”Are you sure it’s not too much?” director Barry Levinson asks his Avalon cinematographer Allen Daviau. They’re both intently watching a downpour from a rain machine splatter the windshield of a mint-condition postwar Chevy convertible. Each time the car wipers part the deluge, actors Aidan Quinn and Kevin Pollak are visible in the front seat, waiting patiently to begin their scene. The irony of the moment does not become apparent until a crew member makes the obvious crack: Levinson, who won a Best Director Oscar for Rain Man, is now worrying about too much precipitation.
The gray-haired director smiles, then looks out at nature’s own November drizzle falling over Baltimore’s Hollins Market, an agglomeration of stalls selling plump Chesapeake Bay shellfish, farm-fresh produce, and squawking poultry all at heartrending 1948 prices. Then he focuses his attention on the rain in front of a red-brick storefront where a crowd of men in hats and women in seamed stockings has lined up beneath a Grand Opening sign to look at the appliances and brand-new TV sets.
The scene Levinson is surveying is a replica of an image from his past: His father opened a store much like this one in 1948, when the now 47-year-old director was only five. The success of that shop marked a turning point in the life of Levinson’s real family, bringing them wealth but also taking them away from the immigrant row-house neighborhood they loved.
Directors sometimes get rattled when dealing with autobiographical material — Louis Malle was an admitted ”nervous wreck” while shooting his war time memoir Au Revoir, les Enfants. Yet Levinson is calm as he decides that, despite the natural drizzle falling, he needs the rain machine after all. With a word he sends Quinn and Pollak, playing characters based on his father and a business partner, driving toward their destiny.
Despite his success directing big-budget films with major stars — such as 1984’s The Natural with Robert Redford, and 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam with Robin Williams — Levinson’s work is most acute in small, intimate movies based on his own experiences. With Avalon, he returns to his hometown, Baltimore, which he first paid tribute to in 1982’s Diner. That story, about a gang of post-high school buddies facing their future over fries and gravy at the local diner, helped launch the careers of Kevin Bacon, Steve Guttenburg, Mickey Rourke, and others.
Levinson returned to his Baltimore experiences in 1987 to direct Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito in Tin Men, a wry portrait of aluminum-siding salesmen. By alternating between acting as a hired gun on other people’s scripts and shooting these more personal studies, Levinson seems to be making a career of proving that, with time off, you can go home again, and again, and again.
With the enormous success of Rain Man (which won four Oscars and grossed half a billion worldwide) Levinson moved into the tiny company of directors who can pick their projects almost at will. He decided to make his next movie another quiet story about the town he grew up in — ”But there are so many Baltimore stories,” Levinson says during a break in shooting, ”Which one did I want to tell?” As he talks he keeps an eye on the set (they’ve now moved inside the store) where props people are arranging dozens of vintage TVs — Admirals, Emersons, Philcos — for the next shot. ”The plot mechnanics that propel most films are of as little interest to me as mathematics,” Levinson says. His own scripts have a looser structure, one that leans more on ensemble acting and atmosphere than on stars or story lines. In place of a dramatic plot, he says, he looks for ”some thematic aspect I want to fiddle with.”
For Avalon Levinson found a theme worth fiddling with in his own family history. The movie concerns ”the breakup of the extended American family, not through failure but through success,” he says. But he gives that notion flesh and blood by focusing on the story of his Russian-born grandfather (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) and the family he built after arriving in the U.S. in 1914.
”The film is true in most of the key areas,” Levinson says. ”We did live for many years with my grandparents.” And, he says, the foreign-born members of his extended family ”never did understand what the hell Thanksgiving was all about, just like in the movie.” The family began to unravel, however, after moving to the suburbs. While that move was made possible by Levinson’s father’s success at selling TVs, the director thinks that television itself helped destroy the emphasis on conversation that had held the family together.
At a time when the ethnic authenticity of actors is being closely examined — as in the case of the London musical Miss Saigon, the Broadway version of which nearly foundered on the issue — Levinson took a typically individual approach to casting Avalon. Joan Plowright, a doyenne of the British theater, at first wondered why Levinson wanted her and not ”an authentic Jewish American actress from New York” to play the Polish-Jewish grandmother. He picked the German Mueller-Stahl to play the grandfather, and for the second-generation couple — his own parents — the Irish-American Aidan Quinn and Greek-American Elizabeth Perkins.
Taking a break from shooting an edgy confrontation between herself and Perkins in the TV store, Plowright explains the logic in this casting. ”He told me that he didn’t want a stereotyped New York-Jewish lady because his grandmother wasn’t that at all, she was a very individual character.” The actress believes Levinson’s oddball casting is his way of honoring individuality, ”of saying that ordinary people are not ordinary.”
”What really distinguishes Barry as a director,” says Perkins, ”is the incredibly easy atmosphere he establishes on the set. I think you see that reflected in the performances in his films, which are easy and natural, very lifelike.” Levinson doesn’t like extensive rehearsals — he thinks they inhibit spontaneity — but he stays close to his actors. Perkins feels comfortable with his approach. ”Let’s just say I’ve had two weeks of intensive preproduction rehearsals with directors who then proceeded to ignore me for 10 weeks of shooting,” she says.
Where the material success of the family in Avalon strained its ties, Levinson is trying to use his own success to help keep his together. Last year, he and his wife Diana bought a house in Annapolis, Md., so their young sons could have more contact with their extended family. ”We try to get the uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents together there whenever we can,” he says.
”I can go on about how I think many of the problems we face today are a direct result of the breakdown of the family,” Levinson continues. ”I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody speak of family honor, or tarnishing the family name?” A paean to an old-world notion of family is hardly the kind of on-the-set talk one expects from one of Hollywood’s most powerful directors. But Levinson defies expectations precisely because he uses his power to make movies that are as distinctive, and as personal, as his own convictions.