Charlie : “You remember that day. Was I there? Where was I?”
Raymond : “You were in the window. You waved to me, ‘Bye bye Rain Man, Bye bye.’”
There’s a scene in the Oscar winning “Rain Man” (1988) that always gets to me. It takes place in a motel bathroom and it’s when Charlie finds out the truth about growing up with his brother Raymond, whom he called Rain Man. Up until that point Charlie thought of the Rain Man as an imaginary friend. Early in the film he says, “When I was a kid and I got scared, the Rain Man would come to me and sing to me…you know, one of those imaginary childhood friends.” Raymond is autistic and has savant syndrome. In that same exchange Charlie learns that Raymond was sent away to an institution after an incident where Raymond was thought to have nearly injured a young Charlie with hot water. The opposite was the case. It had been Raymond who prevented Charlie from being burned in a scalding bathtub, but he’d been unable to express the truth to his parents.
What has always stunned me is the way that Barry Levinson, who won the Oscar for his directing, stages the scene. Tightly framed in front of the sink, the conversation between the two brothers takes place. There’s a mirror in between them, in the center of the screen, with an ornate frame in which you can see Charlie’s reflection as well as the opened door to the rest of the room. The mirror becomes a symbol of perception and how Charlie misinterpreted the past. As Raymond goes to the bedroom to retrieve a photo of the two brothers as children together, we see his reflection going away from Charlie, as if he were traveling through time. It’s all very simple, elegant and poignant.
I was recently speaking with director Paul Greengrass about his film “News of the World” that takes place on a literal journey and how, during it, the characters go through a process of healing and come together. Most of “Rain Man” is the two brothers driving cross country, and Charlie is transformed by spending so much time in such close proximity to Raymond. What is fascinating to me is the character of Raymond, how because of his neurodevelopmental conditions he stays isolated, but becomes the agent of change.
Charlie is a fast-living salesman of Lamborghinis in Los Angeles who had a complicated relationship with his father. His life seems to have been shaped by an incident that happened at an early age in which he took a car without permission and it created a rift between them. Charlie left home, didn’t keep in touch with the family and has been hustling ever since. He’s impatient, not a good listener and cut off from real connections with other people, keeping his loving girlfriend Susana at a distance. “Can you include me in some of your thoughts?” she asks him.
His father dies in Cincinnati, and he goes to the funeral to find out he has only left him the classic 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible they fought over and some prize winning roses he cultivated. Three million dollars have been left in a trust fund to a brother whom he never knew existed and is in a mental institution. Unhappy with the arrangement, Charlie decides to take Raymond with him back to Los Angeles and get custody and thus access to the estate. But there’s a glitch. Raymond refuses to get on the plane.
Raymond, played by a brilliant Dustin Hoffman, can memorize phone books in a matter of hours, and calculate complicated equations. He needs a routine; otherwise he panics. He needs to be in bed by 11pm. He doesn’t like to go outside if it’s raining and needs to watch the People’s Court. Hoffman displays a precision and concentration that is astounding. I think this might be Tom Cruise’s best performance. Through the trip there’s this calibrated fading of the armor he’s kept around himself. It’s subtle work — moving from a self-involved, callous man to slowly learning to listen and starting to care about others. The sequence when he teaches his brother how to dance has got to be one of the most moving scenes. Two brothers who have been physically and mentally separated from the world, coming together. Levinson and screenwriters Ronald Bass and Barrry Morrow avoid sentimentality, which is so appreciated. I love John Seale’s work as a cinematographer in this picture (he won the Oscar for “The English Patient” and shot George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”).
Raymond : “I’m an excellent driver.”
Charlie : “Yes, you are. I like having you for my big brother.”
