I’m working on a piece for The Atlantic about the depiction of autistic people in the movies, so this weekend, I sat down to fill another gap in my cinematic experience and watched Rain Man for the first time. Movies with reputations like that are always an enormous risk–Wall Street, which I watched immediately afterwards, certainly doesn’t live up to its advance praise, even if Michael Douglas is marvelous as Mephistopheles with a spot on the Bronx Zoo board. But Rain Man is lovely, a beautifully written, intelligent movie with gorgeous cinematography. And, like many of Barry Levinson’s movies, an example of how far portrayals of men on screen have fallen in the last twenty years.
It’s worth reflecting on the extent to which Levinson was just rolling when he made Rain Man. He’d directed both Good Morning, Vietnam and Tin Men, which is just fantastic, from the sparring between Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito, to the use of the Fine Young Cannibals as the lounge band, in 1987. Nobody has a year that good. Rain Man came out a year later. Not everybody makes three movies that good in a career, much less in two years.
But back to Rain Man itself. I’ll be writing about Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the piece, so I’m not going to do it here. But Cruise, in an entirely disparate way, is a marvel. He’s gotten so publicly eccentric, so dislikable, so mired in that rictus grin that it’s easy to forget what an emotional actor he’s capable of being. It helps that he starts off the movie as an astonishing yuppie asshole, a role that fits his blankness perfectly. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a movie where his mouth is as expressive as it is in Rain Man, and not just when it’s moving. In a critical scene in a motel bathroom, the tension that’s built up in Cruise’s face as his business has fallen apart and he’s floundered to deal with the supreme wildcard that is his brother falls away: he and Hoffman end up delivering an understated, quiet, stunned rendition of “I Saw Her Standing There.” When his brother panics after he tries to hug him, the pain in Cruise’s face is evident: he’s hurting both from the rejection he’s brought upon himself, and the realization that he cares about it.
One thing that struck me in both Rain Man and Wall Street is that they’re both movies where men kiss male members of their families, a brother in Rain Man and a father in Wall Street. The kisses are natural, unforced, affectionate, and untinged with homophobia. I can’t remotely imagine that happening in a movie today. It’s just not a gesture that I think would occur to most writers and directors, and it’s too bad. The main characters in both movies behave poorly, even weakly at certain points. But as men, they start from an incredibly different baseline than the delayed adolescents who show up in so many movies today. They can be tender because they’re not still trying to prove they’re tough.