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
  • 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




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