Rain Man (1988)
30 YEARS ON: Some films have a lasting impact, even when it’s not for good reasons. Rain Man, the best picture winner and highest grossing film of 1988, is one of those films in my opinion. The story of two brothers taking a roadtrip (slash, might be considered kidnapping) follows “autistic savant” Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman) and fast-talking salesman Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) as they try to relocate Raymond to Los Angeles to live closer to his only sibling and living relative. Passing through tantrums and Las Vegas card counting, the film may have increased visibility for autistic persons, but the stereotypes raised by the highly acclaimed film may have left more stigma than the film’s awareness was worth.
Barry Levinson, best known nowadays for run-of-the-mill Emmy’s foder for HBO (The Wizard of Lies, Paterno), won best director for this sibling reconnection. Handling an impressively steady performance from Hoffman, his showy, popular topped other powerhouses like Mike Nichols and Martin Scorsese with a deluge of verbal abuse heaped upon the brother he doesn’t understand. Paired with the Oscar winning screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow, the film’s oddities seem to have made it so bankable.
Dustin Hoffman won best actor portraying the “autistic savant” through a constant onslaught of eccentricity that I’ve always wondered if it educated about or stigmatized the autistic community. In character, he is typically Hoffman: a character actor shoved into the limelight able to bring heavy character on top of his captivating screen presence. His stammering is overloaded like the reactions typical of autism, so he’s leveraged a decent performance, but in this age of communities portraying their own roles (and only two years after Marlee Matlin’s groundbreaking win as a deaf actress), the film seems even more dated in its treatment of Raymond as the vessel of his difference rather than a person living with these difficulties. His “Uh oh”’s, “Definitely”’s, and wide eyed staring at toothpicks brought laughs and recitations from the public, but has this been the view of the autistic community since this time? The movie may have been well received, but the treatment of its subjects is disconcerting.
Tom Cruise, despicable but charming, holds my personal favor in this film. Cruel and vibrantly active in his role, the insensitive asshole bouncing off Hoffman’s showier performance proves Cruise’s movie star prowess in this highly memorable if overshadowed role. As he handles the reactionary side of suddenly caring for his differently-abled brother, he is given the emotional weight of the film. Family secrets tumble out in a single scene, a turning point after an hour of verbal abuse, that permits a bit of civility and an actual family love to develop for the overwhelmed siblings.
Their Oscar history was a bit surprising. Nomination for the fast paced editing makes sense–right up their alley plus Best Picture nominee. There are a few memorable shots, such as their strut away from Raymond’s care center, but John Seale’s name (Mad Max Fury Road, Witness) likely played a bit heavier than the quality of the cinematography. You can’t tell me this topped Dangerous Liaisons’ sexy-mind games enhanced by the power plays framed by their DP. Art Direction is a bit of a baffling creature, but they also chose Beaches in that category to go along showier features like Dangerous Liaisons, Tucker The Man and His Dream, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The Las Vegas elegance (aka 80s over abudance) and the various apartments likely made nomination grabs like The Revenant, banking off the popularity rather than the actual quality. Hans Zimmer snuck in one of many nominations, but this 80s electro score is hardly notable outside of the casino scene. Name recognition went a long way for their awards profile, but as a massive hit with a well regarded performance and the biggest star at the time, the popularity was undeniable. I just can’t quite shake the damage this film has done to those on the spectrum; the eccentricity exists in the community, but it’s not always the all-encompassing maelstrom of awkward that is Raymond Babbitt. What’s more important: visibility or avoiding stereotype? Personally, I think the latter.