“Down these clean streets a man must go who is not himself clean.”
Now that is not exactly Raymond Chandler, but “Diner” is not exactly “Mean Streets.” It’s close though. Maybe closer to “American Graffiti,” in terms of its social mode, but “Mean Streets” in the relationships between the characters and the rhythms of speech. Mickey Roarke is “Boogie” Sheftell, the heterosexual hairdresser who, like Mean Street’s Johnny Boy , owes money and isn’t meeting the payments. But he is also like Warren Beatty’s sleazy hairdresser from “Shampoo,” always on the hustle for girls. Of the group of friends who hang out at the diner, he is the only character about whom there is a direct reference suggesting his father was killed in the second world war, although the fact that Timothy Fenwick Jr. receives $100 a month from a trust fund suggests he is parentless. Billy (Timothy Daly) and Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) are the only characters having living fathers who appear on the screen.
Since the movie is set in the last week of the 1950’s, the characters, all in their early twenties, must have been born close to 1937, making them around five years old when their fathers went to war and eight or nine when the surviving fathers returned home. So most, if not all, of these young people were raised by their mothers alone during some very formative years, which may account for the undercurrent of neuroses flowing through this movie, an undercurrent that occasionally surfaces in erratic behavior that could explode into full-blown psychosis if not sublimated through rock and roll music.
Kevin Bacon’s Fenwick seems to be a rich orphan whose family money is controlled by unfriendly brother Howard. As unambitious as he is overly intelligent, every vein beneath Timothy’s skin seems to be always on the verge of bursting. It is no surprise when a drinking bout lands him in a nativity cradle wearing nothing but underpants.
We don’t know what Shrievie’s (Daniel Stern) problem is, other than that he goes into a rage whenever his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) touches his records. For some reason, Boogie thinks this couple has a chance of making it, although he admits he has no experience in resolving conflicts with his girlfriends. When there is trouble, he just leaves.
“Diner” camouflages its formidable terrors within the innuendo of polished repartee. Everything seems as innocent as the last day of high school as portrayed in “American Graffiti.” But these are not high school kids, and their futures are unlikely to be brightened by the optimistic platitudes of valedictorians. The couple whose marriage plans are determinate upon the woman’s knowledge of football have tentative plans to honeymoon in Cuba, a country undergoing radical changes that are soon to result in U.S. trade embargos against it. Happy honeymooning, suckers. Better switch to Plan B and go to Puerto Rico instead.
Although most members of the cast had been around for a couple of years before becoming conjoined in the “Diner” ensemble, it was this movie that shot them into celebrity. Just as “Mean Streets” had introduced us to Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro, and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” would give us Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh, “Diner” gave us the first glimpse of some actors who would go on to define the new decade.
Postscript: A Curious Detail
When Fenwick is watching a television quiz show, we notice a movie poster on his wall. This is curious because in 1959, very few people were apt to hang movie posters on their walls. Besides, how would he have obtained it? My guess is that he stole it out of the display case in front of the theater when he was drunk. This tells us he probably has a history of delinquency, although his family’s social standing has kept him out of reform school. As an adult, he no longer enjoys such protection from the law, which may be why his friends hustled him out of the nativity display with such zeal. I also find it curious as to why director Barry Levinson choose the 1959 political drama “The Journey” as the poster. Was he trying to draw attention to a forgotten movie that was a box office flop despite the star power of Yul Brenner and Deborah Kerr, who had been such a smash three years previously in “The King and I?” Or was there something in the story of a group of international travelers trying to get across the border to Austria during the Hungarian uprising after the Russians closed the Budapest airport that struck a chord with him? I don’t know, but it is a curious detail.