Starring Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Daniel Stern, Ellen Barkin, Paul Reiser, Kathryn Dowling, Michael Tucker and Colette Blonigan. Directed by Barry Levinson. From Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Any article you read on Barry Levinson’s Diner will tell you that the film is basically the starting point of movies and TV shows seemingly about nothing and featuring guys talking. It paved the way for Seinfeld, Pulp Fiction, The Office and many other works. A generation of men have Diner stories and have had Diner experiences and will tell you the many ways it has informed the way they relate to other guys. All this aside, the film is a rarity in that – while it does not actually say much at all – virtually every scene is enchanting and has some shining element to recommend it. This makes the film exceedingly watchable from beginning to end.
I said in Part One of this review that I only watch this film in December. There is really no Die Hard-type debate though as to whether or not this film qualifies as a “Christmas movie”. It does indeed take place between Christmas night and the earliest minutes of the 1960’s but there is something that I never considered when I first watched Diner in my youth. These guys are Jewish. They don’t celebrate Christmas. So, while you’ll hear Christmas songs (two and both by Chuck Berry!) and see decorations, a Christmas movie it is not.
Speaking of Christmas night, let’s get it on. There’s a lot to talk about but don’t worry – there’ll be a couple of intermissions. This’ll be almost as good as actually watching the movie.
Scene 1: Christmas Night
The first person we see in the film is Paul Reiser as Modell. He’s obviously been downstairs in the building where they are having a dance and has witnessed Timothy Fenwick, Jr. (Bacon) “punchin’ out the windows” in the basement. Modell knows that Robert “Boogie” Sheftell (Rourke) can handle Fen and tells him what’s going on. As Boogie heads downstairs, he seems to gesture to someone and points to Eddie Simmons (Guttenberg). Why? Fenwick seems like and may actually be the youngest member of the group. See how he dresses youthfully in a collegiate style with white sneakers. Talking to Boogie of his date, Fen says that she is well-developed for one so young. Boogie shoots this down saying Diane (Kelle Kipp) wears “falsies”. Boogie says this is “first-hand info”. Did Diane tell Boogie this? Or has he found out for himself?
Back upstairs, Boogie talks with Diane, asking why she chose another guy, David Frazer (Richard Pierson), over Fenwick during the course of tonight’s date. Diane says “Fenwick scares me”. Point taken. Fenwick always seems to be brooding and half in the bag. Kevin Bacon was down with the flu when he auditioned for the role of Fenwick and decided to use his condition to form a characterization. Bacon chose to play Fen as if he was always indeed half-drunk. Diane smiles coyly and suggests Boogie drive her home – all the girls love Boogie Sheftell. Boogie says he has to work in the morning and delivers one of the film’s early classic lines; “The only reason I came by here is I appreciate the fine music”. Gently touching her cheek, he convinces Diane to let Fen take her home. He shoots Frazer a look over Diane’s shoulder.
The boys form a car train as they leave the dance. Though it is December in Baltimore, Fenwick never has the top up on his convertible 1958 Triumph TR3A. Modell is riding in Boogie’s black 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and delivers another classic speech about his discomfort with the word “nuance”. Fenwick stages a phoney wreck and, as the friends stop to investigate his prank, it is interesting to watch how Beth Schreiber’s (Barkin) presence is handled. As the guys approach Fen laying on the road, her husband, Laurence “Shrevie” Schreiber (Stern) tells her roughly “stay here”. Looking at what could be a corpse laying on the road was not for a woman’s eyes in 1959. When Fen discloses the ruse, Beth gently heckles him by saying “that’s very mature, Fenwick” to which Fenwick replies coarsely “f*** ‘mature’!”, drawing a mild reprimand from Shrevie. Fen apologizes. Shrevie has enough respect for his wife that he won’t have her talked to in this way. As the Schreibers head home in their 1953 Hudson Super Wasp (5C), Boogie makes a point of turning to Beth and waving as they pull away. Final note on the opening scene: Fenwick and Boogie – single men – are able to afford cars only one or two years old. But married couple Shrevie and Beth drive a car that is six years old.
Scene 2: At Fells Point
Barry Levinson invents the concept of guys sitting around and talking about pop culture with our first scene inside Fells Point Diner. Eddie is eating his fries and gravy and won’t hear any comparisons with Sinatra whom he calls “the lord”. But the others persist in their assertion that Johnny Mathis provides comparable make-out music. Modell doesn’t like Sinatra because he’s “too thin” and poor Shrevie has nothing to contribute; “I’m married. We don’t ‘make out'”. We see diner owner-operator George, played by Ted Bafaloukas who also served as a creative consultant. Who was Bafaloukas, exactly? Born in Athens – and playing a Greek in Diner – he also worked with Barry on The Natural and Avalon and even directed music videos. George seems long-suffering and deals with his customers wearily. He won’t give Fen a band-aid for his knuckles (“I cut myself shaving”) and battles with Boogie who wants to borrow money. Interesting that George rebuffs Boogie saying “you owe me $10 already”. What has the boys’ relationship with George been like? George later pokes his head in the kitchen and reprimands in loud, musical Greek his kitchen staff.
