Director: Barry Levinson
Screenwriters: Ronald Bass, Barry Morrow
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino, Jerry Molen
Nominations: Picture, Director – Barry Levinson, Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Score
Wins: Picture, Director – Barry Levinson, Actor – Dustin Hoffman, Original Screenplay
Dustin Hoffman gets the showier role of the two leads in Rain Man, so it’s no wonder his performance has become pop culture shorthand for someone who’s overall awkward yet has incredible mental acumen in a particular topic. The word “definitely” has also taken on a life of its own in the past 32 years, as has Hoffman’s vocal intonation for Raymond. It’s a testament to a memorable performance and character and an engaging story that keeps us invested in not just Raymond but Charlie as well.
And while Raymond commands attention—both of Charlie and us viewers—it’s definitely Charlie who’s the more interesting of the brothers. He’s the more relatable of the two, because his life is (obviously) more familiar to most people: he has financial issues and relationship issues, and he’s frustrated that he has those issues; what’s not to empathize with? Seeing his growth from an unfeeling, arrogant, and self-centered dick to caring and tender brother is honest and heartwarming. It’s because of his arc that the ending has the emotional impact that it does.
And to be frank, it’s probably the more difficult of the two roles to pull off. So much of the performance is having conversations with a character who doesn’t converse in return as one would expect. Having to maintain the mindset of reacting to the unpredictable responses to simple questions takes a great level of skill and talent—I’m from the school of thought that this is one of Tom Cruise’s best performances and it’s too bad he was up against one of Dustin Hoffman’s best performances, because it so often gets overlooked and probably played a part in Cruise not getting an Oscar nomination alongside his co-star.
Because Raymond and Charlie are coming from two completely different starting parts it can be easy to miss how alike they are. Both have been estranged from their family for years, both are emotionally distant from others and any relationships they have are mostly superficial, and both find unexpected companionship in each other. They also have their own compulsions, although Raymond’s are more apparently. It’s subtle, but in all but one or two scenes in which Charlie wears a shirt with buttons, every button on the shirt is fastened. Two scenes with the top button undone that come to mind immediately are when Charlie “tests” Raymond’s card counting skills outside Las Vegas and the final scene. Both scenes have Charlie at low points and emphasize his lack of control to lift himself up or keep himself together.
Given the shape of the modern movie landscape, it’s worth noting that Rain Man, a road trip drama about two brothers with no special effects or built-in audience from previously published material, was the highest grossing film of 1988. In 1987, Three Men and a Baby (Leonard Nimoy) was the top moneymaker; in 1990, Home Alone (Chris Columbus) topped the box office. (Batman [Tim Burton] was number one in 1989.) From 1991 on, a turn began at theaters, with higher-budgeted, special effects-driven films bringing in audiences hand over fist compared to medium- and small-budget films. Before the 1990s, Best Picture nominated movies were regularly among the biggest box office draws; since then, it’s become more of an anomaly when films that click with Oscar voters also sell tickets. For the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) made about $335.5 million dollars domestically and was only the 9th highest grossing film of 2019; the next highest-grossing Best Picture nominee was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019) at number 19 (with about $142.5 million).
This isn’t a complaint or to say there is a problem with this divide; it’s just an observation of how the film industry has evolved. I’m sure there are studies that have delved into this change (I’ll do some searching on it eventually), but Rain Man marked the end of an era. It’s next to impossible that Rain Man would top the box office in 2020, and even less likely that it would even break $100 million. Despite that, it would still probably be a likely Oscar contender. At the end of the day, a good film is a good film, no matter how much money it makes or how many people see it.
So this became more of a digression about the business of movies than Rain Man, but that’s really the fun of how I’m trying to write these posts. I make sure to have some ideas to discuss, but sometimes it’s hard to know where the thinking will lead to. Today was the difference 30 years makes in an industry, tomorrow it might be how different slang was in the 1930s compared to the 2010s. It all depends upon how the cards are played.