The Best Picture Project – Rain Man (1988)

Directed by Barry Levinson

Written by Rob Bass and Barry Morrow

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise and Valeria Golino

The year 1988 saw a juggernaut of a film walk away with the Best Picture Oscar.  Popular at the box office and popular with the critics, it was fait accompli that Rain Man would win Best Picture and when it did, it didn’t seem like much of a surprise.  One would have to believe it’s stiffest competition was with Working Girl, the Mike Nichol’s comedy, or possibly from Dangerous Liaisons, a very good costume drama that featured Keanu Reeves with a British accent, and the first appearance on film of Uma Thurman’s boobs.  Despite the competition, Rain Man took the Oscar and went on to be a cultural phenomenon, propelling it’s opening song, “Iko Iko” to #14 on the American pop chart and was referenced in a whole host of movies, including The Hangover.

But for all the history around it, there are two things the Academy got wrong on Oscar night 1988 (which, I know, actually occurred in 1989). The first thing wrong was the wrong man, Dustin Hoffman, won Best Actor.  The other was the wrong film, Rain Man, winning Best Picture.

I was about 13 when Rain Man was in its hey-day, and I can remember at the time how big a deal it was to see Dustin Hoffman perform in the film and just how culturally invasive it was.  When he counted the toothpicks, when he counted cards, when he muttered to himself about 10 minutes to Wapner, everybody was charmed by it and amazed, almost as if they didn’t realize Hoffman wasn’t really the character he played and that his performance was somehow more than a compilation of tics and mannerisms.   

Looking back on it though, from 25 years on, it’s easy to see what everybody missed about Hoffman’s performance, that while it was good it lacked something important: a compelling character to bring to life.  Yes, he has all the tics and verbal tricks down, but on the whole, Raymond Babbitt is a blank, he has no personality, he has nothing that would make him anything more than whatever we project onto him, and as good as Hoffman is, he will never be anything more than that.

The travesty of Hoffman catching lightening in a bottle with his performance – at least as it relates to Oscar voters – is that he essentially screwed Tom Cruise out of an Oscar.  Now, say what you will about Tom Cruise being a flake and a scientologist and all the rest of it, but in his career he’s put together some pretty amazing performances, and I submit that none was better than his Charlie Babbitt.  Unlike Raymond, Charlie is all depth, Charlie is all character and Cruise skillfully brings him to life.  He’s smooth talking, he’s angry, he’s calculating, he’s vulnerable – in other words, he’s everything Raymond isn’t.  And though the movie is called Rain Man, which is the nickname Charlie gave Raymond when he was a kid, the movie really isn’t about Raymond at all, it’s about Charlie.  It’s Charlie that makes the change, arcing from a cynical asshole to somebody who, by the end of the film, has developed a real sense of others and really cares about his brother.  If the movie is anything, it is Charlie’s story, it’s Charlie’s arc and though I’m sure Tom Cruise is publicly happy his co-star won the Oscar, deep down you have to know it burned his ass to see Hoffman strut off with the award just because he was good at going (to Tropic Thunder) ‘Full retard.’

Because Rain Man was such a lightening in a bottle kind of movie, it’s no surprise it won Best Picture – even less surprising given the weakness of the other films nominated.  But looking back through history, Rain Man doesn’t stand up the way it should.  Yes, it has good acting, but the script and the story are a bit episodic and redundant, and though Tom Cruise is great, the change he makes in his character is so sudden that it’s hard to believe it would really happen that way in real life.  Never mind the fact that there’s always going to be the nagging wonder that, would Charlie have really cared for Raymond if they’d lost the money in Vegas?  That how much of his change is based on Raymond bailing his ass out?  I know nobody likes to think about these things when they’re watching a movie, because they want to buy into the reality of the movie, but this question plagued me.   Was Charlie’s change motivated by his sudden financial stability, or was it due to an actual change?  I guess nobody can really say.

If you were really looking for the Best Picture of 1988, and the one that truly stood the test of time, you’d have to look beyond the nominated films – which, frankly, are only okay at best – to two others who didn’t make the cut: Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Though the special effects of Who Framed Roger Rabbit are a bit dated, the movie has proved so endlessly influential that twenty-five years on it’s easy to see it being the film to beat. 

As an aside: the music for Rain Man was nominated for an Oscar, but it was beyond terrible.  Aside from one small theme in the film that was repeatedly endless, it mostly sounded like a mix between Zamfir on his pan-flute and The Karate Kid.  Thank goodness it lost.

For the list of other winners seen and those to go, click here.

Also, don’t be afraid to buy something I wrote.  Follow this link here for more info on buying my books.

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