Fenwick sheepishly announces that Diane wants to see him again. The boys are pleased but tease Fen about Diane’s age. When Shrevie asks “what is she? 12?”, Modell answers “she’ll be 12″. Boogie gets summoned over to Bagel’s (Tucker) table where the older man sits with his cronies. Bagel pumps Boogie about his foolish basketball bet and asks if Boogie wants him to call it off; “out of respect for your father? May he rest in peace.”. Boogie winces and says “Look, leave my father out of it”. Who was Bobby Sheftell’s father and how did he fit with Bagel’s crowd? Once Boogie joins the boys, he is asked by Eddie who he prefers – Sinatra or Presley. And here is where I first was sold on Mickey Rourke. He moves his eyes slightly in a way that suggests the question is foolish – “Presley”, he answers. Classic. First gif I ever made. Eddie’s response is funny; “Elvis Presley?”. Boogie has fallen two steps in Eddie’s, um, book.
Later we see brief vignettes of the middle of the night at the diner. Ketchup bottles, boys blowing smoke rings, reading the paper and staring off into space. Boogie announces that he has a date with the highly-rated Carol Heathrow (Blonigan). Eddie uses one of the guys’ phrases to describe her majesty; “she is death”. Modell contributes another legendary bon mot; “She’s not a smart girl. You ever talk to her?”. Boogie wants to bet the boys that Carol will make a move on him on the first date and the guys all contribute their skepticism. Eddie and Modell leave together. Eddie says casually that it is 4am, Boxing Day morning.
Scene 3: Picking Up Billy
Like many other movies of this ilk, there is one character who has gone away. William “Billy” Howard (Daly) is off at school. Another character in a later similar film also went off and was also named Billy – Rob Lowe as Billy Hicks in St. Elmo’s Fire. Billy dresses collegiately also but sadly his coat features a lame hood. He is surprised to see the boys have come to meet him at the train station and they share a warm greeting. Fenwick wants to stop at the coffee stand for coffee and Shrevie doesn’t get it. “Y’wanna have coffee before we go to the diner to have coffee?”. It’s worse when Fen asks him for money; “Y’want me to drink it for ya, too?”. Here we hear about the football quiz.
Consider that the boys are at the diner again. This time the sun is up. What about sleep? The discussion is about who is attending the University of Baltimore. Boogie says he’s going to law school while he works at the beauty parlour. Most significant in this scene is the dynamic between Shrevie and Boogie. When Billy seems impressed that Boogie is giving law school “a pop”, Shrevie gives an eye-rolling look that suggests disdain over Boogie’s academic pursuits. Is this jealousy on Shrevie’s part? Consider that he then heckles Boogie’s work at the salon, wondering in a comical ad-lib if Boogie has ever considered doing his own hair. This is the first hint of some buried animosity on Shrevie’s part towards Boogie. Lastly we see George taking a break, having breakfast and receiving the bread order.
Scene 4: Eddie & Billy
Billy is welcomed at the Simmons home by Eddie’s mother (Jessica James; apparently see was a go-go dancer in another New Year’s Eve movie, the original Ocean’s 11!). Mrs. Simmons obviously loves Billy and she mentions that his parents are still in Florida – Billy somehow doesn’t know this. While the black maid vacuums the floor in the living room that you step up to, Billy goes up to wake Eddie and Mrs. Simmons remarks that it’s 2:30pm, Boxing Day.
The tight bond between Eddie and Billy is seen here as Eddie assumes that Billy will be his best man. Billy accepts, touched. Most of what you need to know about Eddie Simmons is depicted here. He has slept until 2:30. He is awake only seconds and lights a cigarette. He rises and dresses in last night’s clothes. There is a hole in his sock, his shirt has not been unbuttoned and he pulls it over his head, ripping it, his tie has not been untied. He leaves the room that has not changed much since he was a child and goes to the bathroom to brush his teeth and splash water on his face; this is the extent of his morning toilette.
Note some clues as to Billy’s relationship with Barbara Kohler (Dowling). Billy says she told Fenwick that Billy was coming in on the train; she knew this and knew when. Also, Billy shows he is wired somewhat differently than his friends when it comes to talk of girls. When Eddie assumes Billy is still “nailing” Barbara, Billy says “nope. Never did.”. Eddie doesn’t get it; if not sex, what have you been doing with her? When Billy says “talking”, Simmons delivers another classic line; “If you wanna talk, you always have the guys at the diner. You don’t need a girl if you wanna talk”. Billy’s response nails Eddie Simmons; “Eddie, you’ll never change”.
