By Rosalie Tirella
Did you know the film DINER makes my ALL-TIME TOP 15 MOVIE LIST? Today, as I rewatch it, it is number 8. Once it was #1 – even besting my all time #1 flick: THE AWFUL TRUTH staring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant!
Maybe this Barry Levinson masterpiece, a swan song to his Baltimore youth, is so near and dear to my heart because I see my Worcester-as-a-true-Gateway-City in it: my childhood friends, my parents, my friends’ parents …
… all that penny-pinching, the plain-spoken average Joe just wanting – because it’s what he can afford – the basics. All that Greek, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian industriousness … believing in the American Dream of house, backyard, car and college for your kids. Realizing that Dream in a few generations because you COULD back then. The factories were union shops … the small stores cried out for the thrifty, smart Italian or Russian proprietor. All that touchy, feely, sometimes saccharine, immigrant love! Church all the time. Praying to God – together as a family. The search for success in a new country while staying true to Old Country truths and traditions. Can we have both? we wondered. …
DINER’s grubby Baltimore warehouses were Worcester’s, the movie’s modest shoppes in a nondescript downtown matched our old Denholms, Marcus and American Supply … the religiosity of the people in DINER, the respect for elders, the many churches … and even more diners serving up roast beef sandwiches, French fries, bleh plain white bagels … and all that private talk with best friends. The pain and joy of assimilation. The ol’ Worcester.
I saw DINER for the first time decades ago (we are both that old!) in Worcester’s once bustling downtown – with our Mart, Sylvia’s Dress Shoppe and Marcus still open for business. I loved the Paris Cinema in its pre-porn days, before it became an XXX-movie theater. I still miss its wonderful vintage PARIS cinema sign which screamed HOLLYWOOD!!! and MOVIE STARS! I can still picture its thick, heavy, red velvet ropes, deep, red-plush chairs and its big gaudy chandeliers, lit from within, dripping those strands of big crazy rhinestone teardrops! But Showcase Cinemas was great too – in a more compact way, with its huge glass wrap-around concession area, right in the middle of the first floor – popcorn and Jujus before the escalator ride up to one of four screening rooms. Marble stairs to class it up. You always saw people from your school or church going up or down them making sharp clack clack clacks with their shoe heels. COMMUNITY.
Back to the film DINER: I saw it with two Burncoat Senior High School gal pals, falling for the film’s six handsome male leads … and its terrific storyline: a group of Baltimore townies, guys now in their early 20s, best buddies from high school, grow up – in fits and starts … going in separate directions, but wistful for old times … tentative. As they head into their adult lives, they are having second thoughts about a lot of stuff – from Eddy and his impending marriage, to Billy and his pregnant friend. Eddy is making his fiancee take this 100-question, esoteric, wicked hard!! football test – one wrong answer and their wedding is off! Billy, the Masters Degree candidate in business college got his TV news station producer friend pregnant during their weekend in New York City. They had been platonic, best friends for six years. Now home for Christmas vacation, Billy offers to marry his friend. tells her he loves her. She says, “You’re confusing friendship with a woman with love. It’s not the same thing.” Billy, sitting opposite her, looks flummoxed.
A few of the guys, like Shrevey and Boogie, will stay townies, not heading off to college, not straying too far from their childhood neighborhoods, but they are still living lives, still navigating affairs of the heart. Shrevey is a salesman at a furniture store in downtown Baltimore and married to the gorgeous, young Ellen Barken, whom he loves, knows is beautiful … but still … they don’t seem to connect … don’t have much to talk about these days. Ellen doesn’t understand or share his passion for music and records – touchstones for Shrevey. He lashes out at her when she doesn’t know where an lp goes – rock n roll or rhythm and blues. …
… And Boogie, a young, beautiful Mickey Rourke, before the boxing and Botox, is stunning and riveting as he sweet talks the ladies and tries to survive poverty and moving beyond his job at the hair dressers. He is desperate for money because he owes a loan-shark TWO GRAND. Tomorrow. He tells his mom he’s got $56 to his name.
… So he comes up with crazy, degrading schemes like taking bets on a box of his special “surprise” popcorn and a not very bright beauty.
A young Paul Reiser plays the young comedian of the gang, and a baby-faced Kevin Bacon plays the brilliant alcoholic trust-fund kid with a maniacal laugh that subs for crying.
To see the guys standing by the gray, dirty Baltimore harbor … to see them sitting at the diner, at the shiny chrome counter looking out those big windows at their world, from their cool clubhouse … is to see Worcester when she was grand and gaudy and gritty. To see Eddy’s mom complain to Billy: Why is Eddy still living at home?, then to watch her chase her son with a carving knife when he demands: MA, MAKE ME A SANDWICH!!! only to acquiesce and ask Billy: BILLY, DO YOU WANT A SANDWICH? IT’S NO TROUBLE! is to see shades of your Polish Mom or Greek Granny… You also see why Eddy is still a big kid!
My favorite shot in the film? After Billy and Eddy ham it up with a pretty, middle-aged stripper at a strip club, they take her out for coffee at a diner. Sitting at the long counter that faces the street, they look out the window and chat as they watch the world go by. Their banter is soft, sweet, respectful, silly … tinged with sadness and longing. They talk thru the late night. As dawn lights up their city, a horse clomps by – he’s pulling a wagon filled with junk and rags, the bells on his harness tinkle. The neighborhood rag man. They were a big part of city life not so long ago. My late mother used to tell me of the rag man and his horse – lowly travelers – coming through her Green Island, down Lafayette Street, up Millbury Street, up Water, calling for RAGS, JUNK. I once saw the rag man, when I was very young, a toddler. I saw his brown horse clomping down Lafayette Street pulling an old wagon. A beautiful horse!!! A coach like Cinderella’s! The rags were dirty and in a heap but I was entranced … by my city’s magic. Made in America❤.