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 Autistic means self-involved, and Raymond is withdrawn in his world of obsessive rituals.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.