Available to stream on Netflix, Watch TCM and Amazon Prime and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV+, FandangoNOW, Redbox and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow
Story by Barry Morrow
Directed by Barry Levinson
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Valeria Golino, Gerald R. Molen, Jack Murdock, Michael D. Roberts, Ralph Seymour, Lucinda Jenney, Bonnie Hunt
Screenwriter Barry Morrow on the Inspirations Behind “Rain Man”
Morrow took inspiration for the plot from his own life: he once kidnapped a man with learning disabilities named Bill Sackter to prevent him from being sent back to an institution. “That’s where basically I got the idea of the kidnapping of Raymond Babbitt.” Morrow later turned his friendship with Sackter into the Emmy award-winning TV movie “Bill,” starring Mickey Rooney and Dennis Quaid. Then, in 1984, Morrow had a chance encounter with mega savant Kim Peek. “When I met him,” says Morrow, “he knew all the credits of the movies I’d ever worked on, and every sport question I could challenge him with, he answered.” Peek had memorised 12,000 books, often reading two pages simultaneously – one with his left eye, the other with his right. Astounded, Morrow “locked into him”, and the idea for “Rain Man” was born. The film’s journey to the screen was arduous, shedding three directors (Martin Brest, Steven Spielberg and Sidney Pollack) before landing on Barry Levinson. Raymond was played by Dustin Hoffman, then 50 and a character actor at the peak of his powers, alongside the Top Gun hotshot Tom Cruise, 25, as Charlie. In his youth, Hoffman had worked at the New York Psychiatric Institute; for Rain Man he spent a year intensively researching autistic and savant individuals including Temple Grandin, Joseph Sullivan, who had incredible skills with numbers, and savant twins George and Charles. (theguardian.com)
Director Barry Levinson on Characters Raymond and Charlie
Levinson’s ability to connect with Rain Man’s iconic characters gave him the confidence to move forward with the film. The dynamic between Cruise and Dustin Hoffman was a major point of emphasis for him and drove his decision making. “I start from the point of view of character,” Levinson said in the same interview. “This is dangerous, because if the characters don’t really work, then you’re gone. But I liked Raymond and Charlie. Charlie is a salesman. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s hustled and manipulated. Raymond is an autistic. He’s never been out into the real world. Raymond is like something I’ve never quite seen.” Diving into the specifics of how he handled directing, Levinson explained how he dialed into the frustration and humor between Cruise and Hoffman’s characters. “To fully realize these characters, my idea was to ask, cinematically, what happens when Charlie talks to his autistic brother? He can’t sell him, because no matter what he says or how he tries to con him, Raymond wants what he wants. Raymond never initiates a conversation. Raymond never looks at you when he talks. … Many audiences like gizmos, plot things, cops and all that kind of s—, in which I’m not interested. If I can show the autism for what it is and understand it – show the frustration and the humor – if I can make the relationship work with these two guys on the road, then that’s enough for me.”
About Director of Photography John Seale
Cinematographer John Seale, ASC, ACS, was born in Warwick, Queensland, Australia. His first credits as a camera operator included several films directed by fellow Australian Peter Weir, including “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” (1975) and “Gallipoli” (1981). Soon after Weir moved to the United States, Seale joined him on the project “Witness,” (1985), directed by Weir, and garnered his first Oscar nomination for cinematography. Since then, Seale has earned more than 40 credits as a cinematographer, and worked with directors such as Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Cold Mountain”), Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”), Rob Reiner (“The American President,” “Ghosts of Mississippi”) and Michael Apted “(Gorillas in the Mist”) to name a few. His awards are numerous, including four Oscar nominations and one win (for “The English Patient”), four ASC Award nominations and one win (also for “The English Patient”), three awards. Seale was recently honored by the American Society of Cinematographers with the ASC International Award, which was presented on February 13, 2011. (panavision.com) Seale’s most recent works include “The Tourist” (2010), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and most recently finished working on “Three Thousand Years of Longing.”
About Screenwriter Barry Morrow
Barry is an Emmy and Academy Award winning writer/producer best known for his original story and screenplay for the 1988 Best Picture “Rain Main.” Early film projects related to disabilities, child and elder abuse led Barry to become an advocate for marginalized groups, and he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Social Workers. Several of Morrow’s scripts are inspired by real people, especially people with disabilities and extraordinary talents. These include the savant played by Dustin Hoffman in the film “Rain Man,” inspired by the real savant Kim Peek, and Bill Sackter, played by Mickey Rooney in the TV movie “Bill.” Both works received writing Oscar, Emmy and other awards for Morrow and for the actors who portrayed them. Morrow gave his Oscar statuette as a gift to Kim Peek. After Kim passed away in Morrow put his Oscar statuette on permanent loan to Salt Lake City in Kim’s memory, and put forward the money for the Peek Award, which “pays tribute to artists, media makers, and film subjects who are positively impacting our society’s perception of people with disabilities” and is given out by the Utah Film Center. (interdependence.org) Morrow’s most recent works include “Remember Sunday” (2013) and “All You Ever Wished For” in 2018.
