Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Rain Man" (1988)

Left to right: Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Rain Man
Release Date: December 16, 1988
Director: Barry Levinson
Written By: Barry Morrow (Story), Ronald Bass & Barry Morrow (Screenplay)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino 
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 133 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman)
-Best Original Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Accidental Tourist
-Dangerous Liasons
-Mississippi Burning
-Working Girl

And the winner is...

The Academy may reward films with stories that feature elegance and scope, but there's a few times when they rewarded what can be described as "The Average Joe." In the case of director Barry Levinson's Rain Man, The Average Joe was an autistic man on a road trip with his younger brother. While the film is likely remembered for its great Dustin Hoffman performance, it was a film full of heart and humor, showing a different side to a previously taboo mental condition. Even if there's concern by the general public that it isn't an accurate portrayal of autism, it's a film that managed to raise awareness while also bringing one of the most singular characters in a Best Picture winner from the 80's. With all of his might, Hoffman set the table for what would become the norm for prestige dramas about mentally handicapped people. Thankfully, it's an all around triumph of film making.

The film was circling Hollywood by the time that Levinson was offered it in 1987. However, the director initially turned it down, choosing to make Good Morning, Vietnam instead. When a variety of directors, including Steven Spielberg, turned it down, he returned to the project ready to take it on. However, the studio was in a bit of turmoil thanks to its similarities to Forrest Gump. Warner Bros. initially owned the rights to both films, but felt that each story's simple-minded protagonist would be to similar. Both were considered to "die" if the other one took off. Rain Man eventually landed at United Artist, and Forrest Gump at Paramount. While the latter was six years away, both would become critically acclaimed Best Picture winners that were also among the highest grossing winners to that point in history.

Another problem regarding the filming of Rain Man was the 1988 writers strike, which at 155 days was the longest strike in the Writers Guild's history. This meant that things had to be done at a feverish pace. Writer Ronald Bass' final script was handwritten and turned in on the exact day that the strike started. Due to a variety of reasons, including writer Barry Morrow having adult chicken pox, Bass and Morrow never met and consulted entirely through phone conversations. They would eventually meet during the awards circuit. Because of the length of the writers strike, much of the principal photography was done during this time. Only the ending hadn't been written, which created difficulty. Thankfully, the staunch Hoffman suggested what would become the ending, believing that the originally planned story was not in keeping with his character.

Hoffman was a staunch fighter for most of the script. For starters, he wished to change the character of Raymond from a mentally handicapped person to autistic. The director at the time, Martin Brest, walked off as a result. Hoffman also initially tried out for the other brother Charlie (played by Tom Cruise). The story goes that he went with Raymond instead after attending a concert by Lisa Lemke; who played an entire piano concert by ear despite being blind, mentally handicapped and with a case of cerebral palsy. He spent a year with an autistic family to better understand his character. He was so moved by it that he fought for that change. Despite what would become a critically acclaimed film, Hoffman was notably critical of his role, believing that it was among his biggest mistakes of his career, eventually calling it "Two Schmucks in a Car." Even during the Las Vegas scenes, he became disinterested in shooting and would wander off to play other card games. As a result, he had to have someone supervise his whereabouts during shooting.

This was Hans Zimmer's first Hollywood production. On the request of Levinson, Zimmer didn't use strings because it was believed that it would make the film feel too sentimental. Despite the eventual Oscar nomination, the score would only amount to 12 minutes of screen time. The subsequent film was a major success despite a poor start. The film opened with $7 in second place. Thanks to word of mouth, the film would eventually go on to gross $354 million and have a weekend in the top position. As one can guess, the payoff of the film's success turned Hoffman around on the experience, who also took the effort to reward his character's inspiration: Kim Peek. For the rest of Peek's life (he died in 2009), he was allowed to fly around the world on Hoffman's dollar to show off his exceptional memory skills.

The Oscars rewarded the film nicely. With four wins, it marked the second Best Actor Oscar for Dustin Hoffman (the other being for Kramer vs. Kramer). It was reported that on his way to the podium, he stopped by to hug fellow nominee Gene Hackman (Mississippi Burning). The two were former roommates in New York. During his acceptance speech, Hoffman mentioned Hackman. Surprisingly, the actor forgot to mention his co-star Tom Cruise. Despite all of this, what is arguably the most significant thing about this particular win is the wording. When Michael Douglas presented the award, he said "And the Oscar goes to..." Up to 1988, every category was announced with the phrase "And the winner is..." During the following year, Douglas' choice of words replaced the old saying for good.

The success of Rain Man is present in the fact that it raised awareness for autism as being different from mental disability. While there's complaints that maybe it's not an accurate depiction, it helped to make the conversation more positive and effective towards making a change. However, the film is also responsible for altering the ideals of "Oscar bait." This means that films in which its protagonists were sympathetic yet mentally challenged were now seen as prestige pictures. While there have been positive examples of this (Silver Linings Playbook), most have been haphazard and misguided (Radio, The Soloist). While Rain Man itself has aged better than this trope, it still has an unfortunate tie to it. The film also made a difference to air travel, as a line about how Qantas was the only major airline to not have any lost flights (a line then improvised by Hoffman) caused many airlines to drop the scene from in flight entertainment, though Qantas keeps it - and has even rewarded the writer with V.I.P. treatment.

While Rain Man may seem like an odd drama to win Best Picture, its inevitable impact is definitely important. It showed that characters who were mentally challenged could be productive members of society. It also featured great performances out of Cruise and Hoffman, the latter of whom would collaborate with Levinson on several future films. Even if it seems odd that it would be so successful as a word of mouth film, it definitely earned it by becoming one of the best and most recognized depictions of autism to ever come out of the Hollywood system. Even if it was met with challenges due to the writer's strike, it still managed to prevail with a film that not only humanized autism, it made an iconic character in Raymond Babbitt. It's a rare film that honored The Average Joe, and in the process changed the conversation on mental illness for the better.


  1. Damn shame Who Framed Roger Rabbit didn't get much Oscar love outside of the crafts categories. Without that film, the Disney Renaissance probably wouldn't have started as well. But of course, the Academy had to nominate such a chick flick relic like Working Girl.

    1. I'll admit that the 80's are not my favorite decade for winners (or movies in general), so I don't have a strong opinion here. With exception to Rain Man, I haven't seen any of these, so I cannot comment. However, I am with you that Roger Rabbit is a great film (probably one of very few times I could put up with Zemeckis' technology shtick). As for Working Girl (again, I haven't seen), I do think that it's also just because it was directed by Mike Nichols, who seemed to be one of their go-to nominees more often than not.