment) and drives his mother crazy, is even more immature. He is “technically” still a virgin, but has decided to get married to the (never-seen) Elyse because it would make her happy and seems like the thing to do. But he has made the wedding about him–in a plot twist that seems unthinkable, he has elbowed aside her color scheme and chosen the colors of the Baltimore Colts, his primary passion. Further, he has decreed that Elyse must pass a football quiz in order to get married.
Boogie (Mickey Rourke, looking like a newborn compared to the weathered wreck he now is) is a hair stylist and law student who has a penchant for putting down bets. He’s got a $2,000 bet down with a local bookie, but when he loses, he must scramble to get the money. He does by betting the guys he can get his date, the otherwise untouchable Carol Heathrow, to touch his pecker on their first date. Thus comes perhaps the most famous scene of Diner, when Rourke uses the “popcorn” trick. This film is based on Levinson’s youth in Baltimore, but I’m not sure this could have ever happened. It’s funny to think it might have, though.
Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is the darkest of the boys. He is self-loathing and alcoholic, a trust-fund kid who does stupid things, like punching out the windows in the school basement or taking the place of the baby Jesus in a nativity scene, because they are “smiles.” When he and Boogie are out in the Maryland countryside, they come upon a rich girl riding a horse. Boogie has to stop and talk to her, and asks her her name. “Jane Chisholm, like the Chisholm Trail,” she says, riding off. Boogie asks Fenwick, “What fucking Chisholm Trail?” Fenwick responds, “Did you ever wonder if there’s something going on that we know nothing about?” This line turns out to be ironic, though, as Fenwick’s secret shame is that he knows quite a bit, as we learn when he watches G.E. College Bowl on TV and knows all the answers. When he later goes to see his hated brother to get money for Boogie, the brother condescendingly asks Fenwick if he’s ever read a book.
The least effective plot thread is that of Billy (Timothy Daly), who is, to all reports, the stand-in for Levinson. He’s gone off to New York, and comes back for the wedding. He is reunited with a friend, Barbara, whom he learns is pregnant from their one night of passion after six years of friendship. Daly is tightly-wound through the whole film, punching out a guy from a long-ago slight on the baseball field, to jumping in with the house band at a strip club to play uptempo music.
Besides the five guys, there’s Paul Reiser as Modell, kind of a hanger-on who serves as something of a Greek chorus. Reiser, who has become less and less tolerable since Diner, is hilarious here, as he riffs on absurd matters such as how “nuance” is not a good word, but “gesture” is. Levinson encouraged improvisation, and filmed the scenes in the diner, which are the heart of the movie, last, so the cast knew each other well. A scene in which Guttenberg debates Reiser about who is better, Sinatra or Mathis, is brilliantly done. When Boogie arrives and he is asked, he responds “Presley,” which prompts Guttenberg to say, “You’ve just gone down…in my book,” an improvised line that causes Stern to do a spit-take.
There are so many good lines in this film, many of them becoming shorthand between me and my friend Paula, who is another Diner fanatic. Upon seeing The Seventh Seal, Guttenberg tells Daly, “I’ve been to Atlantic City 100 times and I’ve never seen Death on the beach,” or when an old man shopping for TV sets tells salesman Stern, “I don’t like color television…I watched Bonanza and the Ponderosa looked fake. I could hardly recognize Little Joe.” Or when Reiser, making comments at the wedding, tells everyone about Elyse’s test, and then says, “We all know how the foundation of any good marriage is a firm grasp of football trivia.”
But beyond the one-liners, Diner is so rich in its tapestry of a time, Baltimore in 1959. The little touches, such as when Rourke takes a mouthful of sugar and washes it down with Coke, or the ketchup bottles stacked on each, spout to spout, or the chrome diner and the white-tiled hamburger joint, all are sharply nostalgic (of course, more time has passed from now and when Diner opened then between then and when the action takes place)
The film is also a brilliant character study. My heart still breaks when Barkin goes to Rourke, an ex-beau, and asks if she’s still pretty, and when he says she is, she replies “Did you really care for me? Not just because you could do stuff to me?” Or when a local businessman (Michael Tucker) pays off Rourke’s bet, on the condition he comes to work for him in his home improvement business (Tucker will be a larger character in the sort of sequel to Diner, Tin Men. There would follow two more films in Levinson’s Baltimore series: Avalon and Liberty Heights). Rourke, saying he goes to law school just to impress girls, figures he could just lie about it. But he tells Tucker he still has plans. “Always a dreamer, eh Boog?” Tucker asks, and Rourke tells him, “If you don’t have dreams, you have nightmares.”
And then there’s the music. The soundtrack is full of golden oldies, from “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to “Run, Run, Rudolph.” The opening scene is pure genius, as Reiser walks into the local high school at the Christmas dance. In the distance we hear a band playing “Shout,” and it gets louder and louder as he strides toward the gym, until he’s in midst of dancing teenagers.