About Screenwriter Ronald Bass
Ron was born in Los Angeles and began writing short stories at the age of six. During his teens, he wrote a novel “Voleur,” which he eagerly submitted to his Freshman English Professor. When she told him it could never be published, he burned the only copy in a metal bowl and didn’t write again for 18 years. There’s a lesson here somewhere. In the meantime, he received a B.A. in Political Science from Stanford, an M.A. in International Relations from Yale as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a J.D from Harvard Law School. Ron practiced motion picture and television law in Los Angeles for 17 years. During this time, his wife Chris encouraged him to revisit the novel he had burned so many years before. The book became “The Perfect Thief,” published in 1978, followed by “Lime’s Crisis” (1982) and the “Emerald Illusion” (1984). The last was adapted by Ron as a shockingly unsuccessful film, “Code Name: Emerald,” which nevertheless encouraged (or dared) him to pursue a career as a screenwriter. Ron has written 211 scripts in the past 36 years, and is grateful for the incomprehensible good fortune of never having been out of work for a day during that time. About a dozen or so have become films on which Ron did not take, or successfully compete for credit. Fun-fact: Ron co-wrote the first draft of “Lion King.” Of course, the gifted Linda Wolverton wrote roughly 101% of the film you enjoyed. Ron has worked as Producer or Exec Producer on many of his films. A partial list of his credited films follows: “Gardens of Stone,” “Black Widow,” “Rain Man,” “Sleeping with the Enemy,” “The Joy Luck Club,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Waiting to Exhale,” “Dangerous Minds,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Stepmom,” “What Dreams May Come,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Entrapment,” “Swing Vote,” “Passion of Mind,” “The Lazarus Child,” “Mozart and the Whale,” “Amelia,” “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” and “Before We Go.” (bestfriendsweddingmusical.com) Bass’ most recent works include “Ice” (2016), “Her Sey Seninle Güzel” (2018), “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (2019) and most recently “The King’s Daughter.”
About Director Barry Levinson
Barry Levinson was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Violet (Krichinsky) and Irvin Levinson, who worked in furniture and appliances. He is of Russian Jewish descent. Levinson graduated from high school in 1960, attended college at American University in Washington, DC. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he began acting as well as writing and performing comedy routines. Levinson’s first writing work was for variety shows such as “The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine,” “The Lohman and Barkley Show,” “The Tim Conway Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” He found some success as a screenwriter – notably the Mel Brooks comedies “Silent Movie” (1976) and “High Anxiety” (1977) (in which he also played a bellboy), and the Oscar-nominated script for “…And Justice for All” (1979). He then began his career as a director with “Diner” (1982), for which he had also written the script and which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Levinson executive produced and directed the HBO Films “Paterno,” “The Wizard of Lies,” and “You Don’t Know Jack,” which received a combined 21 Emmy® nominations, including Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Best Director. Other iconic films include “The Natural,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Wag the Dog,” and “Sleepers.” In 1998 Levinson became one of Variety’s “Billion Dollar Directors,” as well as ShoWest’s “Director of the Year.”
Levinson has used his hometown as the setting for four widely praised features: “Diner,” “Tin Men,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.” Levinson also returned to his home town to film the television series “Homicide: Life on the Street.” His work on this critically acclaimed drama earned him an Emmy® for Best Individual Director of a Drama Series, along with a Peabody Award. Levinson and frequent collaborator Tom Fontana, under the banner of The Levinson/Fontana Company, LLC, also executive produced the groundbreaking HBO television series, “Oz,” which aired for six seasons from 1998 through 2003. Levinson now directs and produces films through his production company Baltimore Pictures, including critically acclaimed releases such as “Quiz Show,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Bandits,” “What Just Happened,” “The Wizard of Lies,” and “Paterno.” In 1999, Levinson was honored with a Creative Achievement Award by the 13th Annual American Comedy Awards. Later that year, American University conferred upon Levinson the Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa, for his distinguished work in the field of Communications and his defining impact on the motion picture and television industry In 2010, Levinson was the recipient of the WGA’s Laurel Award for Screen, honoring a lifetime achievement in outstanding writing for motion pictures. (levinson.com)