Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kael on Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man


[Consider this a palate cleanser after yesterday’s daunting entry. Please read and react in the comments section. Let's get a discussion going!]

The following is excerpted from “Rain Man: Stunt,” by Pauline Kael, originally published in The New Yorker, February 6, 1989. It has been anthologized in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, pages 1190-1193. (In some cases, paragraph breaks and ellipsis have been added. All other punctuation is faithful to For Keeps.)


Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes. It’s his dream role. As the autistic savant Raymond Babbitt, he’s impenetrable: he doesn’t make eye contact or touch anyone or carry on a conversation; he doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him. Autistic means self-involved, and Raymond is withdrawn in his world of obsessive rituals. So Hoffman doesn’t have to play off anybody; he gets to act all by himself. He can work on his trudging, mechanical walk and the tilt of his head and the irascible, nagging sameness of his inflections. Autistics aren’t known to be jerky like this (they’re more likely to move slowly and fluidly), but Hoffman’s performance has an intricate consistency. Even his tight voice fits his conception. …

Hoffman gets to play it all: a disconnected pesky child with inexplicable powers. For close to an hour, it’s an entertainingly comic turn. Intuitively, Hoffman seems to understand that we’d enjoy identifying with Raymond’s obstinacy – it’s his way to win out over his crummy brother – and when the audience laughs at Raymond the laughs are always friendly. He’s accepted as a harmless, endearing alien – E.T. in autistic drag. But then the performance has nowhere to go. It becomes a repetitive, boring feat, though the boringness can be construed as fidelity to the role (and masochists read it as great acting).

Slightly stupefied as I left the theatre, I wondered for a second or two why the movie people didn’t just have an autistic person play the part. (In the seventies, when Robert Wilson stages his A Letter for Queen Victoria, he used an actual autistic teen-ager in the show, with babbling trance-inducing music that seemed to evoke the fixations of an autistic child.) But with an actual autistic there would be no movie: this whole picture is Hoffman’s stunt. It’s an acting exercise – working out minuscule variations on his one note. It’s no more than en exercise, being Hoffman doesn’t challenge us: we’re given no reason to change our attitude toward Raymond; we have the same view of him from the beginning of the movie to the end. …

Rain Man is getting credit for treating autism “authentically,” because Raymond isn’t cured; in a simple transposition, it’s Charlie who’s cured. Actually, autism here is a dramatic gimmick that gives an offbeat tone to a conventional buddy movie. (Rain Man has parallels to several scenes in Midnight Run and Twins, but the standard buddy-movie tricks are so subdued that they might squeak by as “life.”)

The press has been full of accounts of the research into autism done by Hoffman and [Barry] Levinson and the principle scriptwriter, Ronald Bass, but what’s the use of all this research if then they rig the story and throw in a big sequence with Raymond using his whiz-bang memory to make a killing in as Vegas that takes care of Charlie’s money troubles? And what’s the point of setting up Raymond’s avoidance of being touched if Charlie is going to hold him while showing him how to dance and Charlie’s warm-hearted Italian girlfriend (Valeria Golino) is going to teach him how to kiss? (Is that something that Raymond is likely to be called on to do?) Everything in this movie is fudged ever so humanistically, in a perfunctory, low-pressure way. And the picture has its effectiveness: people are crying at it. Of course they’re crying at it – it’s a piece of wet kitsch.

14 comments:

FilmDr said...

This is one of those cases where I disagree with Kael but I still enjoy her slam against Hoffman. Returning to this essay just made me laugh, because she's having fun with her rhetorical powers as much as criticizing the movie. She leaves out that Tom Cruise has one of his best roles in this film (I think so, in part because I like to imagine Tom as actually being a smarmy as the character he portrays, but also he has to respond to Raymond throughout). Also Hoffman's character does change a bit towards the end when he confesses that he likes his brother, kind of, while looking away. Hoffman succeeds out of indirection. I like the random photographs that he takes (don't they show up at the end credits?), and all of the odd mannerisms and unexpected ways in which Raymond ignores or pays attention to what he likes. He doesn't play to the audience in any normal way, and that may be what Kael finds so exasperating. Raymond to some degree doesn't care, and that's what I liked about him. I've never understood Kael's dislike of The Graduate either, but one can enjoy her put-downs regardless.

Craig said...