Eddie is still a child. He walks into the kitchen at almost 3:00 in the afternoon, and orders a fried bologna sandwich from his mother – who is on the phone at the time! What follows is a comical exchange between mother and son that includes the possibility that Mrs. Simmons will stab her son. Watch Billy. Finally, Mrs. Simmons relents and Eddie is proud of his victory. After all her reluctance, Mrs. Simmons offers Billy a sandwich as “it’s no trouble” – Billy is the Golden Boy. And again Billy says that nothing has changed here in Eddie’s world.
Fun to see Shrevie working his job. The young husband has to make a living and he does so selling appliances. More pop culture references. Shrevie’s curmudgeonly customer, played by Barry Levinson’s “good luck charm”, Ralph Tabakin, laments how poorly Bonanza looks in colour and there’s a midday matinee playing on one of the sets. It’s June Allyson in Little Women (1949). Fenwick comes in to report that Boogie is placing a lot of money on his Heathrow bet and will try to get Carol to make her move that night at The Strand movie theatre. It is sneaky-funny that Fen tries to light his cigarette using the burner of one of the display stoves. As if the stove would be hooked up to gas. He then explains the fact that he has been drinking to Shrevie by saying he’s getting “antsy”.
Meanwhile, Eddie and Billy are shooting pool and talking about Boogie’s bet and Eddie’s upcoming marriage. When Billy sees Knocko, the friendly neighbourhood billiard hall proprietor, they exchange pleasantries. Billy asks how Knocko’s been; “eat, sleep, you know”, he says, adding to the many phrases that young men have been using ever since seeing this movie. Knocko says that he never sees Billy with the guys anymore. “Time to move on”, Billy replies, poignantly. More pop culture when Methan (Tait Ruppert) pokes his head in. Young Methan has taken to walking around reciting lines from the film Sweet Smell of Success. I saw Diner years before I saw this classic with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Consider that Diner features a character so obsessed with a film that he has the whole movie memorized and goes around almost in a daze reciting lines. Years later, us older guys are like Methan and Diner is our Sweet Smell of Success.
One thing that most people know about Diner is that the entire starring cast went on to stardom. But it’s just as interesting to consider that each of the other actors who comprise the other half of the cast appeared in absolutely nothing of note. There’s no middle ground here; if you appeared in Diner, you’re either a major star or barely made another movie.
Claudia Cron as Jane Chisholm — Twenty-one total credits for Miss Cron. Seen on the big screen starting with Stir Crazy in 1980, Claudia made five films before heading for television. She appeared on many TV series but stayed for only one episode each time. She worked steadily through the mid-80s – including on an episode of the TV version of Stir Crazy – but then drifted off into the ether. An American born in England, Claudia was a model before she was an actress and then quit the business to focus on her artwork. She is alive and kicking in this field and can be reached through her website ClaudiaCron.com.
Kathryn Dowling as Barbara — Dowling has a total of 16 credits to her name. She was in a total of four feature films, two of which were apparently unreleased. The rights to one, The House of God (1984), are held by Turner Classic Movies but they have never aired it. Another, Clara’s Heart (1988), is also set in Baltimore and was the film debut of Neil Patrick Harris. Kathryn was married to filmmaker Donald Wrye until his death in 2015. The two perhaps met when Wrye directed Dowling in The House of God. The couple lost a son at three years old.
Colette Blonigan as Carol Heathrow — Dowling is Julia Roberts compared to Blonigan. Colette has all of five credits on her CV. Her only other “notable” credit is the bonkers The Stuff, a satirical science fiction horror film from 1985. It was written and directed by Larry Cohen, the man that gave me Black Caesar and it’s sequel, Hell Up in Harlem (both ’73) starring my main man, Fred Williamson. As for Colette, she dropped off the face in ’86 and there she has stayed.
Kelle Kipp as Diane — Sometimes I think it must be that someone simply does not pursue acting as a career. Kelle Kipp appeared only once more in any filmed production when she was billed way down the list 12 years later in a soft-core film from Playboy Entertainment Group called Temptress. It starred Kim Delaney and Corbin Bernsen.
Scene 5: At The Strand
A Summer Place tops the list of things I wanted to explore because of Diner. The gang goes to the local theatre to watch this film starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue – actually, they have gone to see how Boogie intends to win his bet. Beth is the only one captivated by the film, which is presented with a bit of an edit. When Carol discovers what Boogie has placed in her popcorn box, she shrieks and leaps out of her seat. Boogie busts into the bathroom where Carol is washing her hands. “You are disgusting!”, she says. Boogie proceeds to explain how it was an accident. “An accident?! Your thing just got into a box of popcorn?!” Without getting into too much detail, Boogie convinces Carol that he was turned on by her, aroused, and he had to make some adjustments to relieve his discomfort. Watch how Carol’s revulsion turns to intrigue. Knowing she has caused this reaction in a player like Boogie Sheftell, and hearing of the capabilities of his “thing” and the fact that she almost saw it causes her to be assuaged – and her interest to be piqued. Afterwards, Beth expresses her love for the film telling Shrevie she’d like to go again, hint-hint. Shrevie says she can go with Elyse, Eddie’s intended. Beth rightly mentions that A Summer Place was based on the novel written by Sloan Wilson, the man who also wrote The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.
