No one was overly surprised that Rain Man dominated the 1989 Academy Award ceremony. It featured one of America's biggest movie stars, Tom Cruise, showing a little gravitas as a self-absorbed hustler who learns the importance of family. It had Oscar mainstay Dustin Hoffman going deep into affliction, playing a character with a disorder–autism–that not many everyday moviegoers knew much about at the time. And at the helm: Barry Levinson, a respected director whose films had been gaining in prestige and popularity throughout the decade. The Academy could've engraved the statuettes as soon as the picture wrapped.
I was an18-year-old movie buff when I first saw Rain Man, and I was inclined back then to think that Oscar-winning films actually were the best films. I was also keen on Levinson, because I fancied myself a mainstream auteurist, and I was convinced that Levinson, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner and John Hughes ranked among the top-tier American directors of the '80s. Since the '80s of course, only the oft-shoddy Howard has topped his earliest work, while the rest of that bunch–Levinson especially–has been in decline. Frankly, as time goes by, most of the movies the foursome made in the '80s haven't held up so well either.
As for Rain Man, I've seen pieces of it over the past couple of decades and it's usually struck me as overly slick and emotionally facile. But I watched it again over the weekend, keeping my renewed appreciation for "middlebrow" movies in mind. And I watched it for another reason, too.
My son, who turned six yesterday, was diagnosed with autism four years ago. Or more accurately, he was diagnosed with a "developmental delay," which is a clinician's way of saying, "He's too young for an official autistic spectrum diagnosis, but in order to qualify for early intervention therapy, we have to put something on the form." After getting a diagnosis, parents usually rush to the internet hoping to find information and reassurance. Given my proclivities, I also sought out any TV specials and movies that might give some hint of what's coming down the road. I set up TiVo wishlists with the key words "autism" and "autistic," and I've watched everything from Today show special reports to Without A Trace episodes. I've seen the treatment of autism on TV and in movies evolve from the off-canon 1963 John Cassavetes melodrama A Child Is Waiting, in which autism is lumped in with mental retardation, to an episode of Quincy that's all about recognizing an autist's "capacity to learn," to thrillers like Silent Fall and Mercury Rising, where autistic children are presented as fonts of information that can be tapped–if we can only learn their confounding code.
With the rise in autism diagnoses, representations of the autistic in the media have gotten more sensitive. On The Shield, the show's anti-hero has two autistic children, whose problems and successes are accurately (if too infrequently) depicted. In the recent movie Snow Cake, Sigourney Weaver plays an adult autist who "doesn't do social," and mourns her daughter's death by dancing the way she remembers her daughter liked to dance. In The Hawk Is Dying, Paul Giamatti shares his love of falconry with his autistic nephew, who listens attentively and can repeat details back to him, and maybe even understand a little. And in the British TV movie After Thomas, an uncommunicative autistic boy learns to express what he wants by saying it through his dog. All these examples feel real. Anecdotal maybe, but real.
Yet the shadow of Rain Man is long and chilly. Even though the movie ends with Cruise and Hoffman making a tentative emotional connection, a lot of people who've seen Rain Man hear the word "autism" and think of Hoffman freaking out in the airport, or demanding to watch certain TV shows at certain times, or not being able to "love" in any recognizable way. Because of Rain Man, a lot of people think having an autistic child is a life sentence to frustrated yelling and unrequited affection, with the occasional feat of mathematical wizardry.
(Here's the opening paragraph to Roger Ebert's review of the film, for example: "Is it possible to have a relationship with an autistic person? Is it possible to have a relationship with a cat? I do not intend the comparison to be demeaning to the autistic; I am simply trying to get at something. I have useful relationships with both of my cats, and they are important to me. But I never know what the cats are thinking.")
