RAIN MAN

246 Toothpicks, “Counting Cards,” and Lessons in Love

Have you ever had to communicate with someone on a different wavelength as you; for example because (s)he speaks a different language and you don’t have an interpreter, or because (s)he is unable to communicate verbally at all, or maybe just because you keep misunderstanding each other? If so, you know what a frustrating experience it is to have virtually no control over the situation and over making sure that you’re actually understood. And in precisely this situation finds himself Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), personification of the 1980s’ yuppie, a used car dealer with major money problems whose only – tentative – personal attachment is to his current girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino). Because having learned that except for a few rosebushes and a vintage 1949 Buick Roadmaster his recently-deceased father has left virtually all of his considerable fortune to his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) – a brother he didn’t even know he had – Charlie decides to kidnap Raymond from the Cincinnati facility where he lives, take him to California, and demand half the inheritance in exchange for his brother’s return.

Now, Charlie isn’t the greatest communicator himself; at least as far as listening goes; he is used to talking people down, and if that alone doesn’t do the trick, he starts to yell. This, however, just doesn’t work with Raymond, who lives in a world of his own and, unable to express emotion in any other way, falls into a nervous tic when feeling threatened. So for the first time in his life Charlie has to learn to accept another human being for what he is, and work with his bewildering methods of communication rather than against them. And subtly, very subtly, Charlie begins to change, until at last he no longer wants to relinquish custody of Raymond even after having been offered a substantial amount of money: because now money is no longer an issue at all; now it’s all about genuine love for a newly-found brother and very special person.

Rain Man is ostensibly told from Charlie’s perspective; through his, the “normal” guy’s eyes we perceive Raymond’s habits, tics and strange behavioral code. And even if Charlie is easy enough to snub for his superficiality and materialism, his frustration at his inability to communicate with his brother feels genuine and is something we can empathize with (albeit perhaps inadmittedly). Tom Cruise plays Charlie with a finely-tuned mix of audacity and reluctant emotion; turning a role that seems to start out as just another Cruise cliché into a character who hesitantly comes to realize his own complexities and shortcomings and learns to appreciate sensitivity, compassion and love – yet, without ever taking the role that treacherous step too far into sentimentality.

Still, important as Charlie’s character is for this movie’s narrative, this is from first to last Raymond’s story; and by the same token Dustin Hoffman’s, because the two individuals are in fact inseparable: as Hoffman once explained in an interview, he rejects the notion that acting is merely about playing a role, or that the term “my character” could ever appropriately describe his approach to a role; emphasizing that in every part he plays, he truly has to become the individual in question to fully be able to understand and portray him. As such, his achievement with Raymond Babbitt is breathtaking indeed; for in a role which not only imposes severe limitations on his ability to communicate traditionally but also gives him virtually no opportunity to express emotion, he conveys Raymond’s frailties, unexpected strengths and, significantly, his profound humanity in a manner that lets you forget you’re even looking at a piece of acting, thus accomplishing that rare feat only attained by the greatest of actors – and even among Dustin Hoffman’s spectacular performances, this one stands out in particular. (He did, of course, win both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for this movie; but somehow even the industry’s highest awards don’t begin to express the significance of his achievement.)

Raymond Babbitt’s character was based on several real-life autistic persons; and at a time when little was known about the condition even in the medical community, contributed substantially to a greater understanding of those afflicted with it. Not all autistic people are so-called “savants” like Raymond, i.e. possess genial mathematic or other abilities within the shell separating them from the outside world (and conversely, not with all of them that shell is as thick as in Raymond’s case; although intricate routines do tend to play a rather important role) – so don’t go rushing off with them to Vegas for an exercise in “counting cards,” at least not before you’ve verified that they can memorize entire phone books (at least up to the letter “G”), count the toothpicks in a pile on the floor with one glimpse of an eye, and determine the square root of a four- or five-digit number within a matter of seconds without so much as looking at an electronic calculator. Chances are you’d do them tremendous harm, not to mention make a complete fool of yourself.

