Art Vs Commerce: This Time It’s Personal (1980s)


So art and commerce are at odds this decade, right? Surely they never agree anymore? Well, no, we are not done with Joint Champions yet, and you knew that because you know what’s coming at me in the 90s. But the Oscars have been veering pretty far from the audience favourites, and audiences haven’t been sold on the Best Pictures, so what could unite them in this, the decade they are farthest apart?

Tom Cruise.

Some of you don’t want to hear this but the answer really seems to be Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise was fresh off Top Gun, and beginning his reign as America’s most successful movie star, so he was gonna draw a crowd. And as we discussed earlier, he also liked working with icons to up his game. It was inevitable that one of those “Supporting role to a bigger legend” movies would attract some Oscar love, especially if said legend were doing a really Oscar bait-y role. And if said legend’s last big Oscar picture was our previous Joint Champion, well, baby you got a stew going.

To wit.

The Joint Champion

Perhaps best known for inspiring the character of Sewer Urchin from the animated The Tick*, Rain Man might be one of the earliest Hollywood projects to attempt to honestly discuss autism, something the late 80s were not, in general, prepared to cover. I can’t be sure it was the first, the internet is very vague on the subject. Unless you want to read lengthy papers about it. Which I do not. I’m so close to hitting “publish” and moving on to the 90s.

*Well it should be.

Struggling import car dealer Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) discovers, after his estranged father’s funeral and learning that most of the estate is going to someone other than him, that he has an older brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond is autistic, and has spent most of Charlie’s life in an institution, because The Past was not good at helping the neurodiverse.

At first hoping to claim half of Raymond’s inheritance, Charlie takes Raymond on a road trip to LA (as Raymond won’t board any airline that’s ever crashed, leaving only Qantas*), but ends up connecting with the older brother he thought he never knew.

*In a scene that only Qantas would show when playing the movie as in-flight entertainment. That feels like a hilarious dig by the airline but honestly Qantas was always a bit more relaxed about in-flight entertainment.

It’s a little uneven. The first half, where Charlie is impatient with and annoyed by Raymond’s fixations is hard to watch. The second half, where Charlie begins to understand Raymond, and comes to see him not as an inconvenient usurper to his inheritance but as a brother, is actually pretty touching. It helps that Hoffman, Cruise, and the under appreciated Valeria Golino (who I mostly knew from the Top Gun movies) are putting their backs into it. Hoffman is good at making Raymond a character, when it would be easy to just make him a series of tics; Cruise does well at playing Charlie’s arc, from opportunistic to actually caring; Golino is good as both Charlie’s girlfriend and the first person to seem to genuinely care about Raymond as a person.

That said… Rain Man’s portrayal of Raymond as a savant is… somewhat troubling. Raymond is autistic and a savant, and given that this was cinema’s first real look at what autism is, many assumed those two things go hand in hand. They do not, in fact only one in ten autistic people have any savant abilities at all, let alone the ability to memorize phone books overnight or instantly count fallen toothpicks or bring down a Vegas casino. I’ve definitely seen worse autism depictions, and in things I liked… case in point Boston Legal, that introduced Christian Clemenson as neurodiverse attorney Jerry Espenson, who once creator David E. Kelley became obsessed with the character was meant to be a sympathetic depiction of Asperger’s but… I’m no expert here, we’d have to tag in my brother… but to my thinking ended up playing as a cartoonish depiction of Tourette’s.

Still, Raymond becomes a double-edged sword for the neurodiverse community. Rain Man was one of if not the first movie to depict autism sympathetically, even saying “locking your autistic children in an institution forever isn’t the best idea.” On the other hand, it made many people assume that Raymond’s specific case is just what autism always looks like, when it’s actually a rarity.

So it’s a little uneven, its portrayal of its subject matter is well meaning but flawed (progress is never as fast as we’d like), but danged if Hoffman and Cruise aren’t doing their best to make it work.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at number 59, only one spot above The Last Emperor. Like I said, a lot of 80s movies live in this area.

What Links Them? Okay this is awkward, I did not think this far ahead, let’s just… it’s only the one movie this year, so…

What’s The Mashup? I said it’s only one movie, let’s just do other events? Please?

Other Events in Film

Thank you.

  • This year in “Films that came second I’d have rather watched,” the one-of-a-kind blend of live action and hand-drawn animation, co-produced by Disney and Amblin, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sure other movies had combined live action and animation, we even talked about one back in the 60s, but never was it as seamless as it was here, under Robert Zemeckis’ direction, where the Toons feel like part of the real world. And certainly nothing else ever blended so many IPs, as in the piano duel between Ducks Donald and Daffy, in a bar staffed by Betty Boop and the Mary Poppins penguins. The mystery is still good, Bob Hoskins is great, Christopher Lloyd is terrifying, the Toons work pretty damn well as a metaphor for minority mistreatment in the US, this movie absolutely holds up and if you haven’t watched it in a while you should correct that.
  • Tom Hanks enters the A-list with Big.
  • Bruce Willis accidentally creates a genre of action movies as an everyman cop trapped in a building with thieves in Die Hard. We’ll talk more about Die Hard in the 90s.
  • Former Monty Pythons John Cleese and Michael Palin teamed up with Jamie Lee Curtis an Kevin Kline for the crime comedy A Fish Called Wanda, winning Kline an Oscar and the Pythons a BAFTA each. I have that on DVD, why haven’t I rewatched it in forever?
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger gives comedy a try opposite Danny DeVito in Twins. He does okay.
  • Steve Guttenberg was really feeling himself after Cocoon, Short Circuit, and Three Men and a Baby (despite not being the major draw of any of those) so he made the Police Academy series find a new affable leading man in their fifth outing. Honestly neither were their best selves after that breakup.
  • Tim Burton’s iconic ghost story, Beetlejuice, sets up Burton and co-star/title character Michael Keaton for something bigger next year.
  • Steven Seagal makes his acting debut in oh I don’t care and neither should you.
  • The Dead Pool marks the end of the Dirty Harry franchise, until someone makes an ill-advised heavily conservative remake with some right-wing star angry about “cancel culture.”
  • John Carpenter’s They Live features the longest fight scene ever to be about something as simple as whether a man is going to put on a pair of sunglasses. Just put on the sunglasses, Keith David. Jesus.
  • Disney looks to Billy Joel to deliver them a new cartoon hit with Oliver and Company, which is an 80s-pop musical adaptation of Oliver Twist only all the characters are dogs, with Joel himself as Dodger. Released on the 60th anniversary of Steamboat Willie, it was the beginning of an attempt by Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to release one animated movie per year. Oliver and Company did well enough at the box office, even eking out a victory over Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time… but it was the next release that gave this release strategy its name.
  • Elsewhere in Dickens adaptations, Bill Murray does a meta-take on A Christmas Carol as a TV producer trying to do a live Christmas Carol broadcast only to have the ghost of his mentor warn that he, himself, was about to be visited by three Christmas spirits. I used to watch it every Christmas.
  • Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker re-team with Leslie Neilsen to turn a six-episode TV series into a comedy classic movie, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad.
  • Elsewhere in parody, Keenan Ivory Wayans, patriarch of the Wayans dynasty, makes a loving send-up of Blaxploitation movies with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
  • I was very aware of The Milagro Beanfield War when it came out but for the life of me couldn’t tell you why. If I saw it, I have no memory of it.

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