Coming out of the Ethnic Closet: Jewishness in the Films of Barry Levinson

By Rosenberg, Warren | Shofar, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Coming out of the Ethnic Closet: Jewishness in the Films of Barry Levinson


Rosenberg, Warren, Shofar


To what extent is Barry Levinson, director of mainstream Hollywood classics The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Rainman, a Jewish filmmaker? A study of Levinson's Baltimore films, Diner (1982),(1) Tin Men (1987),(2) Avalon (1990),(3) and Liberty Heights (1999),(4) will show how his Jewish identity, repressed in films designed to reach a larger audience, slowly emerges in these more personal vehicles. Ironically, it is his 1991 film Bugsy,(5) a Hollywood film biography of a Jewish gangster that, I want to argue, pushed Levinson into making his Jewishness more visible on the screen.

Levinson, born in 1942, was one of the second-generation immigrant Jews for whom assimilation was virtually an accomplished fact. Yet the "remasculinization" of American society that Susan Jeffords sees occurring in the Reagan years,(6) as well as the increasing importance of identity politics, created a supportive environment for the acceptable reassertion of Jewish male identity in the late eighties and early nineties. Jewish women writers and filmmakers gained increased visibility during this period as well, but Levinson, like David Mamet, is an example of an artist with a particularly male focus. It is, in fact, the intersection of gender and ethnicity that is most responsible for Levinson's emerging acknowledgment of Judaism in his work. The Jewishness within Levinson's Baltimore films develops from fleeting references to explicit representations of Jewish characters, themes, and practices.(7) Yet the overwhelming desire to assimilate, coupled with a continual conflict between Yiddishkeit nostalgia and "tough Jew" belligerence, keeps his Jewishness from ever assuming anything close to a comfortably lived reality within his filmic world. Levinson's Jewishness may have finally come out of the ethnic closet, but by the time he made his 1999 film Liberty Heights there seemed to be no Jewish home left to inhabit.

Levinson grew up in a comfortable Baltimore suburb, living in the same house with his parents and immigrant grandparents. Consequently, he heard "a lot of Yiddish" and broken English as family from Europe were literally in and out of the house.(8) One might anticipate, then, that the first film he both wrote and directed, one set in Baltimore, would reflect that background. But Diner (1982), the story of a group of young men who hang out at an all-night diner, makes no explicitly Jewish references until the film's final scene of Eddie's wedding, when the viewer suddenly notices skullcaps on all of the main characters. Eddie, played by Steve Guttenberg, seemed Jewish throughout the film to this Jewish viewer, as did the characters played by Daniel Stern and Paul Reiser. In fact, all of their often hilarious conversations and verbal shtick seemed directly drawn from my own experiences growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. As a viewer with this particularly defined subject position, I read a Jewishness into this film that Levinson either coded or repressed. I know I did not react the same way while watching similar scenes in Scorcese's Mean Streets or Goodfellas, where young men also hang out and talk. I did not find the verbal interaction as nuanced, or the humor as funny, nor did I fully resonate to the subtext of real violence in those films. Here, in foregrounding myself as viewer, I am drawing on the work of feminist film critics Elizabeth Traube(9) and Janet Staiger, who argue that different audiences will read a film differently. As Staiger writes, "How individuals construct or imagine themselves -- the specific gender, ethnic, racial, national, or, here, religious identities by which they establish their selves -- becomes part of the constituent terms in a relation of a text's reception."(10)

This idea that viewers in some sense shape what they see based on the selves they and the culture have constructed for them comes strongly into play in my reading of the only other scene in Diner in which I sense a Jewish subtext.

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