After the movie lets out, Billy also shows his capabilities. He notices an old nemesis in the crowd and clocks him one. Walking away, the boys congratulate him on settling a score with old Willard Broxton. Watch how poor Beth is left out, trailing behind. She asks Fenwick – whom she calls Timmy – who Broxton is. Finally alone with Shrevie, he explains about the ages-old rivalry between Billy and Willard. Beth thinks this is silly; “it was forever ago”. Then she is left standing by her car door hoping Shrevie will open it. He says “whaddaya waitin’ for? It’s open”. Billy can’t go the diner yet as he is on his way to see Barbara at her job at the local TV station.
Scene 6: Dating vs. Marriage
Here is a poignant scene between Eddie and Shrevie. Standing outside the diner, Eddie asks Shrevie if he is happy with his marriage. A seemingly innocent question shakes Shrevie up. Eddie can’t believe it when Shrevie answers that he doesn’t know. Beth is terrific, Shrevie says but… He explains that while you are dating, everything is talking about sex – where and when it can be done. Then when you get engaged, your time is spent talking about the wedding and all the details. But then when you are married there is nothing left to talk about. Sex-planning talk is over because you now live alone with your wife. Wedding-planning talk is also over because you’re already married. “You know, I can come down here and we can bullsh*t the whole night away but I cannot hold a five-minute conversation with Beth”. While he presents a wild oversimplification and it is stated somewhat comically, Shrevie makes a good point, one many newly-married men can relate to. A wife is yards different than a girlfriend. This scene would be funny if it didn’t reveal a conflict Shrevie is battling. Eddie, still youthful and simple, delivers yet another classic; “well, we always got the diner”. Shrevie agrees but you can see that this knowledge does not solve much for him. My friends and my hang-out, great. But what about the woman I married?
A nice touch is the clothing hustler, selling clothes out of the trunk of his car in the diner parking lot. The fast-talker asks some kid “you wanna get on the inside of the diner?”; as if to say that you can’t go in dressed like a slob. The hustler is played by Chip Silverman, one of Barry Levinson’s real buds from back in the day. More on him later. “Four bucks? C’mere, I got a good shirt for you”.
Seems Earl is a local hero, known for stuffing his face. In another legendary scene, the boys watch in awe as Earl – just for kicks, it seems – tackles the whole left side of the menu. “Twenty-two deluxe sandwiches and the fried chicken dinner!”. The lads agree – Earl is not a human, he’s a building with feet. Meanwhile, Boogie wants to be paid for “winning” the Heathrow bet but Shrevie and Fenwick are battling back saying the bet was “touch your pecker not pecker the popcorn”. Eddie seems to have the last word saying it was a default. Desperate for cash, Boogie now says he can “ball” Carol on the next date. All the guys think he’s crazy and they’re in for $50. Billy – showing again how he stands slightly aside from the rest – abstains from betting. Leaving Fells Point, Boogie summons Fenwick to ride with him and the two drive out into the country. There, Boogie spies a lady riding a horse (Claudia Cron) and is smitten. He calls to her and she stops. He gets out of the car and smoothly makes his play. But when he asks her her name, she says enigmatically “Jane Chisholm. As in the Chisholm Trail?”. Boogie doesn’t get it and Fen utters another gem revealing the struggle men face trying to understand women; “Y’ever get the feeling there’s something going on we don’t know about?”. It’s full-on morning now and we hear Boogie ask Fen if he wants to keep driving. “Nah. Might as well call it a night”.
Scene 7: Billy & Barbara
December 27, 1959 was a Sunday and this may pinpoint where we are in the week for this next scene. Billy meets Barbara after Sunday service at the presbyterian church on Roland Avenue. Billy enters the sanctuary and sits in a pew in front of her. Barb seems subdued so Billy asks her if anything is wrong. “No”, she says, “Yes. I think I’m pregnant”. Billy plays it cool and asks if its his. Consider what that means. Barb smiles and says “yes”. She says it must’ve happened “in New York, last month”. She says incredulously that they had enjoyed six years of a platonic relationship and then “that night” and now this happens. Billy says that 7 weeks is a long time when you miss someone. So, at the start of the first week of November, these two met in New York and now only 7 weeks later – not quite two months – and Barbara thinks she’s pregnant. She asks if Billy wants to marry her and when he answers “yes” she asks if that’s why he came back to town, to propose. When he reminisces about their night together she somewhat coldly calls it “a mistake”. Barb wants to know if Billy only wants to marry her because of the news he’s just been told. Billy thinks he has the clincher when he sweetly says “I love you, Barb”. But watch her face when she says “You’re confusing a friendship with a woman and love”. Listen to the flatness in her voice when she delivers the coup de grace; “It’s not the same”. You gotta love Barbara. She is tough. She is cool and she is a working woman. Props to Levinson for writing this strong female character. She’s no dreamy-eyed romantic. She’s a pragmatic realist. I like her.