Dustin Hoffman reportedly fought hard for this movie’s production even after several directors (including, inter alia, Stephen Spielberg) had bowed out; and in one of those rare un-Hollywood-like moments even managed to maintain the movie’s sense of authenticity up to the very end by prevailing on the writers to drop the projected ending, which would have had Raymond staying with Charlie. – In addition to Hoffman’s awards, Rain Man received the coveted Oscars for Best Movie, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director (Barry Levinson, who also played the psychiatrist called upon to evaluate whether Raymond is fit to stay with Charlie), plus a number of other American and international awards. For once, the industry collectively got it right. But even if this movie hadn’t received a single award, it would still remain one of late 20th century film history’s greatest and truly unforgettable moments – definitely, it would.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Mirage Entertainment / MGM (1988)
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Executive Producers: Peter Gruber & John Peters
  • Producer: Mark Johnson
  • Screenplay: Ronald Bass & Barry Morrow
  • Music: Hans Zimmer
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: John Seale
Cast
  • Dustin Hoffman: Raymond Babbitt
  • Tom Cruise: Charlie Babbitt
  • Valeria Golino: Susanna
  • Gerald R. (Jerry) Molen: Dr. Bruner
  • Jack Murdock: John Mooney
  • Michael D. Roberts: Vern
  • Ralph Seymour: Lenny
  • Lucinda Jenney: Iris
  • Bonnie Hunt: Sally Dibbs
  • Barry Levinson: Dr. Marston (uncredited)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1989)
  • Best Picture: Mark Johnson
  • Best Director: Barry Levinson
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role: Dustin Hoffman
  • Best Writing, Original Screenplay: Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow
Golden Globes (1989)
  • Best Motion Picture, Drama
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama: Dustin Hoffman
Directors’ Guild of America Awards (1989)
  • Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures: Barry Levinson, Gerald R. Molen (unit production manager) (plaque), David McGiffert (first assistant director) (plaque), Cara Giallanza (second assistant director) (plaque) and Cherylanne Martin (second second assistant director) (plaque)
National Society of Film Critics Awards (USA) (1989)
  • NSFC Award 3d Place, Best Actor: Dustin Hoffman
New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1988)
  • NYFCC Award 2nd Place, Best Actor: Dustin Hoffman
People’s Choice Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Favorite Dramatic Motion Picture
BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Film & TV Awards (USA) (1989)
  • BMI Film Music Award: Hans Zimmer
Berlin International Film Festival (Germany) (1989)
  • Golden Berlin Bear: Barry Levinson
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” newspaper: Barry Levinson
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany)
  • Golden Screen: 1989
  • Golden Screen with 1 Star: 1991
Jupiter Awards (Germany) (1989)
  • Best International Film: Barry Levinson
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1989)
  • Miglior Film Straniero (Best Foreign Film): Barry Levinson
  • Migliore Attore Straniero (Best Foreign Actor): Dustin Hoffman

 

Links

Merken

PHILADELPHIA

A Good Start

“This is the essence of discrimination: Formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.” (School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987) (Brennan, J.), on remand, 692 F. Supp. 1286 (M.D. Fla. 1988)).

This rule, reaffirmed by the landmark Supreme Court decision which, over the dissent of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia, first recognized the infection with a contagious disease (tuberculosis) as an actionable handicap under federal law, forms the initial bond between star litigator Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the unlikely team at the center of this movie. Because through these words, black attorney Miller begins to realize that his colleague Beckett faces a handicap which, in essence, is not so different from that confronted by many of his fellow African Americans. And because this is an incredibly effectively scripted Hollywood movie, we, the audience, easily get the point as well; even if we’re white, and even if we’re not gay and/or suffering from AIDS like Beckett.

Of course, the insidiousness of the AIDS virus places those afflicted with it in a class of their own, and while the movie spares its viewers the pictures of some of the virus’s most graphic effects, it does go to considerable length to show the physical decline associated with it – not only in the person of Beckett himself, for whose role Hanks literally almost starved himself. Some of the patients surrounding him in the movie’s earlier emergency room scenes really were AIDS patients, whom Hanks had approached when preparing for the movie, and who had subsequently agreed to participate; and as Hanks emphasized during an appearance in Bravo TV’s Inside the Actors’ Studio, not all of them are still alive. – Denzel Washington’s appropriately named Joe Miller, middle class everyman in everything but the color of his skin (one of the movie’s obvious bows to political correctness), displays an attitude uncomfortably familiar to many of us; shunning gays in general and the HIV-infected Beckett in particular, out of a mixture of ignorance about AIDS, prejudice against those suffering from it, and prejudice against gays. Both Hanks and Washington give strikingly emotional, profound performances that rank among the best in their respective careers – Hanks deservedly won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Beckett, but Washington unfairly wasn’t even nominated for either. Yet, neither of them would have been able to shine as much as they do without their exceptional supporting cast; to name just two, Jason Robards, commanding as ever as Beckett’s homophobic former boss (and role model!), and Antonio Banderas as his devoted lover.

