By John H. Foote
Sit in a chair, hands folded in your lap, sitting erect, head slightly tilted to one side, staring off into space, connecting with no one, making no eye contact with anyone. You gently rock back and forth and speak in a nasally voice. Continue rocking gently, looking at no one and say “Pancakes. (Pause) Yeah, pancakes and maple syrup.”
If you follow my direction to the letter, you too can win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Dustin Hoffman won his second Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as Raymond in Rain Man, which to this day I struggle with. It is not that Hoffman gives a weak performance, on the contrary, he is excellent, but the real performance in Rain Man is Tom Cruise as his angry younger brother Charlie. Cruise has an arc with his character, a beautiful evolution that Hoffman does not. And further, as Hoffman is portraying an autistic man, he is very shut off from the world which means Cruise had no energy to play off, he was truly on his own. I think it was a travesty Cruise was snubbed for a Best Actor nomination, and in the years since the release of the film, I am happy to hear this is a common belief.
Rain Man was a surprise box office smash in 1988, winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor, Best Director (Barry Levinson) and Best Original Screenplay. The film had been in development hell for several years with, at one point, Steven Spielberg attached to direct. After his success with The Natural (1984) and his debut film Diner (1982), Levinson earned the job.
Essentially it is a road film, a journey of self discovery for Charlie, who learns when his father dies that he has an autistic brother he knew nothing about. The father left Charlie a car he had once stolen as a teenager and Raymond, the autistic brother, millions. Angry, cheated out of his birth right, Charlie convinces Raymond to come with him back to California, without a thought to Raymond’s very specific needs and schedule. Though high functioning, he cannot be touched by anyone he does not trust and, if agitated, he begins hitting himself or screaming. With his eyes on the money Charlie figures he can deal with Raymond for a few days and come away with half the money.
But as they drive back to L.A. (Ray refuses to fly) Charlie connects with his brother, discovering that Raymond was put in an institution after nearly burning the infant Charlie in a hot bath. Further he learns that Ray is a numbers savant, meaning he can count cards, so they hit Vegas. In serious debt, Charlie uses Raymond’s gift to gamble his way out of debt, with $10,000 to spare. Charlie is caring less about the money and more about his brother, his anger lessening, becoming less selfish and much more protective.
Gradually Raymond allows a Charlie to touch him, to dance with him, but hugging him is still out. Only back in L.A. does Charlie realize he is not equipped to handle Raymond and for his own safety, he must go back to the institution where Charlie first met him. During the hearing, where Charlie realizes the institution is best for Raymond, the two brothers are left together, and Charlie professes his love for Raymond. Very slowly, Raymond leans in to touch foreheads with his brother as Charlie pulls him closer in a hug, kissing his forehead before releasing him.
The once arrogant, narcissistic and selfish Charlie has made a deep connection with his brother and listens with tears in his eyes as Raymond spells his name calling him his ultimate tribute, his “main man”.
Cruise was exceptional as Charlie, so focused on money, willing to cheat and lie to his customers so long as they pay. His God is money, and how he gets it matters little. Moving about his office with furious energy, his father’s death seems to anger him at interrupting his busy day. The only thing he sees when he learns he has a brother is money, concocting a way to take some of the millions left to his brother. Yet the evolution he undergoes is quite breathtaking because we hear, see and understand exactly what is transpiring within Charlie. When he learns that Raymond was sent away because of the fear he might hurt Charlie devastates him. He finds a connection to his autistic brother, he finds he likes him, in fact he loves him. Easily among the finest five performances of his career, he was absolutely robbed of a Best Actor nomination.
Yes, Dustin Hoffman is a brilliant actor and yes, he has proven that in films such as The Graduate (1967), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Lenny (1976), Marathon Man (1976), Straight Time (1978), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and most of all in Tootsie (1982). But to call this Academy Award winning performance among his best work goes against everything I believe acting should be. He gives nothing to Cruise, he never connects, leaving Cruise to do all that. Rather than Hoffman, who gives an accurate portrayal of a man with autism, but he humps the same note for two hours, no growth, no arc, no evolution. I suppose for the film, he did what was required of him, but Best Actor? Seriously? No, says I, no.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.