Boogie is hanging out at Fenwick’s apartment, talking on the phone to his mother about the money he owes. Fen is in another room with the door closed watching TV. He is watching The General Electric College Bowl, a student game show hosted by Allen Ludden (Mr. Betty White). On this episode, Bryn Mawr is facing off against Cornell. The two schools did battle on the show only once – the episode aired February 21, 1960; almost two months after the events of Diner. Through the action of the film so far, Fenwick has seemed shiftless and without direction having dropped out of school. But he warms to the challenge of the questions posed on College Bowl and answers all of them correctly, showing that he is indeed intelligent. One of the questions is “What would a man probably have if he had a visible contusion near the upper part of his zygomatic arch?”. Fenwick promptly answers “Black eye”. Even in light of their sketchy relationship, Shrevie has agreed to loan Boogie $200 towards his gambling debt; which is huge, really. Fenwick offers to try to borrow money from his brother who he does not get along with. This touches Boogie and this all shows how close these guys are.
Scene 8: Don’t Touch My Records
Shrevie and Beth have a cute place. Shrevie is playing with his records; we see he has Kind of Blue and he is listening to Memphis Slim’s “Havin’ Fun”. Beth is doing her nails at the kitchen table. Just as she is about to drop the brush on the first nail, Shrevie asks her to come into the living room. She says she is doing a crossword puzzle. “C’mere!”, Shrevie hollers. Shrevie is angry because his records are not in their proper places on the shelves he has made using some great glass blocks. Just how cool is Beth? She has been listening to a James Brown record. However, she has put the record back under the “J”‘s instead of the “B”‘s. Plus she has put the Godfather of Soul in the rock & roll section. In perhaps the most talked about scene in the film, Shrevie tells Beth to pick out a 45 from a stack and to ask him what is on the B side or the flip side. In a trivial argument that skirts the more serious issues, Shrevie berates Beth for never asking him what is on the flip side. Beth is tough, too, though. Why doesn’t she ask him? “Because I don’t give a sh*t!”. When she asks him who really cares what’s on the flip side of a record, he delivers lines that could’ve come out of my own mouth; “I do! Every one of my records means something. The label, the producer, the year it was made. Who was copying who’s styles, who was expanding on that, don’t you understand? When I listen to my records, they take me back to certain points in my life, OK?”.
All through his teen years, Shrevie was able to talk music with his friends. To talk about anything. They had shared interests. Marriage seems like much harder work. Now is the time to talk about china patterns and the gas bill but why can’t Beth just ask him what is on the flip side? Because that’s kid’s stuff, Shreve, and this is business. Poor Beth asks him – note she calls him “Shrevie” like the others do – why he yells at her. Before storming out, Shrevie says that the moment he met Beth, “Ain’t That a Shame” was playing; which serves as a comment on their life together now. The undertones of the scene are heavy; I’d rather absorb the fact that there are two record players there and maybe take a look at the albums he has. Shrevie speaks to so many of us when he puts his two palms up against the spines of his collection and says “This! This is important to me!”.
At this inopportune moment, Boogie comes for his $200. Instead of cash, he gets a girl in tears. Rourke does well depicting a guy who has no idea what to do with a girl who’s crying. As they stand on the stoop and Boogie tries to console Beth, he asks – I counted – eleven questions in 50 seconds, plainly illustrating that he doesn’t know what to do. Boogie says he will talk to Shrevie – who is bombing around in the Hudson singing along to Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” which is perhaps more commentary on his situation. Meanwhile, Fenwick has gone to his brother, whom he despises, to ask for money for Boogie. Howard Fenwick (Tom V.V. Tammi) won’t even let Fen into his home. Kid brother Timothy is a “bad example. I dropped out of college, I won’t work in the family business…”. This tells us a lot about the family Fenwick comes from. The boys’ grandfather started the business and left Fen a trust fund; $100 a month until he’s 23. Howard asks Fen if he ever reads books and Fenwick disdainfully answers “never”; only we know how smart he is. Howard suggests Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, something else I sought out and consumed thanks to Diner. Fen is unsuccessful and leaves his brother with a zinger.
Over time, I have stumbled upon some accoutrements to my love of Diner. Years ago when we were first decorating the basement of our first (and only) home, my wife and I decided to emulate Francis and load the walls of a hallway with movie posters. Back then, plaquing posters was not the major expense it is now and I was sure to get my three favourite films done and hung, Diner among them.
The soundtrack I found on vinyl not long after I fell in love with the film. It bothers me not that it has only ever contained one of the two records it originally came with. Maybe one day I will stumble on another copy in the wild with both records. But it seems doubtful. I have only ever seen this one in the last 30+ years. I keep this record with my Christmas records.