By the time of Philadelphia‘s release, some of the early myths about AIDS had begun to disappear, and the yearly growing numbers of newly infected patients had brought it out of its erstwhile obscurity as “the gay plague.” But indepth knowledge was still far from widespread, and therefore the movie – which was inspired in part by the real-life case of New York attorney Geoffrey Bowers – not only brought awareness to the disease in general, but also made a couple of important points, from educating the public about the disease’s method of transmission to emphasizing that it is by no means limited to gays and can even be contracted in something as life-affirming as a blood transfusion. (Indeed, several European countries were rocked by transfusion-related AIDS scandals right around the time of the movie’s release). One of Philadelphia‘s most quietly powerful scenes is the testimony of a female witness who was infected by just such a transfusion, and who emphasizes that having AIDS is not a matter of sin or morality: “I don’t consider myself any different from anyone else with this disease. I’m not guilty, I’m not innocent, I’m just trying to survive,” she responds when asked to confirm that in her case “there was no behavior on [her] part” involved and contracting AIDS was something she was “unable to avoid.” – Moreover, four years before Ellen DeGeneres rocked the showboat with a kiss during an episode of her sitcom, and Kevin Kline and Magnum macho Tom Selleck locked lips in In and Out (the screenplay of which was inspired by Hanks’s Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia), it was by no means a given that a movie would get away with letting Hanks and Banderas exchange acts of tenderness from caresses and kisses on the hand to a slow dance at a gay party.

Given Philadelphia‘s fundamental message and the memorable performances of its protagonists, it is a pity that the movie doesn’t entirely avoid Hollywood pitfalls, such as its soggy ending with grease literally dripping off the screen and the undeniable taste of a sugar-coated afterthought, transmitting the message that even dying of AIDS is really not so terrible, at least for the surviving family who can still unite around the television set and wallow in their memories of their lost loved one. And while I do buy Joe Miller’s transformation from a (somewhat stereotypical) homophobic male to a reluctant supporter of gay rights, I don’t really see why Beckett suddenly assumes a cliché gay look the second he has been fired; not to mention that I suspect not everybody in his situation would have enjoyed such overwhelming support from his family.

But ultimately, it is the movie’s overarching message that counts. “Ain’t no angel gonna greet me; it’s just you and I my friend … and my clothes don’t fit me no more: I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin,” sings Bruce Springsteen, the movie’s other Oscar winner, in “Philadelphia”‘s title song. And Justice Brennan wrote in the Supreme Court’s Arline decision that in amending federal law, Congress was motivated by “discrimination stemming not only from simple prejudice, but also from archaic attitudes and laws.” This movie goes a long way in dispelling such attitudes. It alone isn’t enough – but it is, as Andrew Beckett jokes about the 1000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean, at least a good start.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia TriStar (1993)
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Executive Producers: Ron Bozman / Gary Goetzman / Kenneth Utt
  • Producers: Jonathan Demme & Edward Saxon
  • Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tak Fujimoto
Cast
  • Tom Hanks: Andrew Beckett
  • Denzel Washington: Joe Miller
  • Jason Robards: Charles Wheeler
  • Antonio Banderas: Miguel Alvarez
  • Lisa Summerour: Lisa Miller
  • Karen Finley: Dr. Gillman
  • Joanne Woodward: Sarah Beckett
  • Anna Deavere Smith: Anthea Burton
  • Mary Steenburgen: Belinda Conine
  • Robert Ridgely: Walter Kenton
  • Charles Napier: Judge Garnett

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1994)
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hanks
  • Best Music, Song: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”.
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 49 (Andrew Beckett)
  • Top 100 Movie Songs – No. 68 (“Streets of Philadelphia”)
Golden Globes (1994)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama: Tom Hanks
  • Best Original Song – Motion Picture: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
MTV Movie Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Best Male Performance: Tom Hanks
ASCAP Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
  • Most Performed Songs from Motion Pictures: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
Grammy Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
GLAAD Media Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Outstanding Film – Wide Release: Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany) (1994)
  • Winner of the Golden Screen
Berlin International Film Festival (1994)
  • Silver Berlin Bear – Best Actor: Tom Hanks

 

Links

 

OUTBREAK

Casualties of War

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aischylos.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In 1989, a secret U.S. Army SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team was called in after an Ebola outbreak among monkeys in a Reston, VA lab; a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. They eventually determined that this particular strain wasn’t contagious for humans – others, however, are; capable of producing a 90% mortality rate within a matter of days. The Reston incident produced Richard Preston’s bestselling book The Hot Zone, on which this movie is loosely based (another project involving Robert Redford and Jodie Foster eventually folded).

Like the Reston Ebola strain, the (fictitious) Motaba virus at the center of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is brought to the U.S. by an infected monkey, caught near a village in the Zairean (now: Congolese) Motaba Valley. Unlike the Reston Ebola it is contagious for humans, with a 100% mortality rate within a single day. And, again unlike the Reston strain, it is airborne, i.e., not only transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.

