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Rain Man (Best Picture, 1988)

I’m not sure how I feel about this one.  It is considered a classic, still, and continues to get referenced by other works.  Hoffman’s performance as the autistic savant Raymond is extraordinary, and Tom Cruise as the largely egocentric Charlie is at his angry best.

Charlie is actually my problem with the film.  It’s not that his character is unrealistic, but rather that he is so relentlessly unsympathetic towards everyone around him that it is hard to get past my dislike.  Even someone who knows nothing about autism, as Charlie clearly doesn’t, should be able to clue into the distress Raymond exhibits at breaks from his routines and behaviors that upset him, like someone touching his things.  It’s obvious that Raymond is not “okay” by the standards of the majority of the culture in which he lives.  Even though the things that make him freak out may seem trivial to the rest of us, even though we don’t understand why he gets so upset, it seems reasonable to expect that we, the majority, could pick up on Raymond’s distress and try to avoid triggering the anxiety.

There’s a passage in the Wikipedia article on RAIN MAN that I find interesting.  “Rain Man‘s portrayal of the main character’s condition has been seen as inaugurating a common and incorrect media stereotype that people on the autism spectrum typically have savant skills, and references to Rain Man, in particular Dustin Hoffman’s performance, have become a popular shorthand for autism and savantism. However, Rain Man has also been seen as dispelling a number of other misconceptions about autism and improving public awareness of the failure of many agencies to accommodate people with autism and make use of the abilities they do have, regardless of whether they are savant skills. Rain Man has been listed as one of the best movies on the subject of autism.”

So I guess RAIN MAN is from a time when awareness of the autism spectrum wasn’t great.  And Charlie does soften a bit over the course of the film – the scene in which he realizes that Raymond is the Rain Man, a figure from his childhood he thought was imaginary, is rather touching.

I do think this film is Best Picture-worthy, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.  I don’t dislike it, but I definitely don’t like it either.  RAIN MAN is one of the Best Picture winners that is very much of its moment.  By that I mean I’m not sure it would be made today, and even if it did get made today, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as a film.  Maybe it’s because more people have a basic grasp of autism now, or maybe it’s because we’re more obsessed with political correctness than we were 25 years ago.  Or maybe it was just the right film at the right moment, like GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT or FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

Driving Miss Daisy (Best Picture, 1989)

Ah, Morgan Freeman.  Truly one of the great American voices.

There’s a lot that can be said about DRIVING MISS DAISY. In many ways, it’s a quiet little movie, full of moments of discomfort as well as surprising bits of humor.  Miss Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy (who won Best Actress for this role), is an elderly lady whose age gets in the way of her ability to drive safely.  Her son hires Hoke Colburn, played by Morgan Freeman, to be her chauffeur.  The story chronicles the development of their friendship over twenty-odd years with a background provided by world events from 1948 through the early 1970s. 

The discomfort of watching this is easy to find.  The main characters are an older, well-off Jewish woman and a black chauffeur, living in Georgia.  There’s not much in the way of large acts of prejudice, though there is a stressful scene in which there’s a bomb at the synagogue.  Mostly it’s the everyday sort of prejudice that’s clearly ingrained and taught from childhood.  Like the song in SOUTH PACIFIC says, “you’ve got to be carefully taught” from an early age to “hate and fear.”

One thing I enjoy about this film is its score.  The music is simple and unobtrusive, but it conveys a sense of momentum that’s appropriate for a story about driving.  The music also has a tapping sort of beat worked into the tapestry that sounds a bit like a clock ticking, showing the passage of time.

This is actually the second time I’ve seen DRIVING MISS DAISY.  The first time was a couple years ago, before my first visit to the Deep South.  A friend of mine from college (hi, David!) grew up in Macon, GA, and invited me out for a visit.  Before I arrived, though, he strongly suggested that I watch certain movies to illustrate Georgia culture.  If I recall correctly, the list was DRIVING MISS DAISY, FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and BIG FISH.  Most illuminating, I must say. 

I’m not sure I could provide a reciprocal list of films to illustrate Bay Area culture.  Anyone have any suggestions?

Next Up: Dances With Wolves (Best Picture, 1990) and The Silence of the Lambs (Best Picture, 1991) (eek)