“Never go full retard” was Robert Downey Jr.’s advice to Ben Stiller – both playing failed actors – in the comedy Tropic Thunder. A little blunt, but he has a point. Hollywood has always strived to sweeten or glamorise real life. The movie-making-machine understands that for the maximum number of bums-on-seats, they need to avoid painting things as they are, and instead offer more palatable alternatives, which can have you cheering or crying in equal measure, but never uncomfortable in your seat. To that end, the aforementioned line was meant to reflect the fact that film stars only find real success in playing partially “disabled” characters, who all have a ‘gift’ which somehow makes them ‘special’, rather than just another poor individual with a disabling trait. So people portrayed with mental illness have to be prize-winning geniuses (A Beautiful Mind), and people portrayed with autism have to have their own special skills as a side-effect of their handicap. The Tropic Thunder passage of dialogue goes on to compare the likes of Forrest Gump, and Being There, to Sean Penn’s I Am Sam, showing how the success in the former comes from depicting the characters as being particularly skilled at something, anything; where the failure of the latter was because Sean Penn just played your average, everyday adult with learning disabilities. The other example cited in that film was Rain Man, which showed both the uncontrollable side to autism, and the occasional mathematical ‘advantages’ of it, yet managed to avoid ever dipping into classic saccharine-sweet Hollywood-machine territory. It also showcased Dustin Hoffman on absolute top form, and gave us a performance from a young Tom Cruise which would hint at the true talent that he had to offer. It would go on to, quite rightly, win several Awards, including a Best Picture Oscar, and, in my opinion, is one of the defining mainstream movies on autism.
Charlie Babbitt is a young car dealer, who trades exotic sports cars, wears flash suits and is seldom seen without his Ray-Bans. He barks orders at his staff – one of whom happens to also be his girlfriend, Susanna – and is close to closing a big deal that could potentially make or break him. Then he finds out his father has died. He drives down to Ohio to go to the funeral and make all the necessary arrangements, only to find out that his estranged father has left almost everything from his multi-million-dollar estate to an unnamed beneficiary. Bitter and frustrated, he starts making enquiries only to find out that the money is being held in trust for a patient at a mental institution – a certain Raymond Babbitt; Charlie’s elder brother. Furious that he was never informed that he even had a brother, and angry that he was basically left out of the will, he kidnaps Raymond and takes him on a road trip. The initial intention is clear – he wants to use the threat of filing for custody of Raymond to coerce the doctors at the institution into paying him a fair share of his dad’s estate. But over the subsequent days, and with a few hundred miles behind and before him, he gradually lets his guard down, and discovers that there is more to Raymond than just another ‘retard’ locked away for supposedly for their own good. And when Charlie starts to discover a connection with his brother, he has to face up to the fact that it may not be money that he needs after all: it may well be the big brother that he never even knew existed.
Apparently writer Barry Morrow created the character of Raymond after encountering a couple of real-life savants. It was in 1984 that he met with the late Lawrence Kim Peek who, whilst not autistic, suffered from a rare syndrome that left him high functioning, but with problems performing simple motor skilled tasks, and obvious social difficulties. Being the inspiration for the ‘Rain Man’ of the film, actor Dustin Hoffman also went to meet Peek to get a better understanding of the condition and develop an authentic way to portray the character. Peek did indeed have great mathematical skills and, in the years following the success of the movie, became increasingly socially interactive, enjoying the challenges he was ‘set’ by intrigued strangers, a common one of which was, famously, his ability to immediately tell you the day of the week that you were born just by knowing your birth-date. And it’s a testament to their research that Rain Man still endures as one of the most realistic portrayals of any kind of disability, with Dustin Hoffman quite rightly winning the Oscar for his depiction here – literally becoming the character for the duration of the movie, without even a glimpse of the actor behind it.
Ironically, Hoffman wasn’t the first choice to play Raymond, he was originally selected to try for the part of Charlie, the arrogant younger brother, with no less than Bill Murray in mind for Raymond. Murray’s since shown great depth to his talents, but I’m not sure whether, back in the Ghostbusters era, this would have been a good move for him, so I’m quite glad they handed it over. And whilst I’m sure Hoffman could have tried to be Charlie, with his simply perfect depiction of the Raymond – complete with bobbing head to one side, nervous tics, repeated words and shuffled gait – I’m not sure I could envisage anybody else in that role.
