Diner. 1982. USA. Written and directed by Barry Levinson. Courtesy of MGM/Photofest. © MGM

Director, screenwriter, producer, and sometime actor Barry Levinson (American, b. 1942) is perhaps best known for the films he set in his beloved Baltimore, a place rich in family, memory, loss, humor, and celebration. The city itself is practically a character in Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999). And though Levinson did occasionally move his films away from Baltimore, that depth of feeling has remained constant, as evidenced by his 1988 Best Director Oscar for Rain Man.

A writing veteran of such television variety series as The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, The Tim Conway Show, and the iconic Carol Burnett Show, Levinson started in movies with the screenplay for Mel Brooks’s sidesplitting Silent Movie (1976). While this comedy background suffuses his work, there is also a poignant nostalgia in Levinson’s films, often set in a time that exists only in memory—and sometimes those memories are faulty. His Baltimore films, especially, speak to long-ago gatherings, when extended families lived under one roof and observed traditions brought with them to this country. They also address the nobility of the working class and a pride in excelling through ambition and an unbreakable work ethic. Levinson confronts bigotry and the concept of otherness in quiet ways, too, as in Liberty Heights or, more overtly, in Rain Man.

In recent years Levinson has returned to TV with a trio of ripped-from-the-headlines biopics for HBO: You Don’t Know Jack (2010), The Wizard of Lies (2017), and Paterno (2018).

This broad overview of Levinson’s distinctive career is drawn primarily from MoMA’s collection. Special thanks to HBO.

Organized by Anne Morra, Associate Curator, Department of Film.

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