One of the more versatile American filmmakers of his generation, Barry Levinson's movies showcased subjects as diverse as the immigrant experience, mob intrigue, and political satire. He earned particular acclaim for his semi-autobiographical portraits of life in 1950s Baltimore, a topic that he explored to great effect in Diner, his 1982 directorial debut.
Born in Baltimore on June 2, 1942, Levinson was the son of a warehouse manager. Initially intent on a career in the media, he studied Broadcast Journalism in college but didn't remain there long enough to earn a degree. He instead switched his interests to acting and standup comedy, and, after serving a stint as a staff writer on The Carol Burnett Show, he was hired by producer Mel Brooks. The first film to carry a screenwriter credit for Levinson (in the company of several other writers) was Silent Movie (1976); this was followed by Brooks' High Anxiety (1977), which also featured Levinson as a vengeful bellboy in the film's celebrated Psycho-parody scene.
Levinson's first directorial job was the low-budget Diner (1982), the first installment of his "Baltimore trilogy" (the others were Tin Men (1987) and Avalon (1990)); Diner served to showcase several stars-to-be, among them Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, and Michael Tucker. A poignant, critically acclaimed, coming-of-age story, the film helped to establish Levinson as a bankable director; this status was further solidified with such purely commercial projects as The Natural (1984) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). In 1988, Levinson tackled one of his most ambitious projects in Rain Man, the remarkable saga of a disaffected yuppie's deepening relationship with his autistic savant brother. An all-around success, the film won numerous Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman).
Levinson had little difficulty imposing his own personal stamp on such star-oriented films as Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), starring Robin Williams, and Bugsy (1991), starring Warren Beatty. Although he has made few missteps in his career, Levinson suffered an intensely personal defeat with Toys (1992), a morality tale acted out in a toy manufacturing company. The film had been a pet project of Levinson's for nearly 20 years, and, when finally completed, it proved to be a complete turkey. Similarly disappointing was the director's Jimmy Hollywood (1994); a comedy starring Joe Pesci as a struggling actor, it sank at the box office. He had greater luck with Sleepers (1996), the disturbing tale of four lifelong friends seeking retribution for torture and sexual abuse they suffered as young boys at a reform school. The following year proved to be a banner one, as Levinson had two critically acclaimed hits, one as the producer of Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp as an undercover cop who develops a dangerous friendship with mobster Al Pacino, and the other as the producer/director of the sharp political satire Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. Following a semi-disastrous foray into science fiction with Sphere (1998), Levinson literally and figuratively returned to his home turf in 1999 with Liberty Heights. The story of two Jewish boys growing up in Baltimore in the '50s, it featured the familiar Levinson themes of family ties, ethnic tension, Cold War anxiety, and the growing pains of a changing society.
The 21st century started off in a less than stellar way for Levinson as his comedy An Everlasting Piece struggled to get a release in the United States. He oversaw the end of his highly respected television series Homicide by executive producing a TV-movie in 2000 that helped bring some major storylines to a close.
The next year he made the quirky comedy Bandits featuring a love triangle between Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Cate Blanchett. That film was a mild success, but the same could not be said of his next feature, Envy. The Ben Stiller/Jack Black comedy, with a script originally conceived by Larry David, failed to find support from the studio that funded it as well as from audiences. To steady himself, Levinson teamed yet again with Robin Williams for the political satire Man of the Year, about a political comic who ends up running for the Presidnecy. He teamed again with Robert de Niro for the 2008 Hollywood satire What Just Happened, and directed Al Pacino to multiple awards in the made-for-HBO biopic of Jack Kervorkian, You Don't Know Jack.
~ Hal Erickson, Rovi