The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Somebody should’ve been chasing Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. They should’ve accidentally stolen a shipment of heroin from the mob. The FBI should’ve been after them. There should’ve been at least one dramatic car-chase escape. Those action-movie elements were the lingua franca of late-’80s Hollywood filmmaking. The prevailing wisdom was that you needed those things to tell a story, the same way you need beams of green CGI light shooting out of a hole in the sky now.
For years, Rain Man passed from director to director, rewrite to rewrite. Steven Spielberg was going to do it. So was Sydney Pollack. Martin Brest worked on developing it for a long time, and then he went out and made Midnight Run, another road movie about two men bonding while traveling across the backroads of the country together. (Brest jammed pretty much all of those late-’80s storytelling tricks into Midnight Run, and he wound up with a moderate hit that’s also probably better than Rain Man.)
Rain Man ended up in the hands of Barry Levinson, a onetime Mel Brooks protégé who insisted, again and again, that the story needed to just be about the two guys in the car, that it didn’t need all the external motivating factors. Levinson’s instincts worked out well. Opening just before Christmas 1988, Rain Man came in at No. 2 in its first weekend in theaters. (It lost to Twins, another comedy about two mismatched brothers who only learn about each other’s existence as adults and who bond while on a road trip.) But Rain Man built up steam quickly. A few months later, the film dominated at the Oscars—Best Picture, Actor, Director—and earned $172 million at the global box office, making it the highest-grossing movie of 1988.
In some ways, the success of Rain Man doesn’t seem that anomalous. It belongs to a few long-embedded and deeply satisfying American movie traditions: the road movie, the buddy comedy, the tender family drama. It also had stars, at a time when it mattered that a movie had stars. Dustin Hoffman was coming off of the notorious 1987 flop Ishtar, but before then, he’d carved out a reputation as an actor who could turn existential crises into blockbuster cinema, as he’d done with The Graduate and Kramer Vs. Kramer. Hoffman was already a showy actor, and in playing an autistic character, he got to transform himself as vividly as he’d done in Midnight Cowboy, while also flexing the comic timing he’d shown off in Tootsie. The actor worked hard to make sure the movie got made, and in retrospect, it’s easy enough to see why: Hoffman, who won his second Best Actor Oscar for Rain Man, couldn’t have possibly designed a better character for himself.
Meanwhile, Top Gun had just made the young Tom Cruise the biggest star in the world. In those days before he became a vaguely terrifying figurehead for Scientology—and long before he made the baffling transition into becoming the American Jackie Chan—Cruise did a pretty amazing job at maintaining that stardom. He deserves credit for years of interesting choices. He knew how to use his built-in glamour, and he’d printed a whole lot of money doing that in Cocktail, another huge 1988 hit. But while Cruise was a generational contemporary of the ’80s Brat Pack teen-movie stars, he had the vision to link up with filmmaking icons whenever possible. Cruise had followed Top Gun by making The Color Of Money with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman, a combination that truly sends a message. In the years ahead, that same impulse would lead Cruise to Oliver Stone and Sydney Pollack and Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick. Presumably, it also led him to Dustin Hoffman.
Rain Man does fascinating things with Cruise’s strange and intense young handsomeness. The opening scene is genuinely spellbinding. A Lamborghini, suspended from a crane, hovers over the hazy Los Angeles skyline as the Belle Stars’ techno-pop cover of “Iko Iko” skitter-shimmies on the soundtrack. Cruise struts around a shipyard in full yuppie regalia, looking over his fleet of fancy imported sports cars. But within minutes, we learn that this whole image is a fraud. Cruise’s character, Charlie Babbitt, is in over his head. He’s spent all his money importing foreign cars that won’t pass emissions tests, his buyers are pulling out, and he’s desperate enough that he’s thinking about trying to bribe EPA officials. Also, he’s a complete fucking asshole, and you don’t feel bad for him.
When Charlie finds out that his father has died, he barely flinches. But he does react when he learns that his father left him none of his fortune—just a beautiful old Buick convertible and some prizewinning rosebushes. (“Definitely got the rosebushes!,” Charlie explodes, mirroring the verbal tic of the brother he hasn’t even learned of yet.) When Charlie discovers that his institutionalized autistic brother has been left millions, he kidnaps the guy in a fit of pique, dragging him across the country and basically holding him for ransom.
Since autistic people weren’t a hugely visible population in 1988, the movie has doctors telling Charlie—and, by extension, the audience—what that means. Charlie learns that his brother can’t “express his own emotions in a traditional way.” He relies on rituals and routines. Also, he’s a genius-level savant, though Charlie only slowly figures this out.
The savant thing is an issue. There really are autistic people who can perform amazing feats of memory and calculation. Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow based the character partially on Kim Peek, who wasn’t autistic but who was capable of incredible mental stunts. (Later on, Morrow gave his screenwriting Oscar to Peek, and Peek brought the statuette along whenever he made personal appearances.) Hoffman interviewed and studied autistic people, including Temple Grandin. The portrayal of autism in Rain Man is a whole lot more nuanced and thought-out than most images of disabilities you’ll see in ’80s movies.
