Retro Review: Looking Back on What Made “Rain Man” a Great Movie – and Unlikely Academy Award Winner
This year will mark the 30th anniversary of Rain Man, the iconic Academy Award winning drama that won our hearts over with the close-up on the tumultuous relationship between a selfish car dealer and his autistic brother. Full of soul and heartwarming moments, if a movie was ever supposed to move us, it’s this one.
Rain Man, which was released in theaters in 1988, saw an interesting premise being brought to life: the film’s protagonist is Raymond (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in Leading Role for his performance, the second after his 1980 Academy Award for his portrayal of Ted Kramer in the 1979 film, Kramer vs. Kramer), a man on the autistic spectrum and with savant syndrome – meaning that while he lacks in certain mental skills, he excels in others, most notably in remembering things. The movie takes a closer, sensitive and moving look at the relationship he develops with his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise), who goes from wanting to exploit Raymond to truly appreciating him.
IMAGE SOURCE: Rain Man via Facebook
At the start of the film, Charlie Babbitt, a self-absorbed hustler, learns that his estranged father died, leaving him his classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster that he always craved – yet the rest of his $3 million estate is to go to an anonymous trustee. As he delves deeper into the matter, Charlie finds out that the money was inherited by his older brother Raymond, who is resident at a mental institution called the Walbrook Institute. Taken aback by the news of a brother he didn’t know existed, Charlie decides to manipulate Raymond out of the Institute and asks for the estate to be transferred to him in exchange for returning his brother.
As Charlie attempts to take custody of his brother in order to access the estate, the duo embark on a cross-country road trip that will change their lives forever. Charlie is irritated at first by Raymond’s idiosyncratic character and his commitment to his daily routine – which includes watching a specific TV program each day, talking about Abbott and Costello a lot, knowing things “definitely” and going to bed at 11 pm every night. Yet as the film progresses, Charlie begins to realize that while he views his brother as very limited, it is truly he who is limited in his understanding both of the world and of who he really is – and Raymond allows him to get a grasp of that and reevaluate his own life and worldview. By the end of the movie, the once spoiled brat is transformed and rejects money in exchange for a meaningful relationship with his brother.
This touching film is certainly about much more than meets the eye. It was credited with raising awareness about autistic persons – but also with reinforcing the stereotype that autism is necessarily associated with extraordinary mental abilities like an eidetic memory. The film was highly praised by critics and loved by audiences – it currently holds a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes on both categories, a quite rare accomplishment. It not only won Hoffman an Academy Award, but the film also won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as for Best Director and Best Screenplay.
With an initial budget of just $25 million, the movie evolved to an unexpected hit that none of the big studios anticipated. It became the highest-ranking film of 1988, yielding in over $ 170 million in the US and more than $ 180 abroad, with a combined worldwide box office of $ 354,825,435. It became a sensation across demographics; according to the Los Angeles Times, 55% of the movie’s average audience were women and 45%, with 2 in 3 viewers being over 25 years old. Although early into the project Hoffman was supposed to take Charlie’s role with Bill Murray cast as Raymond, it was the chemistry between Rain Man’s two lead actors that in huge part contributed to its success.
The movie features a superb soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, who received an Academy Award nomination for it. The music perfectly fits the storytelling, especially in the scene where Charlie and Raymond visit a casino in Nevada, as Charlie hopes to piggyback on his brother’s extraordinary number skills to win big. The scene is listed among the 10 most iconic gambling film scenes in Betway’s Hall of Fame. In another key scene that triggers the plot, Raymond refuses to fly on any other airline except Australia’s Qantas – repeating one of the film’s most memorable lines, “Qantas never crashes” – which forces Charlie to decide on the road trip. The scene was chosen as the snippet that was shown on Academy Award night, offering Qantas unexpected, unbelievably far-reaching and free advertising; it also led to at least 15 US carriers cutting the scene from their in-flight screening of the movie.
Raymond and his incredible memory were loosely based on Kim Peek, dubbed as a mega-savant, whom writer Barry Morrow had met in 1984. Although not autistic, Peek was an extraordinary savant who had uncanny powers with numbers – once he was able to calculate within less than a second to a journalist who mentioned he had been born on March 31, 1956, that his birthday had been a Saturday in Easter. Morrow thanked Peek in his Oscar acceptance speech and later gave him his Oscar statuette as a present, in recognition of his contribution to the film. Peek carried it with him wherever he went for the next 21 years of his life and his father, Fran, who cared for him all his life and survived him, estimated that approximately 400,000 people have hugged the statuette.
But perhaps the most touching and clever thing about this movie is its title; as Charlie gets to know his brother more he learns that he used to live with them when Charlie was still too young to remember him. It is then that he realizes that his imaginary friend, whom he dubbed Rain Man and who played an emotionally significant role for him as a child, is actually his version of Raymond’s very own name.