The 1988 American film, Rain Man – about an autistic man who inherits a large sum of money from his father – has been credited with helping people to better understand autism.
The comedy drama stars Dustin Hoffman as Raymond “Ray” Babbitt, an autistic savant, alongside Tom Cruise as his younger brother, Charles “Charlie” Babbitt. Charlie doesn’t know of Ray’s existence until their father dies. He then discovers his older brother has been living in an institution.
Charlie whisks Ray away from the psychiatric unit he has come to regard as home and the two brothers go on a roller-coaster road trip together. Charlie realises that the apparently imaginary figure from his childhood (whom he called “Rain Man”) was actually Raymond.
It transpires that Raymond was sent away to an institution as a child, after inadvertently almost scalding baby Charlie in a bathtub of boiling hot water. Charlie had been too young to remember much about Ray, other than shadowy memories of a comforting figure.
When the film begins, Charlie is a selfish and self-centred young man, who is suffering from money problems. He imports luxury Lamborghini cars but has a serious cash flow problem when he has insufficient funds to repay a bank loan.
On hearing of his estranged father’s death, he is summoned to Cincinnati, Ohio, for the reading of the will. He’s stunned to learn that although he has inherited his father’s 1949 Buick Roadmaster car, the majority of the $3 million estate has been bequeathed to an unnamed trustee.
Charlie discovers the money is going to his estranged brother and goes to meet him, but for selfish reasons, rather than because he wants a family reunion. After kidnapping Ray from the unit without permission, Charlie hides him in a hotel.
He then contacts Ray’s doctor Gerald Bruner and tries to blackmail him by saying he’ll return Ray safely, in return for half of his $3 million fortune. Bruner refuses, so Charlie decides to apply to the courts for custody of Ray, in order to get his hands on the money and save his struggling business.
The two brothers set off on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles together after Ray refuses to get on an airplane, but during the trip, Charlie gets to know and understand Ray better.
By this time, Charlie is $80,000 in debt, as the Lamborghinis have been seized to pay his creditors. Charlie learns that Ray is like a “human calculator” as a result of his condition.
An autistic savant is someone who has extraordinary skills which aren’t exhibited by most people. According to scientific research, around 10% of people on the autism spectrum have savant abilities. The presence of savant abilities in non-autistic people is lower than 1%.
Ray is able to instantly count hundreds of objects at once, way beyond the regular range of human capabilities. Charlie hatches a plan to take Ray to Las Vegan to win money in the casinos by having him count cards. The brothers play blackjack and thanks to Ray’s card counting, they win enough to save Charlie’s business.
The casino bosses are suspicious of how they are winning so much but don’t think that anyone can count six decks at once. However, they ask Charlie and Ray to leave regardless. The brothers have made a fortune by this time, so Charlie doesn’t care.
The film ends when Dr Bruner catches up with Charlie and offers to pay him $250,000 to walk away and never see Ray again. Charlie refuses the money and says he wants a relationship with Ray.
Charlie agrees to let Ray go back to the institution with Dr Bruner, as he is happy and safe there, but Charlie says he will visit him in two weeks’ time – he isn’t going to lose his brother again.
Rain Man origins
The concept of Rain Man was interesting in that co-writer Barry Morrow had based Ray’s character on real-life savant Kim Peek, whom he had met.
Morrow also drew from his experiences in befriending Bill Sackter, who had lived in an institution for 44 years. Growing up in Minnesota, Sackter was deemed “subnormal” in 1920, following a mandatory test at school when he was seven.
He lived in an institution until he was 51, when attitudes began to change. He was permitted to leave and went to live on the campus of the University of Iowa, where he became proprietor of Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop, a job at which he excelled.
Morrow made a documentary about Sackter and the two of them became friends. Morrow helped him adapt to life outside the institution and became not only his friend but his guardian too. Morrow’s film, Bill, told Sackter’s remarkable story.
Morrow wrote Rain Man from his own personal experiences of befriending people who had autism, bringing as much realism as he could to the script, including Ray’s habitual behaviour, such as having to be in bed at 11pm every night, which drove Charlie mad.
The film was nominated for eight Oscars at the 61st Academy Awards, winning four, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Hoffman. It won the Golden Bear at the 39th Berlin International Film Festival and was the highest grossing film of 1988, making $354.8 million at the box office worldwide.
Rain Man’s portrayal of Ray’s condition has been praised for dispelling many misconceptions about autism. It also improved public awareness of how the system often failed to accommodate autistic people and didn’t make use of their skills, regardless of whether they had savant abilities.
Dr Darold Treffert has described Rain Man as the “best thing that ever happened to autism”, achieving a “sensational awareness” of the condition, which wasn’t as widely known or understood in the 1980s. He claimed not even a massive public education or public relations campaign could have achieved the same high-profile effect as an Oscar-winning film.
Treffert, an expert on savant syndrome and autism, worked as a script consultant on Rain Man, which Morrow described as a tale of the journey and redemption of two estranged brothers, rather than a story about autism.
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