ICYMI: Oscar Edition - Avalon (1990)
The film career of Barry Levinson is actually two film careers. He has made his fair share of high profile classic Hollywood films which would include the sprawling baseball epic The Natural (easily the most beautifully cinematic ending of any baseball film), the insightful comedy-drama Good Morning, Vietnam, the glamorous crime biopic Bugsy, as well as his Oscar winning work in 1988’s Best Picture Rain Man. On the other hand, he has always found a way to cull inspiration from his Baltimore upbringing as represented in the nostalgic buddy hijinks of Diner, the cut throat con artist world of aluminum siding sales people in Tin Men to the adolescent rumination of Liberty Heights. But the film that always spoke to me on the most intimate level is probably his most publicly stated personal film, 1990’s Avalon.
The film is the semi-autobiographical story of Levinson’s Russian and Jewish origins as his family immigrates to Baltimore in the early 1900’s. The Krichinsky family is centered around five brothers who slowly make their way to America, leaving no one behind, as they use limited resources to relocate almost one relative at a time. The film is probably more timely now with the non-stop political climate over immigration, but I digress. The surprisingly renown cast includes Armin Mueller-Stahl and Joan Plowright as the central Krichinsky parents, Aiden Quinn and Kevin Pollack as the next generation and a super young Elijah Wood as Barry Levinson’s 9-year-old alter ego.
We watch as the Krichinskys assimilate to their new lives and work hard for the “American Dream.” Levinson strikes just the right balance of charm, nostalgia and heartbreak as the family grows and spreads its vast roots into the suburbs. There’s a charming scene where Armin Mueller-Stahl gets into a grammatical quandary with the local school teacher over the use of “Can I” and “May I.” There’s a nostalgic scene where we see Elijah Wood and his cousins play with fireworks to almost catastrophic results and he must confess his misdeed to his father. And there’s heartbreak when we see the “last” family Thanksgiving.
If you are from a large family like me, you know there’s always that one relative that everyone has to wait on. Character actor Lou Jacobi brings poignancy to Uncle Gabriel whose yearly tardiness causes irreversible damage when the family breaks bread without him. In moments like these, Avalon plays as an honest saga of the ties that bind family and the ones that fray and eventually erode over the years in the name of “a better life.”
Avalon was recognized with 4 Oscar nominations, including Levinson for his heartfelt screenplay and Randy Newman for his evocative score. And while I can see how it was overlooked by other 1990’s fare like Reversal of Fortune, Goodfellas, and the Academy Award winning best picture Dances With Wolves, I find it interesting that it even gets overlooked within Levinson’s own cinematic resume. And the fact that his resume also includes Wag the Dog and Sleepers is even more impressive.
But Avalon is Barry Levinson’s most personal film and yet brimming with so many universal truths about family and the never-ending tapestry of hope and heartache that is “the American experience.”