Yeah, it's a fun read, although, again, almost willfully obtuse and hung up on ancillary details. (Did Kael really wonder why a real autistic person wasn't cast in the part? I don't recall her asking why a real shark-hunter wasn't cast instead of Robert Shaw in "Jaws.")

This excerpt does remind me, however, of an interesting criticism of Kael that I remember reading (though I forget who said it), and it sort of ties into what I was trying to get at in the debate on violence. The criticism went something to the effect that Kael was great at breaking down the making of a film into individual components, but she didn't seem to grasp -- or was able to convey -- how those separate elements relate to each other. "The writer writes, the actor acts, the editor edits, the director directs," and so forth, is how she seemed to perceive things. We see this on a basic level here, as FilmDr mentioned, with the complete disregard for how Hoffman is playing off Cruise (and vice-versa); and on a larger level with how the performance fits into the near-impressionistic way Levinson directed the movie.

I'm not suggesting "Rain Man" is an above-reproach masterpiece, nor do I think Kael "had it in" for Dustin Hoffman (she flat-out loved "Tootsie"), just that both the film and the performance are more interesting than she's giving them credit for. I think she found a worthier target around this same time-frame (shortly before her retirement) with "Dances with Wolves," when she called Kevin Costner "Plays-With-Camera" and said "he has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head."

Edward Copeland said...

I wholeheartedly agree with her on this one. If only she'd lived to see the monstrosity that was I Am Sam where Sean Penn did some of the worst stunt acting ever made even worse because they surrounded him both with actors pretending to have disabilities and people who actually did have disabilities, people whose presence just made it abundantly clear how fake Penn and the other actors were.

Gary Susman said...

If only Kael had lived long enough to hear Robert Downey Jr's explanation in "Tropic Thunder" of how an actor in a role like Raymond wins an Oscar only if he stops short of going "full retard."

Jason Bellamy said...

FilmDr: I skipped that part, but Kael rips Cruise in the film, too. I haven't seen this movie in more than a decade, but I recall it being a strong Cruise performance, certainly compared to what we'd seen from him to that point.

Craig: You spoiled the Costner rip I was going to post here at some point. (I'll do it anyway.)

Edward and Gary: I'm mixed on the putdowns of Hoffman or Penn, and the concept of "full retard." While I do think that the Academy overly praises physically transformative performances -- be they "full retard" performances or ones where actresses dare to look unattractive -- I also think it's unfair to criticizing actors for being dramatic. That's what they do.

That said, I love this Kael piece. This might be one of the best leads in the history of movie reviewing: "Rain Man is Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes. It’s his dream role."

Craig said...

Sorry for the spoilage! Don't worry, it's still funny.

Edward Copeland said...

I've come to the conclusion that the only people who can successfully play mentally challenged are those who are unknown. That's why DiCaprio was so good in Gilbert Grape. No one knew who he was. My dad actually asked after seeing it if he were really retarded. When you see a film as atrocious as I Am Sam (I need a separate Internet to spell out everything wrong with that one) you never forget it's Sean Penn.

James Hansen said...

hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

James Hansen said...

ha.

James Hansen said...

And by that I mean, I agree and wish more people had the balls to attack silly movies like this. Especially when they win Oscars.

Fox said...

Good choice here Jason...

I can't get over that opening sentence from Kael's review. Just love it!!!

But I'll take a weird turn here and kind of defend Sean Penn in I Am Sam.

Generally, I think Penn is overrated as an actor, and I think he came off as more bafoonish in his portrayal of Harvey Milk than he does in the role of Sam Dawson. I can't defend I Am Sam the movie, but I think Penn brought a deeper understanding to the character Sam than even DiCaprio does in Gilbert Grape. DiCaprio had the mannerisms down, but not the inside. It was just a physical performance with not much behind the eyes. I won't insult the disabled by saying that Penn knows what it's like to be mentally retarded, but I think he tried, and I appreciated that.

Jason Bellamy said...

Did Fox just defend Sean Penn?!?

Edward Copeland said...

I've always wanted to write a thorough dissection of I Am Sam, but if that means I'd have to sit through that piece of shit a second time, the price is too high.

Joel said...

Ah! Just when I thought I couldn't love Pauline more, she goes and makes a reference to Robert Wilson's obscure musical "Letter for Queen Victoria." She's still the queen.