"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood," intones Joe Pesci standing onstage at the Hollywood Bowl, addressing a sea of empty green beach chairs. Director Barry Levinson watches the action on TV monitors backstage, his gaze fixed on Pesci and on a scruffy Christian Slater whose character is videotaping Pesci's remarks.
The scene, filmed on Monday, was the last to be shot in Levinson's as-yet-untitled movie that Paramount aims to release in the spring. As a $10-million, character-driven vehicle, the film has more in common with the director's "Diner" and "Tin Men" than with his more elaborate and more expensive "Bugsy" and "Toys." Like "Bugsy," it turns the lens on Hollywood, Levinson's home for the past 25 years--but from a modern, far less glamorous perspective.
When Levinson sat down to write--or, in his case, dictate--the script in February, he called up images and personal experiences stored over the years.
"I've always been fascinated with those people on the fringe," says Levinson, who, before landing a TV writing job in 1970, was on the outskirts of the business himself. "Those people who've never been to acting school, inside a studio gate or even appeared in an industrial film but call themselves 'actors.' Personality type, I've discovered, is an important part of 'talent.' Some folks become casualties--they just self-destruct."
Pesci's Jimmy Alto is a case in point: a wanna-be actor who emigrates from back East, living off his Spanish girlfriend (Victoria Abril) while waiting for his luck to change. When he and his spacey sidekick (Slater) avenge the theft of his car radio, the role of a lifetime presents itself. As the leader of their two-man vigilante squad, Pesci plays the media like a pro. Hollywood approaches him to do his life story but--back to reality--casts another actor in the role.
Some directors might have been gun-shy after "Toys" took a nose-dive last December, Levinson admits. But, his faith in his instincts remained unshaken.
"This is a hit-and-miss business," the director observes, taking a sip of water from his bottle of Arrowhead. "It doesn't pay to embrace either too strongly: those who tell you you're brilliant or those who hate everything you make. Aiming to please everyone makes for mechanical filmmaking. Then, if the movie fails to make money, you're really left with nothing. That's my greatest fear.
"This, like many of my movies, is a reality-based comedy/drama which crisscrosses from funny to serious in a matter of moments," the director continues. "Though it's not a silly romp or an action-adventure easily sold in a 90-second (TV) spot, it's a movie I wanted to make."
Levinson's gut told him that Slater, currently starring in Tony Scott's "True Romance," should play William, a preoccupied guy with a buzzing in his head. And Pesci's "dangerous sensibility" and loose-cannon feel, he was convinced, made him perfect for the role.
Mark Johnson, Levinson's longtime producer and partner in Baltimore Pictures, agreed. "Joe is someone who keeps coming back--the kind who won't take 'no' for an answer," he says of the "My Cousin Vinny" star. "He's like those guys at the college mixers who asked the most beautiful girl to dance while the rest of us were too cool . . . . and on the 97th time, she accepts."
Like "Homicide," the police series Levinson directed with a hand-held 16mm camera last year, this film--an all-union picture which, according to the filmmakers, came in on budget and two days under schedule--proved to be a liberating experience.
"This movie is rougher and cruder than my recent ones, much faster and more mobile," says the director. "We wanted to capture the elements of the street, remaining as inconspicuous as possible and letting the characters blend in. Though movies like 'Bugsy' relied on 'designed' moments to create the imitation of glamour, to refine this movie was to hurt it."
Johnson felt the difference, as well. "When money is bigger, the responsibility is greater," he says. "A lumbering film like 'Toys' is less fun and not as immediately gratifying. Things tend to move much slower. In this movie, we adopted a utilitarian attitude and did everything on the fly. Form and content were welded perfectly."
If Levinson is firmly entrenched on the A-list these days, that wasn't always the case. Waiting on tables put him through acting school. Sharing a one-room, $80-a-month apartment off Hollywood Boulevard with two friends ("the one who lost the coin toss slept in the closet") helped make ends meet.
"Barry interwove characters and anecdotes he'd filed away and put them up on the screen," says Johnson. "There's the old guy on the corner of Santa Monica and Western winding up like a baseball pitcher. And the time Barry was a waiter at Mayer's Deli and the customers cleared out to watch a robbery. Still, those are days he looks back on fondly. Just as Pesci's character thinks he came along 30 years too late, it's the Hollywood of today that upsets Barry."
This movie, says Levinson, is a two-tiered one: a look at some of Hollywood's local color as well as a condemnation of general urban decay.
"Los Angeles is more dangerous and volatile than it was before, with an on-the-surface explosive anger," he says. "The place is multiethnic, hyper and crazy--much less laid back than when I arrived. In a year, I plan to move upstate, somewhere north of San Francisco, commuting back to Hollywood once a week. I feel bad in a way, but 20 years with a figurehead mayor has left the educational system in total disarray. I want to find a situation that allows my children to attend public school without fearing for their lives."
Levinson's wife and stepdaughter enter the trailer--relieved, no doubt, that the film is in the can. It's a feeling with which the director identifies.
"Because the brain can only handle so much, the movie becomes everything," he explains. "It's like being in the Navy--shipping out. I feel like I've spent the last four months on the Indian Ocean. I'm ready to get back to life."
Levinson may be taking a brief directorial hiatus, but he and Johnson have a lot on their production plate. Baltimore Pictures' "Quiz Show"--a Robert Redford movie about the Charles Van Doren television scandal--will be released by Hollywood Pictures during the first half of 1994. (Levinson plays talk-show host Dave Garroway.) And Johnson produced Warner Bros.' "A Perfect World," starring Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood, who also directs--a picture due out on Nov. 24.