Oddly, I think Tom Cruise’s performance as Charlie went somewhat under-regarded, both at the time of the Oscars and in the years since. In ’88 Cruise had already released Cocktail, a decidedly flimsy movie that relied almost entirely on his grin, and one which I suspect languished in the memories of the committee when the time came to pick those who should be Nominated. In fact it would be the following year’s performance in the brutal Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July that would finally earn him at least that much recognition. I’m not saying Cruise deserved to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Rain Man, but he definitely should have had the nod. Whilst Hoffman is perpetually in-character – but does have a character arc, if you watch for the very subtle changes in his responses across the course of the movie – Cruise’s path is more overt, and thus easier to dismiss. But for as convincing as he is when playing a smug, spoilt, arrogant, self-centred hustler at the start of the movie, it takes a good actor to bring that kind of character around by the end of it. Many watched it just expecting it of Cruise, he always plays the good guy, after all. But if you see the changes made across the movie, which is as much about redemption, in this respect, as it is about brotherly bonding.
Rain Man changed history somewhat – it is strongly regarded as the movie that introduced a nation, and more, to autism. Many criticise the fact that it portrayed such an unusual – almost unique – cross-pollination of autism and savantism, but the fact was that, at the time, people were still in institutions for this classification. ‘Retarded’ was the word on everybody’s mouth when you encountered someone with this kind of disability (one of the first things Charlie says when confronted with his brother), and it was in great part thanks to Rain Man that some people warmed to the idea of people who were different. Sure, the savantism aspect is the more entertaining element – it’s the one that helps audiences go ‘hey, look, this guy’s cool, he can count hundreds of toothpicks in a matter of seconds and cheat on casino blackjack tables” – but it is also tempered with the depiction of an individual who is clearly difficult to manage, and would find it difficult to manage by themselves in society.
And revisiting it will remind you of everything else that is on offer: from the brotherly bond that develops between these very different, but equally socially defective individuals – Charlie’s self-centredness may be intentional, but it is just the flipside of Raymond’s disability, which often leaves him in his own world; to the unusual road movie narrative that sees the two cut across America, and discover each other in episodic events during the journey. The dialogue by writer Barry Morrow (who had previously written the screenplay for Bill, a movie based on his autistic real-life friend Bill Sackter, who had been institutionalised for much of his life, and found it extremely hard to interact in society afterwards) is absolutely spot on – showcasing Charlie’s anger over his father’s one-sided will; his shock at the discovery that he had a brother who nobody told him about; the frustration that his girlfriend has in dealing with his inability to give a damn about a single other member of the human race (not even his brother); and the many moments that it takes for Charlie and Raymond just to be able to have the briefest physical contact. There are some really tough scenes to watch – from the realisation that Raymond was sent away in the first place because the dad wanted to make sure that he did not (accidently) harm Charlie, to the final act battle for custody – and you really feel for Cruise’s Charlie by the end of it. What would you do if you discovered that you had a brother who had been locked up for the last 25 years of your life in an institution?
Director Barry Levinson paints a beautiful picture as well, packed with perfectly captured sunsets, amazing open range vistas (you’ll be surprised at just how stunning the American vistas are here) and brought to life with an engaging score by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer may be one of the more repetitive composers out there, his themes often appear to be just remixes of others scores he’s done before (even Rain Man has some very obvious overlaps with the following year’s Black Rain score that he did), but there’s no doubt that his percussion-based offering here worked wonders to set the mood and keep the pace. Avoiding the use of strings certainly does reduce the ham-fisted Hollywood schmaltz normally associated with this kind of dramatic material – and keeps it on the good side of melodrama – and, right from the opening Iko-Iko credits track, Rain Man remains one of those few 80s movies that seems to escape having a painfully dated accompaniment.
All in all, there’s far more to enjoy from Rain Man than just a scene at the airport where Raymond tells Charlie that he wants to fly Quantas, which was certainly my strongest memory about the movie (which I had not seen in over a decade). Films that win so many Awards (Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actor) often become overshadowed by that status, and revisiting this you will likely find a great deal more to learn, absorb and enjoy from the characters, themes, and performances. This one you really need to watch again to pick up all the stuff you would have missed whilst mesmerised by Hoffman’s stunning lead work. It’s only then when you finally get to realise what a truly special movie this is.
Clearly Robert Downey Jr’s character’s adage in Tropic Thunder still applies, but Rain Man somehow manages to come pretty close to portraying the bigger issues of such a disabling impairment, and to show how it’s only those who are really close, who have the patience, determination, dedication and openness to observe the glimmers of communication within such different individuals, who can transcend the inherent boundaries of such a disability. And it does all of this without having to rely on too many entertaining Hollywood-typical ‘advantages’ to keep viewers hooked for the duration. Highly recommended.
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