I write a lot about “seeing” as opposed to looking, and when I do so, I am contrasting the ability to see things in an understanding way and not. In 1988, when “Rain Man” won an Oscar for Best Film, I looked at the movie, but I am not sure that I saw it in all of the ways that I saw it just now, after watching it again.
Not long ago, I commented on the fact that it was when she was very young that Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded the song “Both Sides Now.” Many years later, she sang the song with an entirely different voice. It seemed to me that Mitchell’s message was that after the years of living her life, she was truly able to see all sides of life. I feel the same way about my assessment of the movie “Rain Man.”
During the past year or two, I have become acutely aware of the problems that arise in dealing with severely narcissistic people. In 1988, I am not sure that I knew what narcissism meant. In 1988, autism was also not nearly as common as it is now. Almost thirty years later, I am currently understanding that many people autistic and that many are narcissistic, and I have opinions about both of those disorders now. Yet, it was only this morning, when I watched “Rain Man” again, that I began to see a connection between autism and narcissism. In both instances, the afflicted are completely trapped in their own worlds and are unable to relate to other people.
Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, is the epitome of a narcissist. Early in the movie, you see Charlie riding in the car with his girlfriend, and she complains that he never talks to her. Almost throughout the movie, Charlie Babbit is selfish and manipulative. As the girlfriend observed, he used everyone, including her and his brother.
Charlie Babbit’s autistic brother Raymond is played by Dustin Hoffman, who deservedly won an Oscar for his performance. Raymond’s autism is obvious to the viewer, who understands that an autistic person cannot help the fact that he cannot relate. We are sympathetic with Raymond. Charlie’s behavior is far less acceptable to the viewer, but as I begin to understand narcissism, I realize that Charlie may also have been ill. His type of illness is simply manifested in a different way.
Initially, Tom Cruise exploits Dustin Hoffman to get what he feels he is owed from his father’s inheritance. As in most good stories, the pressure increases and later, Charlie stands to lose his business. At that point, he manipulates Dustin Hoffman to count cards and to win more money for him in Las Vegas.
The long drive from Ohio to Las Vegas is important to the development of the plot. Two people who cannot relate are trapped in the same car for hours and hours and hours. The two drive past used car lot after used car lot after used car lot along the way, and each of the lots begins to look alike. We see loop after loop of similar telephone wires along the route, and the endlessly same-looking desert repeats itself over again. As Charlie and Raymond continue along their monotonous journey, the irritatingly repetitive song “Dry Bones” begins to play, and we get the feeling that what we outwardly see of the world is similar to the tape that plays inside Raymond’s head, over and over. The use of the song “Dry Bones” is brilliant.
Ultimately, Charlie and Raymond finally make a bit of a connection. Charlie Babbitt has glimpses of compassion, but I felt that the ending was appropriate. Because we long for happy endings, we want Raymond to snap out of it and to ask to stay with his brother. We want him to run from the train, into Charlie’s open arms, but where autism is concerned, that does not happen. Raymond was not cured, and I feel sure that within a few hours, Charlie was also back to his old tricks. I am not sure that narcissism is any more reversible than autism is, but I am inclined to believe that it is. Because Raymond always got his way, we realized that his affliction was more severe. He absolutely could not bend. The narcissist could comply. He could give in to his autistic brother, and he did–simply so that in the end, the narcissist could also get what he wanted–he could successfully exploit the situation to his own advantage.
No doubt, Tom Cruise is as narcissistic as Charlie Babbit. In fact, Tom Cruise is probably worse, and he played the part of the narcissist perfectly.
In summary, “Rain Man” is entertaining. The acting is superlative. The movie is filled witih brilliant devices. I agree that “Rain Man” deserved to win the Oscar for Best Movie in 1988.
©Jacki Kellum February 21, 2016