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He's Digging Deeper Into Home Turf

With 'Liberty Heights,' writer-director Barry Levinson delves further into the complexities of growing up Jewish in 1950s Baltimore.

November 14, 1999|ANN HORNADAY | Ann Hornaday is a Baltimore Sun staff writer

BALTIMORE — Three teenage boys slurp Cokes and chocolate milkshakes in a red vinyl booth in the Hollywood Diner, hard by Baltimore's Jones Falls Expressway and some of its dingiest streets. They're talking about girls and cars, music and an impending double date. Does Sylvia "put out"? How about her friend?

After some more adolescent banter, Sylvia's date--the angelic, green-eyed Ben Foster--produces a quarter from his pocket and tosses it. The coin will decide which of his two friends (played by Evan Neumann and Gerry Rosenthal) will be the fourth at a James Brown concert--the adventure's sexual anticipation made even more tantalizing by the prospect of crossing the color line.

Foster slaps the coin down on the tabletop with the thwack of a fate sealed.

Cut.

"Good. Let's keep it going."

It should come as no surprise that the man orchestrating this particular vignette--and chuckling avuncularly the entire time--is Barry Levinson. And it should be even less surprising that the Toscanini of adolescent male sexual angst is presiding over yet another symphony of testosterone, anxiety and bonding in the very diner that started his career as a film director.

Hunkered down with 30-odd cast and crew members on a chill November afternoon, Levinson has returned once again to the place in Baltimore with which he is most identified. The Hollywood Diner played the title character in the first movie Levinson directed, "Diner" (1982). Called the Fells Point Diner back then, it returned to the screen for a cameo in "Tin Men" (1987), where it again served as a male redoubt against the incursions of time, women and other abominations.

And here it is again, this kitschy, chrome-plated phallic symbol, the perfect architectural trope for the Baltimore men whose tribal rituals Levinson has built so much of his career documenting. (The Hollywood will be re-christened and moved back to the Baltimore waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point digitally.)

The fourth installment of Levinson's Baltimore cycle, "Liberty Heights," will open Friday nationwide. The modestly budgeted Warner Bros. movie is redolent of Levinsonian romanticism--hair tonic, the perfume of an unattainable shiksa princess, the interior of a brand-new Cadillac. But more, it is a tale of how race, religion, class and the territoriality that is unique to Baltimore came together in the 1950s in a clash that, at least in Levinson's retelling, resulted in shared understanding as often as violence.

Probably the most surprising thing about "Liberty Heights" isn't that Levinson is tackling such charged subject matter, but that the idea for the movie emerged from the murky depths of Levinson's tepid science-fiction thriller "Sphere." It was last February, when Levinson read a review of "Sphere" in Entertainment Weekly, that he started fuming--and pacing.

The film, which starred Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, was almost universally maligned. But it wasn't a poor review that brought Levinson to his feet. It was a passage in which the critic described Hoffman's character as "Norman, the empathetic Jewish psychologist," adding insult to indignity with terms like "noodge" and "menschlike."

Levinson was enraged, and he becomes furious again recalling the moment.

"The movie has nothing to do with religion!" he says between sips of pea soup during a lunch break. "You know, whatever you think of the movie is whatever you want to think of it. But why would that be [mentioned]--I mean, you wouldn't say that Mel Gibson [in "Ransom"] is a Catholic businessman whose son is kidnapped."

For three days, Levinson paced around his Marin County, Calif., home, "driving my wife crazy," he says. "Then all of a sudden, it snapped." Levinson did what he always does when an idea "snaps": He took a note pad and a pen in hand, ensconced himself in a room, switched the satellite music system to the sounds of the 1950s and wrote. And wrote.

*

Three weeks later, he emerged with the script for "Liberty Heights," the story of Ben Kurtzman (Foster), a 17-year-old Jewish boy growing up in the northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Forest Park. The year is 1954, when black and white students first begin attending school together. In one subplot, Ben makes tentative romantic advances to an African American classmate named Sylvia.

Ben's father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), is a devoted family man who owns a strip club in Baltimore's red-light district, known as the Block. Nate is also a small-time numbers runner dealing with police crackdowns and the advent of state-sponsored lotteries. Ben's older brother, Van (Adrien Brody), a sensitive student at the University of Baltimore, is in hot pursuit of a gorgeous girl who happens to reside in one of Baltimore's most patrician WASP precincts.

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