As a movie, Rain Man is in some ways better than I'd remembered, and in some ways about as clunky. Ron Bass' script is cleanly episodic, peppered with moments of minor revelation; and Levinson keeps pushing throughout for unexpected laughs staggered with well-constructed, overtly meaningful images. (One of the opening shots is of Cruise reflected in a sports car, every bit the callow yuppie.) Rain Man isn't meant to be troubling or transcendent. It's a movie made to be enjoyed; and it is, by and large, enjoyable. Yet after a point, the joy comes from watching its craft, not its art. I admire it the way I'd admire a functional coffee pot in a hotel room, or a train that arrives on time.
As a portrait of autism though, Rain Man has a lot more nuance than I'd expected. Hoffman's character is treated too much as a magical imp performing amazing tricks, and his vacant stares play more like a fidgety actor's business than real, observed behavior. But speaking from personal experience, I can say that his constant use of introductory phrases like "yeah" and "of course" is very familiar, as is his saying "I don't know" to questions and situations too big for him to comprehend. (For my son, it's, "I need to say nothing.") I recognize the way he recreates mundane carpet and wallpaper patterns in his notebook, just like my son can recreate almost any font he sees on his MagnaDoodle. And, though it pains me to say it, I even identify with Cruise's anger at Hoffman's obsessive-compulsive behavior.
It's important to note that because the autistic spectrum is so broad, no parent of an autist can claim to be an instant expert on the disorder. Some behaviors are typical–like the impaired social interaction, and the repetitive behavior known as "stereotypy" or "stimming"–but the severity varies. My son is considered "high functioning." He goes to school with neurotypical kids. He laughs, he hugs, he plays creatively, and he tells me all about what he sees and what he likes. If you spent five minutes with him, you'd think he was an ordinary little boy. If you spent half an hour, and heard him talk repeatedly about numbers, you'd think he was a weird little boy. If you spent half a day, and watched him flap his hands and hum tunelessly to himself for uncomfortably long stretches of time, you'd understand that something's not quite right. Still, we live in a community with good social services, and while my son can be an annoyance from time to time, he's never been a burden. Our life together is far, far from the nightmare that people might fear–and that a lot of parents do experience. I recognize that our circumstances are, in a lot of ways, exceptional.
That said, what bothers me about Rain Man is the same thing that's bothersome about nearly every autism film of recent vintage. With the pointed exception of Snow Cake–which at least acknowledges that its autistic heroine takes genuine pleasure in her stereotypy–autism-themed dramas are primarily about the non-autistic. Even in After Thomas–based on a true case–the movie ends when the boy tells his mother he loves her. It's a cathartic moment, granted. It's just as cathartic in Rain Man when Hoffman leans his head against Cruise's. But the emphasis on affection is a very limiting way to end these stories. It reduces the "problem" of autism to, "Will my child ever be able to express love?" And the day-to-day give-and-take of autists and their families is far more complex.
To Bass and Levinson and Cruise and Hoffman's credit, Rain Man does capture some of what an autist/neurotypical relationship is like. It's spot-on every time Cruise makes a tiny accommodation to Hoffman's disorder–whether it be making sure the maple syrup is on the table before the pancakes arrive, or buying him a portable TV so he won't miss The People's Court–and it's spot-on every time Cruise reminds his brother to put his backpack away or to pay attention to who's talking to him. That's how a lot of parents of autistic children spend their days, anticipating crises and averting them, while their kids follow along, ensnared by instincts and impulses.
But in Rain Man, the daily rhythm that Cruise gets into isn't dramatized so that we can get deeper into Hoffman's world. It's about making us understand how Cruise is changing. It's a hoary filmmaking gambit, smartly deployed, and intended to produce a desired emotional effect. On the well-beaten path to Oscartown, Levinson and company miss the chance to use the details of Hoffman's care and feeding to show how his world actually makes sense, in ways that can be arrestingly beautiful. The details of Hoffman's behavior and Cruise's reactions are mostly correct. But like a lot of Rain Man, it's right for all the wrong reasons.