There are several things I have found in the course of my thrifting and garage saling career that still leave me stunned; I wonder how on earth I have found such things. Case in point is the above book on the left, Diner Guys (1989) by Chip Silverman. Dr. Howard “Chip” Silverman was one of the original “diner guys” and basically served as their chronicler. Diner Guys is the story of the neighbourhood that spawned the people who inspired the characters in our film including and as well as Levinson himself, Mama Cass Elliot, Leonard “Boogie” Weinglass, author Leon Uris and former vice-president Spiro Agnew. Dr. Silverman – Ph.D., M.P.H., C.A.S. – also was the coach of the NCAA’s only African-American lacrosse team and went on to admirable work in drug abuse counselling. He wrote four other books including co-writing Larry Manetti’s account of his time working on Magnum, P.I. Dr. Silverman plays the clothes hustler in Diner. He died in 2008 and you can see his obituary here. The back cover of my book reads “Advance Reading Copy – Promotional Purposes Only”.
Another flyer of a book is Barry Levinson’s own first novel Sixty-Six (2003). What could be considered a sequel to Diner, this book is essentially what happens to a group of guys navigating severe cultural changes through the 1960’s. You’ll recognize the template here; guys with names like Bobby Shine, Turko and Eggy hang out at the Hilltop Diner in Baltimore. They are “comic philosophers extraordinaire” who spend their time “wisecracking, coping, falling in and out of love, planning for a glorious future”. Levinson said it was “really the last of the diner stories”. The book got poor reviews but this didn’t stop Levinson from planning to turn Sixty-Six into a movie but the filmed version never came to fruition. I have never been one to let the knowledge that a sequel to a movie I have loved is poor keep me from wanting to see it. The same goes for this novel. Bad reviews? If you’ve spent any time at all here at Vintage Leisure, you know that reviews rarely depict accurately what there is to be experienced with any work.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Levinson wrote and directed a pilot for a proposed series based on Diner. It aired in August of 1983 but was not picked up. Interesting to note that much of the TV film featured the travails of the wives – Beth and Elyse – as they cope with the amount of time their husbands spend together. Most fascinating is the casting. Ted Bafaloukas is again on hand as diner owner George and both Paul Reiser and Jessica James as Eddie’s mother return. Michael Madsen plays Boogie (that’s good casting) and James Spader appears as Fenwick. Max Cantor plays Shrevie 4 years before his only notable role as Robbie in Dirty Dancing. Peripheral characters that appear in Chip Silverman’s book also play a part. Seems all that remains of this rarity is the clip I share here. In this scene, Eddie has returned from his honeymoon and tells the guys that he can’t hang out at the diner anymore as it is time to grow up.
Scene 9: Death Walking on the Beach
We’ve gone from American Technicolor melodrama to Swedish historical fantasy. Consider this a signal of the coming changes – and a representation of the fact that Billy is different than the other guys. Billy takes Eddie – of all people – with him to a theatre that is showing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). Eddie is of course baffled. After failing to help his friend out of his financial difficulties, Fenwick heads back to the church on Roland. This time he notices that some kids have taken the Baby Jesus out of the manger. Fen strips to his shorts and lays himself down on the hay. Shrevie must have seen Fen’s Triumph parked there and investigated because he comes with an usher into the theatre showing Bergman and rouses Eddie – now fast asleep – and Billy. See again the barely submerged combative nature of Billy. As soon as the usher shines a light in his face, Billy angrily says “hey, what is this?”.
While this scene has been used as an example of the irredeemable nature of these characters, it need be remembered that the Nativity may not have necessarily the same meaning to these Jewish boys that it has to others. The three guys try to coax Fen out of the manger but he won’t have it. He fights them – and the wise men – and destroys the stable. Watch how Shrevie – unsure of what to do – puts his hands up when the police arrive.
While in a jail cell, Fen sleeps it off while Billy tries to discuss his problems with Barbara with Eddie. Eddie thinks the solution is obvious; do what you were already going to do and just drag Barbara around with you. What about her job?, Billy asks. This baffles the childlike Eddie. Some weirdo sharing the cell gets in Billy’s grill and here Billy really shows his tough side. He pushes the guy away roughly and says “I’ll hit you so hard I’ll kill your whole family”. We get a look at the previous generation when the fathers come to bail out their sons – all but Mr. Fenwick who hopes to teach Timothy a lesson. At the diner, the guys give the report to Modell – until Methan pokes his head in and starts with his Sweet Smell of Success. Watch Billy. He has seen Methan before and is fascinated to get another look. Modell seems stunned. “Is he crazy or am I mistaken?”, he asks and you hear Billy say “he’s weird”.
While owner-operator George strolls around his establishment, Guttenberg and Rourke play out the scene they asked Levinson to write for them. Eddie reveals that he is a virgin. This, he says, it what worries him most about his upcoming nuptials. He doesn’t want to go into marriage inexperienced. The thing to take away from this exchange is another outlandish take on marriage. When Eddie says he feels like he’ll be missing out on things, Boogie replies that that’s what marriage is all about – missing out on things!
