‘There’s two guys in a car. There‘s no sex. no violence. no helicopters. One guy is spiritually autistic. one guy is physically autistic. The audience is gonna identify with autism. It‘s a blockbuster!‘
Somehow. from such a synopsis Dustin Hoffman persuaded United Artists that Rain Man was a movie they just had to make. Now. of course, with a US box office in excess of$1()() million (that will increase substantially ifthe Oscar ceremony conforms to industry expectations and the movie's nine nominations turn into a slew ofstatuettes). everyone is happy. But this was not always the case, for the contribution of Hoffman, Tom Cruise and director Barry Levinson (Diner. Good Morning Vietnam) has been to turn around a troubled production by making accessible and moving what had previously seemed to be intractable, difficult material.
The film follows Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise). a hustling and unsuccessful car salesman. who discovers that his late father has bequeathed him only his prized 1949 Buick Roadmaster. and left the rest of his million dollar estate to a mysterious beneficiary. His search leads him to an institution where his brother Raymond (Hoffman) has lived since Charlie was a child — for Ray is an autistic savant. the sufferer ofa mental disability that makes him irrationally self-involved with the supportive rituals of his daily routine. yet capable ofextraordinary feats of mental arithmetic. In a bid to lay his hands on the fortune at stake. Charlie kidnaps his older brother, but as the two travel across America together. the bond that forms between them is to soften the former‘s emotional selfishness and richly widen the span of Ray‘s solipsistic experience.
Since the beginning ofthe film‘s lengthy gestation. the key problem has been the character of Raymond. for the impact of the piece would depend on giving an adequate exposition of the autistic savant syndrome and then somehow creating an audience empathy that would breach the condition‘s isolation. Resolving'these issues was to create a legendary tale of Hollywood development hell.
The initial draft of the script came from writer Barry Morrow. who had met a retarded man named Kim and was amazed at his ability to perform staggering mental feats. Hoffman and Cruise became the first elements in the package. Martin (Beverly Hills Cop) Brest was taken on as director. and after working with Morrow decided that he wanted Ron (Black Widow) Bass to rework the material. While Hoffman and Cruise continued their research by meeting Kim. Bass‘s first draft proved disappointing and Brest left to do Midnight Run. Richard (Color of Money) Price became the third and Michael (The Good Mother) the fourth screenwriters to attempt to iron out the script difficulties. then Stephen Spielberg's involvement as prospective director brought back Ron Bass for another shot. That was before Spielberg left for the next
While Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger team up as unlikely brothers in Twins, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise are also mismatched siblings in another, more serious film. Rain Man’s success did not, however, come easily, as its two stars and director Barry Levinson told Trevor Johnston.
Raiders instalment and Hoffman called Sydney (Tootsie) Pollack in. which meant that Pollack‘s writing team of Kurt Luedke and David Rayfiel also got on board. When they made little headway. Hoffman remembered meeting Barry Levinson at the circus with their kids, and fresh from the success of Good Morning Vietnam he became director number four; while it was third time lucky for recalled Ron Bass, whose new final draft was better than anything the other five writers had produced. Four directors. six writers. any questions? In fact, it is Hoffman who is credited with the idea of making Raymond completely withdrawn. changing the emphasis from the somewhat pitiable retarded figure that Morrow and Bass had originally envisioned. With only a matter of weeks until shooting started. the research that Hoffman and Cruise
had done about autism was to prove as crucial to the film’s eventual credibility as the immediate chemistry of their working relationship with Levinson.
‘What you try to do is to allow the actors to be free enough to be able to contribute.‘ says Levinson. ‘But at the same time you have to mould it. Dustin struggled during the first week ofshooting to get into the character. He was having problems finding a consistency of approach, and getting lost because he couldn‘t look at anyone.‘
Hoffman in turn pays tribute to his younger co-star‘s contribution: ‘Tom would help. Remember thatguy we met? he‘d say, and he’d do Raymond to help me get there. But it was tough. Ifyou look at Tom's performance, it‘s genuine frustration he‘s feeling as an actor trying to just get through to another actor because
there couldn‘t be any eye contact.
Most of the time we thought it would fail and we would get the shit kicked outofus?
Despite such reservations at the time. the end result is another deeply impressive, meticulously detailed performance from Hoffman that perhaps even surpasses the sleazoid twitchiness of Midnight Cowboy‘s Razzo or Tootsie‘s intuitive femininity. simply because he’s treading on unknown territory. In a sense though, halfof his characterisation comes from Cruise‘s dogged support (in what is, along with Scorsese‘s Color of Money. his most substantial role to date); for our sense of Raymond’s otherness is a product of Charlie’s exasperation, while it does take two to convincingly develop an emotional bond. Yet the perfect choice of Levinson as director could also lie behind the richness of this unlikely screen partnership.
As his Baltimore movies Diner and Tin Men marvellously demonstrated. Levinson’s vision of personality lies in the individual obsessions with which we surround ourselves. Indeed, the film-maker himself is keen to join the dots of his filmography: ‘What I like is characters. I start with characters and I don't like to throw in much in the way ofplot contrivances. But I think I keep coming back to the fact that we can’t really communicate, that we have an ability to lock ourselves off. In Tin Men the Danny De Vito character just doesn’t understand the woman‘s emotional needs, he’s emotionally isolated; as is Raymond in Rain Man, the difference being that he‘s autistic and he doesn‘t have any choice in the matter.’
‘Barry was really the perfect director because he laughs at stuff,’ comments Hoffman. ‘We made the decision early on not to force the humour. When it was funny, it was funny. and we would just let it go.‘ This could well account for the enthusiasm with which audiences have responded to the movie. for the laughs are never cruelly at the expense of the autistic savant, but a humane recognition of his out-of—kilter experience which proceeds to develop the compassion and empathy we feel for him. ‘We’d meet people and smile at the things they did,” says Tom Cruise. ‘Yet you‘d be thinking to yourself What an evil guy you are to be laughing at an autistic person. But the parents would tell us that it was OK, that it was “part of the beauty ofour son”.’
Somehow however, we do see something of ourselves in there. As Raymond demands to buy his underwear from K-Mart, perhaps we visualise some of the props we rely on throughout our own lives (how many bottoms out there are clad in M&S cotton one asks?) By the end ofthe film‘s swift 133 minutes Hoffman has been proved partly right, for in some small way the audience has identified with autism.
Rain Man opens at cinemas across Central Scotland from 24 March. See Film section for complete programme details and a full review.
10 The List 24 March—6 April 1989