Thirty years ago next month, a movie featuring five cute unknown post-teen actors was dumped by its studio into a few theaters in Southern cities with the hope that audiences would be fooled into thinking it was a ribald sex comedy on the order of Porky’s. The trick didn’t work, and the modestly budgeted film appeared to be headed for the scrapheap when word of mouth—helped along by a private screening for Pauline Kael of the New Yorker, then the most powerful movie critic in America—compelled MGM to change course.
The studio fired its PR chief and presented the film in prestige cinemas for what it was: a film inspired by American Graffiti, a study of American youth set two years earlier than George Lucas’s film, in Baltimore rather than California, and not among graduating high schoolers on a warm summer night but among mostly Jewish college boys in the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
At Oscar time, the movie was nominated for only a single prize, Original Screenplay, and didn’t win; the script for the year’s Best Picture, Gandhi, took it instead. Yet, 30 years later, there probably isn’t a person alive who wouldn’t rather watch Diner, the movie that almost disappeared. And I doubt you could find a sane person who wouldn’t say Diner is a better movie in every way than Gandhi—and, for those of us who think in these terms, better than any other American film released in 1982. In fact, this semiautobiographical account of writer-director Barry Levinson’s aimless preadulthood turned out to be the best American film of the 1980s, graced with one of the most memorable screenplays in the annals of cinema.
A secondary character in Diner goes around with a mad gleam in his eye doing nothing but reciting lines of dialogue from Sweet Smell of Success. There is an entire class of American males between the ages of 45 and 60 who can do the same, or nearly the same, with Diner’s script. There are dozens of quotable lines, and the sheer quantity and variety of them puts Diner in the league of Casablanca, All About Eve, and The Godfather in this respect. Even more impressive is the fact that none of the movie’s famous lines is a quip, a crack, or a one-liner; they are specific and character-based. They are memorable because they capture as no other pop-culture document ever has the way in which young men make connections with each other through one-upmanship, trivia games, and references to common experiences.
Diner is set at a hinge moment in American history—the last days of 1959, among people with no clue that the world they take for granted is about to collapse under the steamroller of the 1960s. For the couple who marry in the final scene, that revolutionary change will be literal: They on New Year’s Eve are slated to honeymoon in Havana, just in time for Castro’s takeover. Levinson, who became a rather preachy, didactic artist later, makes no point of this; you either get it or you don’t.
That is true as well for the coming sexual revolution. The young women in the movie are out of sorts, dissatisfied, and the five young men at the center of the film can’t make sense out of them. They don’t seem to expect too much from life, so why should the girls?
“You ever get the feeling there’s something going on that we don’t know about?” says Fenwick (Kevin Bacon), the most intelligent and troubled of the quintet, and the movie’s rueful answer is that they really understand nothing—not what motivates them, not what the women in their lives might want, and not what it means to be an adult.
The married Shrevie (Daniel Stern) tells the soon-to-marry Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) that while the action of being boyfriend and girlfriend is finding a place where “you can do it,” afterwards “you can get it whenever you want it.” And as a result, “Beth and me, we got nothing to talk about.”
There is a silence in the car, and then the clueless Eddie—who is making his fiancée pass a trivia test about the Baltimore Colts before he will go through with the wedding—says, “But it’s good, right—it’s nice.” And Shrevie, understanding he has gone too far with his heartbreaking declaration, backs off and says that yes, it’s nice.
“We’ve always got the diner,” the two agree, because at the Fells Point Diner in Baltimore where they have hung out for years, the boys can sit around and eat and talk and while away the time in unchallenging and easy companionship in which the only tension has to do with whether someone is going to eat half of your sandwich.
But what makes Diner so powerful, and so great, is that Levinson knows the diner is a dead end—an Island of Lost Boys unburdened by the responsibilities of a cold and difficult world. In the final image of the film, the bridal bouquet lands on the table in front of the young men we’ve been watching—the sign that their time together is done. And they know it. Turns out they won’t always have the diner.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.