1988 and 1989 were awkward years for the Academy Awards. It’s not like there weren’t any brilliant movies released, it’s just that the wrong ones were consistently picked for the Best Picture honor. Not only did it cheapen the value of the ultimate award in this business, but it also did neither Rain Man nor Driving Miss Daisy any favors (except possibly boost profit for two already very lucrative films at the time of the Oscars). Both movies are always mentioned as typical examples of Best Picture winners that never deserved it. There is much to admire in both films, however, and this one does feature some of Dustin Hoffman’s finest work.
Inheriting a Buick and rose bushes
Los Angeles car dealer Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is in the middle of a risky deal importing four Lamborghinis when he learns that his father has died. When Charlie goes to Cincinnati to settle the estate, he learns that all he’s inheriting is a 1949 Buick convertible and several prize rose bushes; another beneficiary will receive $3 million, however. Furious, Charlie finds out that the mystery man is in fact his older brother Raymond (Hoffman), whom Charlie had never heard of before. Raymond is autistic and in the care of an institution. Since Charlie’s Lamborghini deal is about to fall apart and he’s in desperate need of cash, he takes Raymond along for a road trip to L.A. where he hopes to win custody of him…
Praised as authentic
After winning his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for this film, Barry Morrow gave it to Kim Peek. He was a man born with brain abnormalities who nevertheless had an exceptional memory. Morrow first met him in 1984 and was inspired by him to come up with the idea for this film. During the process of making it, Dustin Hoffman also spent time with Peek. His performance has been praised by many as authentic and helped bring attention to people suffering from autism.
The point of the story is to have two very different men embark on a journey together and see their lives change for the better, help them come out of their shells. That goes not just for Raymond who depends on his strict routines. Anything that deviates from them is a threat to him, even jokes, as in the case of “Who’s on First”, the classic Abbott & Costello routine that Raymond thinks of as a riddle he has to solve. It’s also true for Charlie, the young yuppie who’s trapped in a money-obsessed world. Hoffman got all the praise, but Cruise is also perfect in his role, a first sample of more serious projects to come for the heartthrob. The film follows a formula, but is always entertaining, even during a few monotonous stretches.
Cinematographer John Seale often portrays the duo driving their dad’s Buick in vast landscapes as a symbol of the fact that essentially all they have left is each other.
Rain Man was Hans Zimmer’s Hollywood breakthrough and his score (relying heavily on synthesizers and steel drums) is surprisingly effective and playful. Listening to it now, I was reminded of Ryuichi Sakamoto… and, indeed, Zimmer did work with the Japanese composer in the mid-80’s. When I hear Zimmer’s recent work for big-studio Hollywood movies, there are times when I miss his lighter touch in scores like this and Driving Miss Daisy the following year.
Rain Man 1988-U.S. 133 min. Color. Produced by Mark Johnson. Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay: Ronald Bass, Barry Morrow. Cinematography: John Seale. Music: Hans Zimmer. Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Raymond Babbitt), Tom Cruise (Charlie Babbitt), Valeria Golino (Susanna), Jerry Molen, Jack Murdock, Michael D. Roberts… Bonnie Hunt.
Trivia: Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro were allegedly considered for the part of Raymond; Martin Brest and Sydney Pollack were considered for directing duties. Later a stage play.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hoffman), Original Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actor (Hoffman). Berlin: Golden Bear.
Last word: “One of the things that happened with ‘Rain Man’ was a combination of elements, one of which was I got involved in the script very late, and then the Writer’s Guild strike happened right when we were going off to shoot. I worked with Ron Bass up to the point when we discussed why they would drive to California. I brought up the point of why wouldn’t they just fly back instead of driving all the way cross-country. I mean, who the hell does that anymore, right? (laughs) So we decided to give him another phobia, fear of flying, and I happened to know the fact that Quantas Airlines had never had a crash. So we worked all that into the scene, and that was the final scene he worked on before the strike commenced. So we went off to film and had a lot of open issues, which we basically handled as we went along on the road, and made up a lot of stuff!” (Levinson, The Hollywood Interview)