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Rain Man was released in
1988, although it was in development for years. The original script was by
Barry Morrow, and a number of directors, actors and other writers were involved
up to the stage of the movie actually being made. It is a classic road trip
story, with Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) traveling across the country
with his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Charlie transforms from a
lying cheating young businessman to a feeling human being, through coming to
understand his brother and make a connection. Raymond also changes, in more
subtle ways, through going through new experiences such as his first kiss and
sensing his brother's concern for him.
The DVD has a short featurette on
the making of the film, with clips of interviews with the main actors and
producers. For real fans though, there are three commentaries, by director
Barry Levinson, and two of the main scriptwriters, Barry Morrow and Ronald
Bass. Morrow's commentary is the most emotional, because he had the original
idea and he based the character of Raymond on people who he knew. In
particular, he formed a lifelong friendship with autistic savant Kim Peek.
Morrow gets choked up a couple of times when talking about his experiences,
partly because he explains that when he won the Oscar for best screenplay, in
his acceptance speech, he was intent on mentioning his sister who was dying of
cancer. He also talks about the effect that the film has had on the public
perception of autism and how it changed people's attitudes, and clearly this
meant a great deal to him.
It is a surprise to learn in Ron
Bass' commentary that in fact Morrow's original script, the Rain Man was a person
with mental retardation rather than autism, and he was a far more loveable
character. Stephen Spielberg became involved in the project and recommended
the change because it would make a much stronger story, since there would be
far more to overcome in the relationship between Charlie and Raymond if Raymond
was autistic. Bass talks a great deal about the history of the development of
the project, which is fascinating for those who like to learn about the
machinations of Hollywood. It also reveals something about how Hollywood
thinks in creating movies about people with emotional and cognitive
differences. Morrow also talks about those issues: it is amazing that he was
put under pressure to include an action sequence with a shoot-out in the middle
of the story. All three commentaries discuss the ending of the film. There
was some feeling that it needed to be a happy "feel good" ending in
which Charlie and Raymond spend the rest of their lives together, but that
seemed too unrealistic. The actual end of the film, in which Charlie puts
Raymond on a train to go back to his group home, is far more anticlimactic. In
real life, often autistic people do live with their families, especially when
they are as high functioning as Raymond, and one might complain that it Charlie
shirks his responsibility in letting him go back to his home. But as the film
portrays the issue, Charlie is doing what is best for his brother, and in fact
he is sacrificing his own preferences.
Barry Levinson's commentary is
maybe the least revealing of the three, but he does discuss some of the
decisions involved in putting the film together and some of the artistic
Hoffman's performance remains
strong sixteen years later, while Tom Cruise looks so young it is hard to take
him very seriously. The writers explain that the original idea was for Charlie
to be about the same age as his brother, and to be even more bitter than
Charlie was portrayed. There was some discussion whether he could be played by
Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray. It is tempting to think that it would have been
a much better movie if they had stayed true to the original idea, since
Cruise's performance is rather wooden. Nevertheless, Rain Man remains
an important film for the portrayal of people with autism and our attitudes
towards them. As all three commentators point out, the real point of the film
is how Charlie becomes a better person through his meeting his brother. It is
a strong work and bears repeated viewing.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.
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