Scene 10: Hairdresser in Trouble
Billy goes again to see Barbara at work. I said I like this girl – we’ve only seen her at work and at church! Billy’s angry and yelling down the halls that he has a say in what she does with her immediate future. They adjourn to a private room. Barbara calls him Willy and says she will not marry him because it is the thing that people in this situation do. While Billy tries to convince her of his feelings, she maintains that it will be about love, their union, and not decorum. Good girl. Hold out for what you want.
Interesting that Levinson has Boogie working in a beauty parlour. He knows women so well that he can do their hair. This scene is all about Boogie and Beth, their history and their present. Beth comes in fulfilling one of her duties for the upcoming wedding between her friend, Elyse and Eddie. The first key moment is when Boogie asks Beth to do up the top button of his shirt he is struggling with. Watch her smile when she is asked. This man needs me to do something for him and she’s happy to be needed. Beth sits and waits while Boogie goes outside with bookie Tank (John Aquino) who forcibly reminds Boogie he owes money. Here we see Boogie at a decided disadvantage. With a pink comb sticking out of his breast pocket, he gets slapped around by big Tank.
At this his lowest moment yet, Boogie – while Jane Morgan sings “Fascination” on the radio – takes a call from Carol saying she is down with the flu. The only way Boogie had to make some money is in bed with a temperature of 102. Watch how his plan hatches – to use Beth in place of Carol – when he looks at Beth after hanging up. The second key is the revelation that Boogie and Beth have had a previous relationship. And this is why Shrevie feels towards Boogie the way he does. Beth now seeks reassurance from an old boyfriend. Ellen Barkin has said that this is why she relates to Beth more than to any other character she has portrayed. Beth, Ellen and so many of us – women and men – sometimes lose our sense of value and self-worth. And, yes, Boogie Sheftell takes advantage of this. Boogie points out her qualities and then goes in for the kill; maybe the two of them should get together while the rest of the guys gather at the Simmons house for the football quiz. Once their date is made, watch Boogie. Good acting throughout this scene by Rourke as he seems to feel terrible about what he is doing. He does it but he doesn’t like it.
Scene 11: The Football Quiz
Levinson, his location scouts and set designers gift us with a look at a great rec room at the Simmons home. The guys are joined by Eddie’s father (Clement Fowler) and Fenwick tends bar serving Black Label beer and orange soda. We see a clock; it is 8:12pm on what is now likely the 29th of December. A couple questions have the boys really baffled and Mr. Simmons pipes up saying that he provided these “ballbusters” for the quiz. The answer to one question is Alan Ameche, “The Iron Horse” who played for the Colts and was a cousin of Don Ameche. Alan would later start the Gino’s Hamburgers chain and Ameche’s Drive-In. Another answer is Billy Vessels, another Colts player. Vessels later went to Canada to play for the Edmonton Eskimos and also the Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen; I grew up in KW. Elyse does great but scores a 63 out of 100 – two points shy of victory. Eddie – wearing a great sweater – emerges to declare the marriage off. One thinks he may feel like he has dodged a bullet.
Listen while Fenwick and Shrevie leave the Simmons home. Mrs. Simmons is yelling at her husband for providing such hard questions for the quiz. Shrevie suggests the diner – natch – but Fenwick reminds him that he has to validate the Heathrow bet. Shrevie asks if he can come along. Fenwick relents but wants to drive his car. Shrevie asks in vain for the top to be put up and, when Fen struggles with the clutch, says “any forward gear will do here”. As they drive away, Shrevie says, “Beth would kill me if she knew what I was doing”. Remember – it is not Carol who Boogie is taking to Fenwick’s apartment.
Scene 11: Validating the Heathrow Bet
Shrevie is in heaven as finally someone is asking him “what’s on the flip side?”. Fenwick throws some songs at him and we hear of Jimmy Bowen who later made a much bigger name for himself as a producer and “La Bamba”, five years before the Ritchie Valens biopic brought the song back to public consciousness. Dig the part of town in which Fenwick’s apartment building sits! Rough looking – and Fen comes from a wealthy family. Fen and Shrevie provide some laughs as they hide in the closet. Boogie and Beth arrive – and Boogie can’t go through with it.
When he explains his “sick” plan to Beth she is not outraged. As a married woman, she’s not one to judge him, I guess. But both are disappointed. Boogie has kiboshed his own plan and Beth did not get the…escape (?) she had counted on. Beth is concerned though that the things Boogie said to her in the beauty parlour were lies. Tenderly, Boogie assures her that she will “always rate right up there”. Nice. Fenwick and Shrevie, jammed in the closet wonder what happened. “Maybe he’s gettin’ her in the hallway”.