Officially nobody has any prior knowledge of the virus at the time of its apparent first hit. In fact, once they’ve overcome their shock about its gruesome effects, USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his assistants, Majors Schuler and Salt (Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) – in Zaire to provide medical assistance – are downright ecstatic to have discovered a new virus; a once-in-a-lifetime event for most scientists, if it happens at all. What they don’t know is that their own superiors, Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) have encountered this virus before, albeit non-airborne, in a mercenary camp in 1967 … and on McClintock’s orders, firebombed the camp to secretly develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock insists that their knowledge remain secret even after a first Motaba outbreak in Boston, brought about by the Californian animal lab worker (Patrick Dempsey) who has unwittingly smuggled the carrier monkey out to sell it to a pet store; and after another outbreak in Cedar Creek, CA, transmitted through the pet store owner and a lab technician infected by his blood. McClintock’s solution is the same as 30 years earlier: Firebomb the contaminated area and everybody in it, keep your weapon and be done with it.

But unlike 1967, complete secrecy is no longer an option, as not only Colonel Daniels’s team but also his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), who is now with the CDC and has helped contain the Boston outbreak, is aware of the virus’s presence. Thus, McClintock opts for the reverse strategy, obtains a presidential OK for his “Operation Clean Sweep” – after a dramatic presentation to the assembled cabinet resulting in the conclusion that the “bug” is capable of spreading to the entire country, including D.C., within a mere 48 hours; and the admonishment “Be compassionate, but be compassionate globally” – and orders Ford to get Daniels out of the way and keep him “in line.”

Daniels, however, who has long earned a reputation for following orders rather selectively, rushes to Cedar Creek, to work alongside Robby and her team trying to contain the virus. In short order Ford and McClintock show up as well, and soon the town is crawling with soldiers, who seal it off to the outside world and implement a curfew, to prevent a further spread of the virus but also in preparation of “Operation Clean Sweep.” A frantic race ensues; pitting Daniels and Salt, who set out to search for the host animal to develop an antiserum, against their own comrades.

The premise of Outbreak is entirely believable; as evidenced not only by the 1989 Virginia incident – after all, it was mere luck that the Reston strain didn’t prove contagious for humans –, but even more so, by the mid-2010 years’ severe Ebola crisis in several West African countries, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans and also those of a number of North Americans and Europeans who had traveled to the countries struck by the disease.  Moreover, it has long been public knowledge that various kinds of viral strains do exist in the U.S. and other countries; at the very least for experimental purposes. While their military use is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, there still is no functioning control mechanism in place (which was also a factor in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debate). And although the U.S. is a signatory to both aforementioned instruments and has previously stated its non-use policy, the Bush government abandoned international discussions on the issue in 2001.

So, Outbreak addresses enormously important concerns; and it does so compellingly and with a stellar cast. Dustin Hoffman imbues his Colonel Daniels with tremendous compassion but also a great sense of humor; and his snappy exchanges with Russo’s Robby Keough and his team are a delight, especially those with Kevin Spacey, who in 1995 burst into movie audiences’ collective awareness with this film, the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects, and Se7en. Morgan Freeman brings all his sensitivity to the movie’s most intricate role, General Ford, who is caught between being party to McClintock’s scheme and realizing its profound immorality. Then-27-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. may have been a bit young to play a Major, but he certainly stands his ground; and few actors can portray a villain as menacingly as Donald Sutherland, although the script gives him little opportunity for true complexity.

Unfortunately, Outbreak gets the full “Hollywood thriller” treatment, complete with dramatic score, two-dimensional villain, clichéd ending and reliance on a few coincidences too many. This (and some plot inconsistencies) somewhat reduces its effect, preventing a good movie from becoming a truly great one – although its ‘copter chases are pure eye candy; and it certainly helps that they were shot by Michael Ballhaus, arguably the business’s best cameraman. But for the importance of its subject alone, and its outstanding cast, Outbreak is worth all the notice it has received.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“[The Cedar Creek population] are casualties of war. … I’d give them all a medal if I could. But they are casualties of war.” “Outbreak,” Maj.Gen. Donald McClintock

“[N]o massacre has occurred … no further action is warranted.” Department of the Army: initial investigation report on the March 16, 1968 My Lai incident (Vietnam)

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1995)
  • Director: Wolfgang Petersen
  • Executive Producers: Duncan Henderson & Anne Kopelson
  • Producers: Wolfgang Petersen / Arnold Kopelson / Gail Katz
  • Screenplay: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
  • Music: James Newton Howard
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Cast
  • Dustin Hoffman: Sam Daniels
  • Rene Russo: Roberta “Robby” Keough
  • Morgan Freeman: Brigadier General Billy Ford
  • Kevin Spacey: Major Casey Schuler
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Major Salt
  • Donald Sutherland: Major General Donald McClintock
  • Patrick Dempsey: James “Jimbo” Scott
  • Zakes Mokae: Dr. Benjamin Iwabi
  • Malick Bowens: Dr. Raswani
  • J.T. Walsh: White House Chief of Staff (uncredited)

 

Major Awards

New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for The Usual Suspects and Se7en
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
  • Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard

 

Links