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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "Diner"

The guys of "Diner" talk French fries, gravy, and girls.

My third entry for the 12 Films of Christmas is 1982’s “Diner.” Written and directed by Barry Levinson, a Jewish fellow from Baltimore, “Diner” is a meditation on growing up and growing apart. Set in 1959 during the Christmas holidays, Levinson’s movie focuses on a sextet of young men who have been friends forever. Despite their boyhood bonds, the six 20-somethings begin to suspect that their connections are fraying. It is a perfectly scripted and acted tribute to how advancing maturity can unknot teenage ties. The fact that it is set during Christmastime, the season of family reunions, sentimental nostalgia, and awkward homecomings, makes it even more delicious.

Levinson had a Hollywood résumé before “Diner,” but it was mainly as a comedy writer for variety shows (Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, Marty Feldman) and as a collaborator with Mel Brooks. These are no small pickings, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for the poignancy and emotional detecting he showcased in this 1982 authorial debut.

Yes, this was Levinson’s first foray as a motion picture writer-director. He hands it magnificently, and mainly because he was writing what he knew. Having grown up in that Baltimore hometown, and hung out with guys just like these characters, Levinson was free-associating about how adulthood visited his neighborhood one snowy Christmas and pretty much laid waste to the “old gang.”

All future stars of tomorrow: the six principal actors leave the diner after a night of shooting the breeze.

And, oh what a gang it is! It’s difficult to wrap my head around it, but the young actors in “Diner” were all at the start of their careers. These weren’t veteran performers; they just behaved that way. The extremely talented ensemble includes Daniel Stern (Shrevie), Steve Guttenberg (Eddie), Kevin Bacon (Fenwick), Tim Daly (Billy), Paul Reiser (Modell), and Mickey Rourke (Boogie). The lone actress with a really central, important role is Ellen Barkin as Shrevie’s exasperated wife, Beth. The casting director for this flick deserves a Christmas bonus!

Since the filmmaker Levinson is not a Christian, the Christmas motif is not front and center. However, its presence is inescapable. The diner where the guys hang out to discuss and debate weighty issues—Eddie’s probing question, Who do you make out to? Mathis or Sinatra? Boogie’s answer, Presley—is aglitter with silver chrome, red leather booths, sprigs of holly, flashing tree bulbs, and holiday cutouts. Santa Claus is always peering over a character's shoulder as they go about their business: monkey business included. One of the most notorious passages in the film involves self-styled playboy Boogie and his bet to bed the blond beauty, Carol Heathrow. As Boogie tries to make amends with her, Santa is seen silently measuring just how naughty or nice this guy really is. The Christmas spirit is also pervasive as master’s degree candidate Billy comes back home to celebrate with his family and serve as the best man for Eddie’s wedding. One of the only friends to leave Baltimore behind, Billy’s arrival is akin to the Prodigal Son’s return.

Fenwick, the desolate and self-loathing brains of the bunch, has dropped out of college. Kevin Bacon portrays him as a drunk and a prankster—a young man in search of salvation. He personifies the expression “too smart for his own good.” During one of his alcoholic benders, Fenwick disrobes and inserts himself into a church’s crèche display. When his three friends show up to rescue him, he fends them off with a sheep figure and then pummels the Three Wise Men statues. Fenwick appears to be beyond redemption.

Kevin Bacon as Fenwick, ending his night in the Manger.

“Diner” is an exploration of how the 1950s and its prolonged sense of prosperity and promises gave way to the 1960s. The holiday parties, the endless nights spent jabbering, the pointless drives into sunrise, will soon be a thing of the past. It is December 1959 and Eddie’s impending marriage ceremony, decked out in Baltimore Colts silver and blue, is the last hurrah for when boys can be boys, and men can remain boys, too. The last scene of the movie is a powerful one. It has turned 1960, and as Elyse, the bride, throws her bouquet over her shoulder, the female guests react in an unexpected way. Instead of stampeding forward to catch the flowers, they join together to turn it into a volleyball of sorts. In tandem, they continue to spike it above and over their heads . . . until it lands on the guys’ table.

The six old friends have had their last, typical Christmas break together. They’re about to live through the 1960s and nothing will ever be the same again. Not even Christmas.

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