Boogie arrives at the diner to see Shrevie waiting in the car with Fenwick. Does Boogie pause to think that Shrevie was in the closet, too? Shrevie half-taunts him by saying “You chicken out?”. Boogie plays it cool; “Yep. I chickened out”. While Shrevie is snickering to himself, he is still concerned with the fact that Tank is in the diner. Maybe Boogie should light out but he says he’s ready to face the music. Tank tells Boogie that Bagel has paid his whole tab. Hearing he is not beholden to the loanshark anymore emboldens Boog and he punches Tank in the gut (“Smile of the week!”). When Boogie tells Tank he owed him that, Tank seems to accept this. Notice that, the moment Boogie is free, the jukebox in the diner seems to celebrate with him by playing “Don’t Be Cruel” by Boogie’s boy, “Presley”.
Bagel – spreading cream cheese on a bagel – says that Boogie’s mother called him, “hysterical”. So, out of respect for Boogie’s father, Bagel paid the debt. Again, the older generation here comes into play. You may ask what happens to these characters after the events of the film. Well, Boogie will be working on houses with Bagel to work off the $2000. Hard to think of a dude like Boogie Sheftell working in home improvement. (And is Bagel, then, a “tin man” – one of the aluminum siding salesmen Levinson featured in his second “Baltimore film”?) Plus, for how long – in 1960 – would Boogie have to work to pay off $2000? Better than Tank breaking your legs, I guess.
The Final Scene: For the ’60’s & Forever
Ever resourceful Boogie has somehow come up with a horse. He rides up next to Jane Chisholm – trespassing on her spread – and introduces himself. Jane is not one of the old gang, though; “‘Boogie’?”, she asks, incredulously. Boogie gets formal – he grows up a bit? – and gives Jane his proper name, Bobby Sheftell. Modell is not in the wedding party. He is left to explain to another guest that the music the organist is playing is the “very tasteful” Colts marching song. Eddie and some of his wedding party are wearing yarmulkes and some are not. Shrevie compliments Beth on how nice she looks and says he has made reservations for them for ten days in the Poconos. She’s thrilled. Summer is a long way away but one thinks the Schreibers will be OK. Now, watch what are intended to be flashbulbs going off as couples are “photographed” at these significant points in their lives. I feel like these points, these moments, give us clues to these people’s futures. Shrevie and Beth smile at each other and *flash*.
Fenwick has asked young Diane to the wedding. He tells her though that he may travel off to Europe. Hoping to keep him closer, perhaps, Diane suggests just traveling around the US. She grins with a sly acceptance when he maintains his desire to go abroad. *Flash*. Eddie dances with his mom who is now emotional at losing her boy. She says she would be happy to have him come home often and she will make him sandwiches – something she was loathe to do before. Notice it is when Eddie is with his mother that he gets his *flash*. Boogie gets up to get Jane more hors d’oeuvres – just think about that for a minute! – and she calls him “Bobby”. Annnd *flash* for Boogie! Interesting. Billy and Barbara dance slowly without speaking, obviously pondering the future. But, take heart, viewer! Note that their *flash* is actually a quick cut – to Elyse’s white wedding gown.
Gentle and emotional music comes up as Reiser’s improvised toast fades. Elyse throws her bouquet and no woman is able to catch it. It lands on the table in front of the guys. They look at it and then look up to ponder what this means. It could mean that marriage and responsibility – real adulthood – is on the immediate horizon for them. But I like to think that this is confirmation that these men will remain friends until the end. Women, wives, children may come and go but the guys will stay “married” to each other forever.
In one final innovation, Levinson let Modell/Reiser take the lead in a monologue that played over the closing credits. His comic rambling is accompanied by Canadian Jack Scott singing his fitting song “Goodbye Baby”.
I was sure, at my wedding, to take a Diner Picture; my buds gathered around and a bouquet was placed on the table. I realized then that once again this movie had made a significant appearance and a major point in my life.
I hope I’ve made it clear that just about every moment of this film has much to offer. And for a film that is supposed to be about nothing, it is loaded with comedy, delightful images, compelling characters and a poignancy of life that is easily relatable.
So do you think Barb & Billy end up getting married? I just finished watching this movie (I really liked it), and I hope they did!
They remind me of me & my husband- basically, an identical circumstance to those two. We’ve been married a little over a year now and have a wonderful little girl. 🙂
I think they did get married. Barb was a strong, independent woman. But when she considered her alternatives and when she fully understood Billy’s sincerity she reluctantly let her strong feelings for him take over. But I don’t think they were ever happy.
I feel like Barb would not have been content having given up her career and she would not have liked the fact that her life course was hijacked by getting pregnant. Try as he might Billy couldn’t make her forget that she had been “robbed” of the destiny she was making for herself. With this between them, they could never completely combine. Sadly, this would have been a common tale in that day and age.
Now, on the other hand, your story is a happy one that makes me smile! Wonderful to hear that you have forged something out of the things life throws at you. Blessings to you guys and your little girl! Thanks for reading and for your comment.
Thank you!! 🙂