Barry Levinson Sleepers
Some local film folks go to bat for their (non-Baltimore) Barry Levinson favorites
Published: December 7, 2011
When The Natural opened in 1984—it was Levinson’s first film after the unexpected success of Diner and his first real “Hollywood” movie—the director was clobbered by highbrow critics for turning Bernard Malamud’s dark fable of a doomed but heroic baseball player into an overblown, sentimental fairy tale. Naturally, it’s become one of the most beloved baseball films of all time. And why not?
Maybe the critics weren’t fans of our national pastime, because if you, like me, are the sort of person who’s capable of tearing up over a particularly well-executed double play, you get precisely what Levinson is doing. Forget about Malamud. The Natural is, indeed, an unapologetic fantasy, a morality tale that pushes the deeply American mythology surrounding the game to its limit. Its pleasures are sensory—quintessential star Robert Redford bathed in a golden shaft of light, emerging godlike from inky pools of shadow onto a field so green it can only be found in movies. And when Redford, as iconic hero Roy Hobbs, blasts that long shot into the lights, the thrill is visceral and completely irresistible.
Billy Beane, a kind of real-life variation on Roy Hobbs, asks in Moneyball, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” I bet he’s a fan of The Natural.
Linda DeLibero, Associate Director of Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University
Young Sherlock Holmes
It’s not easy to make a fresh and interesting movie about a character the Guinness Book of Records cites as “most portrayed”—more than 180 films and TV shows by 1985 when Barry Levinson made Young Sherlock Holmes. In the wrong hands this could have been a disaster, an Anglophile version of Encyclopedia Brown (or worse, Porky’s of London, with jokes about corsets and “nose powder”), but Levinson got so much right, starting with the superb casting. Alan Cox makes a good, slightly porcine Watson, but the whippet-thin and aristocratic Nicholas Rowe embodies what Holmes must have been like as a teen: gangly, supercilious, and fragile in the way that only smart, lonely adolescents can be. The duo teams up to solve a crime involving hallucinogenic darts and the cult of Osiris, and Levinson revels in the peculiarities of Victorian decadence—the rich food, the sinister Orientalism, the ornate drawing rooms and chummy, candlelit splendor of boarding school.
Of course, no one who saw the movie remembers any of this. They remember the Knight, the stained-glass paladin popping out of a shuddering, bulging church window, its lead-rimmed shards lumbering up the aisle as it stalks a delirious priest. (The effect was one of the last projects undertaken by Industrial Light and Magic’s computer animation division before it was bought by Steve Jobs and rechristened Pixar.) The indelible, delicious menace of that moment is shivery cinematic poetry, the digital-age version of Nosferatu climbing the stairs.
Violet LeVoit, author and City Paper contributing writer
Wag the Dog
Once upon a time, 1997 to be precise, the country was led by a charismatic president entering his second term. Unemployment was at its lowest in a quarter-century. An emerging dot-com industry promised never-ending growth. It wasn’t all unicorns 24/7, but the mood felt bright. So when a drolly funny movie about a horndog president manufacturing a war to distract from a sex scandal hit screens at the year’s tail end, its cartoonish satire tickled. Sure, the insincere patriotism the movie conjures might’ve called to mind 1980s dirty skirmishes, but those things happened in a different world altogether.
It’s not that we’ve become more cynical since the acid-tongued Wag the Dog debuted; it’s that its seamless marriage of political spin and entertainment chutzpah has become such the norm that it’s hard to believe we ever didn’t distrust the media we’re fed. Vets Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, as the spinmeister and the Hollywood producer he hires, respectively, make Wag a joy to watch, but from 2011 the movie doesn’t look merely prescient, it’s almost nostalgic. Just how long ago was that? At the time co-scenarist David Mamet still called himself a liberal.
Bret McCabe, Senior Humanities writer at Johns Hopkins University and City Paper Contributing writer
In 1998 Barry Levinson directed the movie Sphere, starring Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, and Samuel L. Jackson. Sphere is about this sphere (yeah) that is at the bottom of the ocean in a giant spaceship, so this is a Science Fiction movie plus a Submarine movie, genre-wise, but it’s also a movie about what’s inside the sphere of your skull, if you will, and director Levinson uses just enough of the special effects to get you to buy the idea, but he doesn’t go crazy with the beeps and boops and stuff, and Sharon Stone keeps her pants on, and he uses Dustin Hoffman as an action hero. This is a superior, underappreciated film.
Joe MacLeod, City paper art director and Mr. Wrong
What Just Happened
First of all, it was an oddball movie, which is right up my alley. I just liked it a lot. I don’t know if I’m the only person on the planet who’s seen it. No one ever talks about it. It was impeccably cast—Barry Levinson’s got one of the best ears for talent around. He’s got a sense of humor, knows how to make a movie. That’s hardly revelation to anyone. I don’t know if the other people to speak to about it will be really enthusiastic about it, but I just really liked the movie.
Whenever I would go to talk to people about it, outside of people who I know who see everything, they would look at me like, What did you just say? Instead of What Just Happened. I just think it was a great movie.
Pat Moran, casting director