How Barry Levinson’s Diner Changed Cinema, 30 Years Later

Much Ado About Nothing

For a little movie without special effects, dramatic reveals, or cutting-edge sex scenes—a movie about nothing at all, really—Barry Levinson’s 1982 comedy, Diner, caused a tectonic shift in popular culture. It paved the way for Seinfeld, Pulp Fiction, The Office, and Judd Apatow’s career, and made stars of Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin, and Paul Reiser. Three decades later, S. L. Price reports how a novice director and his raw cast broke all the rules—and stumbled into genius.

By S. L. Price (Vanity Fair, March 2012)

TABLE TALK: On the set of the Fells Point Diner, 1981; the diner itself had been trucked to Baltimore from New Jersey. From left: Tim Daly, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenberg, and Paul Reiser. (Photograph COURTESY OF PAUL REISER.)

Nick Hornby knew better, but he didn’t care. Because suddenly there was that face—the upturned nose, the lupine grin, the wary expression barely softened by the passage of, what, three decades now? Everyone else in the London club that December night was flittering around Colin Firth, set aglow by the Oscar buzz for his performance in The King’s Speech. Hornby let them flit. For here stood … Kevin Bacon. Undisturbed. That knowing smirk may have derailed him as a leading man, but it has allowed for a career of darker, richer roles—and allows him still to cruise a cocktail party longer than most boldfaced names without some fanboy rushing up to say how wonderful he is.

God knows, Hornby had seen that too often: an actor friend, eyes darting, cornered by a gushing stranger. This belated celebration of Firth’s 50th birthday was a private bash where artists and actors, people like Firth and Bacon—and, well, Hornby—could expect to relax. After all, between best-selling books such as About a Boy and a 2010 Academy Award nod earlier in the year for his screenplay for An Education, he had been cornered plenty himself.

Yet when he saw Bacon, Hornby couldn’t help it. He edged closer. It was like that scene from Diner when Bacon’s buddy sees a boyhood enemy in a crowd and breaks his nose: Hornby had no choice. In 1983 a girlfriend had brought home a tape of director Barry Levinson’s pitch-perfect comedy about twentysomething men, their nocturnal ramblings in 1959 Baltimore, their confused stumble to adulthood. Hornby was 26, a soccer fanatic, a writer searching for a subject. Diner dissected the male animal’s squirrelly devotion to sports, movies, music, and gambling. Diner had one man give his fiancée a football-trivia test and had another stick his penis through the bottom of a popcorn box. Hornby declared it, then and there, “a work of great genius.”

Continue reading “How Barry Levinson’s Diner Changed Cinema, 30 Years Later” at Vanity Fair.

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