A memorable sports-related movie scene.
Last year at Variety my good pal Jon Weisman celebrated “Diner”:
Though studio execs had their own vision problems for the film 30 years ago, Levinson’s audition process had laid solid groundwork. Given how dependent the pic was on naturalistic chatter, he had to look not only at how the actors would play the part, but how they would play against each other.
“Ellen Barkin, oddly enough, is the only person I met for (the role of) Beth,” Levinson says. “She came in, I met her, that was it. Five or six hundred guys, one person for Beth.”
Rourke, who was coming off a memorable supporting turn in “Body Heat,” probably had the highest profile at the time, but future “Mad About You” star Reiser wound up playing a key role as well, even though his was the smallest part among the guys and his casting was fairly accidental.
Reiser came to the auditions not in hopes of a part but just to keep a friend company. Levinson says that casting director Ellen Chenowith noticed Reiser in the hallway and called him in. Arguably as much as anyone, Reiser raised everyone’s game.
“When we got to the improv-y stuff, we had a professional comic in our midst who was going to eat us alive if we didn’t stay on our toes, Stern says. “There was a line that Reiser had. Somebody said, ‘You think she’ll go down for the count?’ Reiser, out of nowhere, said, ‘No, but I heard she blew the prince.’
“We had to stop shooting that day, because we got so hysterical. Tried for half an hour, and they finally shut us down.”
The second crisis hit when an on-set fire cost another night of shooting, and MGM refused to budget another day. Levinson needed more time. Sova suggested breaking out a second camera in the diner, to speed things up by filming actors on both sides of the table simultaneously. That, however, created a problem with sound: instead of clipping a lavalier microphone to just one actor and allowing him to say his lines cleanly—that is, without overlap from other actors, so it can be edited into a scene later—the new situation demanded that all the actors, on-camera and off, be miked. Robert Altman aside, at the time it was still rare to use overlapping dialogue, especially for trivial, tabletop chatter. “What Levinson did in a revolutionary way 30 years ago,” John Hamburg says, “is something we’re doing now.”
It was, for the final two weeks, a kind of liberation. “Because we didn’t have to worry about overlaps, we could really ad-lib,” Guttenberg says. “You could ad-lib offstage and throw the guy a fastball, and he could catch it and throw it high. That’s what made the experience so unique in filmmaking: you didn’t have to match ‘what we did last time.’ It was ‘Just give me something extraordinary. Take it wherever you want to go.’ ”
…Banter is a delicate thing, crippled by obvious effort, destroyed when, as so often happens on sitcoms, it’s reduced to point scoring or put-downs. Reiser was so quick, so on, that there are moments in Diner when he sounds as if he’s trying out material. But Levinson was also going for something deeper, a casualness implying dynamics and affections that reach back years, and even the screw-ups nail that quality. The best comes when Guttenberg’s Eddie asks Boogie, “Sinatra or Mathis?,” and Rourke brushes him back with “Presley.” “Elvis Presley?,” Guttenberg’s Eddie says. “You’re sick … ” He starts to improvise, but it’s like watching a kid let go of the handlebars for the first time: he knows he’s going to crash. “You’ve gone like two steps below … ,” Guttenberg stammers, “in my … my, uh, book.” Clearly, a blown take: The actors giggle, Stern spits up his drink, breaks character, and says, “Once again … ” But rather than splice in a cleaner run, Levinson went with the mess.
Here’s one of my favorite scenes, about a young couple that don’t really understand each other. What I really like about it is that you can appreciate where both the husband and the wife are coming from, how deep the divide is between them. Doesn’t hurt that Daniel Stern and Ellen Barkin are in top form.
And my boy Steinski appropriated this bit here:
For more, check out this Q&A I found in an old issue of American Film: My Dinner with Barry (Robert Ward)
I first watched “Diner” on VHS when I was in junior high. I loved it and the next day I told my mom about it at breakfast. My step father said, “It’s just a boring movie about a bunch of jerks sitting around wasting time.” I was convinced then that my step father would never understand me. And I don't think he ever has.