If directors such as Howard Hawks and John Ford left an indelible stamp on their work, audiences walking out of a Barry Levinson movie would be hard-pressed to identify it as his. For, with the exception of the deeply personal Baltimore projects--"Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon"--films such as "The Natural," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Rain Man" and "Bugsy" seemingly have little in common.
"Levinson has no discernible style . . . a 'style sans style, ' as the French would say," observes film critic David Denby. "Still, each movie doesn't have to have a signature. The auteur period has passed. I'd rather see a good director exploring and defining himself each time out than a bad one repeating the same old ideas."
"Toys"--an absurdist fantasy about the attempted takeover of a family toy factory by a mean-spirited general--is nevertheless a greater departure than usual: a wacky, over-the-top film more representative of Terry Gilliam than of the reserved and low-key Levinson. Scheduled for release Friday by 20th Century Fox, "Toys" draws the audience into an elaborately eccentric $38-million world inhabited by the ultimate in dysfunctional families.
There's an ailing toy magnate (Donald O'Connor) whose pacemaker is hooked up to a propeller beanie (lack of movement serves as an early warning signal); his son (Robin Williams), a child/man who gets a kick out of "possessed" deviled eggs and sports a smoking jacket that envelops the wearer in fumes; an emotionally stalled daughter (Joan Cusack) who walks around in clip-on doll clothes she designs herself; the magnate's brother (Michael Gambon), a three-star general turned toy factory mogul--dubbed "F.A.O. Schwarzkopf"--who's determined to give the military a miniature shot in the arm; and a nephew (rapper LL Cool J), born of a union between the general and a woman who, disguised as a Jane Fonda look-alike, disappeared on a reconnaissance mission in Southeast Asia. Williams' love interest (Robin Wright) provides a quasi-normal take on the surrealistic proceedings.
The movie--complete with a vomit lab (which manufactures rubber Teriyaki Toss or Hasidic Heave, depending on the meal) and "Woozie Helmets" (for going on trips without fear of luggage loss)--is considered to be a risk of sorts: unorthodox, child-oriented subject matter with an adult subtext and sensibility. Intimates say it reveals a side of Levinson that hasn't surfaced before.
"The zaniness, the silliness, has always been there," says Mark Johnson, Levinson's longtime producer and partner in Baltimore Pictures. "But it's seemingly at odds with his demeanor. Barry's very internal. People think of him as distant. Unless you 'earn' it, unless he's comfortable with you, you don't get to see his funny side."
Levinson's fanciful bent first manifested itself at the age of 21 when, while working as floor director at Washington's WTOP-TV, he operated hand puppets such as Dr. Fox, Oswald Rabbit and Marvin Monkey on "The Ranger Hal Show." Hiding behind the sets, he says, made performing a little easier.
"I am shy," the 50-year-old director admits, sitting at the back of the Fox studio sound stage where the climactic battle scene for "Toys" is being scored. Shoulder-length silver hair cascades onto a dapper white double-pocket shirt. Brown suede shoes tap along to the beat. "It's with great reluctance that I get out in front. I even find meeting people at parties, making small talk, intimidating."
Still, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in the late '60s, the director put himself in the most public of pressure-cookers, performing humorous improvisations with actor Craig T. Nelson (TV's "Coach") at the Troubadour and Pasadena's Ice House. Hard to imagine, he now concedes. But, then, stand-up was never a craft he sought to perfect. Merely a means to some end.
That end, as it turned out, was comedy writing. Levinson wrote for KNBC-TV's rowdy variety program "The Lohman and Barkley Show," creating such absurdist soap operas as "Lawyers and the Pigs" and "Doctors and the Viking." He sold material to "The Steve Allen Show." After working in TV for Tim Conway and Carol Burnett, he apprenticed himself to actor-director Mel Brooks and, between 1975 and 1977, co-wrote "Silent Movie" and "High Anxiety." With first wife Valerie Curtin, he turned out screenplays for ". . . And Justice for All," "Inside Moves," "Best Friends," a remake of "Unfaithfully Yours" and "Toys"--written in 1979 and intended as his first directorial outing.