And yet there’s still something vaguely disquieting about the sight of Dustin Hoffman, famous movie star, trying autism on for a film. The masterfully grumpy Pauline Kael, who likened Hoffman’s performance to “humping one note on a piano for two hours and 11 minutes,” wondered why an autistic actor couldn’t have played the role. My sister Margaret, who has cerebral palsy and who works as an advocate for people with disabilities, has never seen Rain Man, and she doesn’t believe that actors without disabilities should ever play characters who have them. I see her point. Rain Man invented its own new stereotype, the mysterious and secretly cuddly computer-brained autistic genius. It’s led to a lot of incorrect ideas about how autism works for most people.
I have problems with Rain Man. I have problems with how Charlie only comes to respect and love his brother after learning of the amazing things that his brother can do. I have problems with how they become closest after Charlie uses his brother’s abilities to win a ton of money at blackjack. If Hoffman’s character hadn’t been a savant—if he’d been like the vast majority of autistic people—then Rain Man presumably would’ve played out much differently.
Still, looking back, it’s striking just how little people knew about autism pre-Rain Man. That’s not the movie’s fault; that’s people’s fault. Here, for example, is the way the usually empathetic Roger Ebert begins his Rain Man review: “Is it possible to have a relationship with an autistic person? Is it possible to have a relationship with a cat?” Rain Man starts out with two characters—one that most of the audience presumably can’t understand, and one that’s clearly an unbelievable shitbag. Over the course of its running time, it convinces that same audience to love both of them. That’s a pretty neat trick.
Rain Man works, and it works mostly by letting its two leads bump up against each other—sometimes gently, sometimes less so. Ever since Diner, Barry Levinson had shown a gift for the comic rhythms of conversation, for letting scenes play out in their own natural cadences. Rain Main only has a few big dramatic notes, and I don’t like them all that much. The scene where Charlie learns that Raymond used to sing to him as a kid veers a little close to melodrama. But most of the time, the film is just two transcendent movie stars digging into big, showy characters as they pilot a beautiful classic car across American landscapes. It doesn’t need more spectacle than that, dramatic or otherwise.
Cinematographer John Seale, who’d done great work on Witness a couple of years earlier and who remains a hero forever for doing Mad Max: Fury Road and then immediately retiring, makes the old America look impossibly inviting. Levinson pulls some plot jiu jitsu to keep Hoffman and Cruise off of superhighways, on American backroads instead. Seale shoots verdant green farmlands, rolling misty mountains, glimmering neon signs, almost everything in golden-hour light. The scene where that car initially drifts through Las Vegas is beautiful just on its own. And it leads to the gambling scene—the moment of pure cinematic joy that remains the film’s most enduring legacy. I don’t know enough about blackjack to know whether Hoffman’s character could really rack up money like that, but I’ll buy the fantasy.
Almost all of 1988’s big hits were broad, crowd-pleasing comedies about people venturing off into uncharted territory. Who Framed Roger Rabbit: A hard-boiled gumshoe reluctantly takes a case in the world of cartoon anarchy. Coming To America: An African prince goes undercover as a Queens fast-food worker. Big: A 13-year-old, magically transformed into an adult, tries to find his place in New York City. The aforementioned Twins: An impossibly naive ubermensch enters the orbit of his sleazebag brother. The same structure more or less applies to Crocodile Dundee 2, to Working Girl, to Beetlejuice, maybe even to Die Hard. All of these characters enter strange new circumstances, and they all find ways to grow or thrive. I don’t know why every big movie of 1988 had to work like this, but that’s what was happening.
Rain Man exists both within this moment and outside of it. It’s basically a comedy, and Hoffman plays a person exploring parts of the world that he’d never had any interest in seeing. But Raymond doesn’t grow. He connects, and he becomes vulnerable enough to intentionally touch foreheads with Charlie. But Charlie is the character who fundamentally changes, who grows. Maybe Raymond is the world that Charlie visits and gets to know.
Rain Man has huge stars and beautiful photography and comic hijinks, but it’s a small and personal story. It has its problems; the character with disabilities shouldn’t exist simply to help the other character become a better person. But on its own merits, it’s a small miracle—a movie that became a cultural touchstone without pandering to its moment. If mobsters or FBI agents had been chasing Cruise and Hoffman across the country, it would’ve been ridiculous. Instead, Rain Man has the confidence to stay small, to focus.
The contender: I’ve already written a column about Die Hard, and plenty of other 1988 hits are truly great movies: Coming To America, Big, Beetlejuice, Working Girl, A Fish Called Wanda. But Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the year’s No. 2 earner, might’ve been the truest miracle. Think of it: Zemeckis followed up Back To The Future by setting a ’40s-style film noir in a world where cartoon characters are real. It could’ve gone wrong in about a million ways. Instead, it’s a piece of absurdist magic.
In Roger Rabbit, the pulpy detective stuff is perfectly pitched, the slapstick legitimately funny, and the plot twisty but propulsive. The underlying point about moneyed interests bulldozing weird artistic culture to make room for commerce remains uncomfortably relevant. Also, seeing Donald Duck and Daffy Duck play piano together is like watching Batman fight Spider-Man. The mere existence of that scene seems to defy the laws of intellectual property, and yet there it is.
Next time: Tim Burton’s Batman reinvents an American icon and helps clear a path for what’s become the dominant strain of blockbuster film.