THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘Rain Man’ (1988)

In 1989, the 61st Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1988, and December 31, 1988, the awards were held on March 29. For the first time in decades, the ceremony did not have a host. More on that shortly.

Sigourney Weaver became only the fifth performer to receive two acting nominations in the same year. Weaver was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in Gorillas in the Mist and Best Supporting Actress for Working Girl. Weaver was heavily favoured to win the latter but lost to Geena Davis for her performance The Accidental Tourist. When Weaver lost Best Actress to Jodi Foster for her performance in The Accused, she became the first dual-nominee in Oscars history to lose both categories. With his second victory for Best Actor for his performance in Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman became only the fifth actor to win this category twice.

In what has now become a trademark of the Oscars, this year marked the first time the phrase “And the Oscar goes too..” was used by all presenters before announcing each winner. This is a tradition still continued to this day, and has been adopted by almost all other major awards ceremonies. The ceremony also marked the final public appearance of legendary actress and comedian Lucille Ball. When Ball and Bob Hope appeared on-stage to introduce a musical number, they received a standing ovation from the audience. Sadly, Ball would pass away just one month after the ceremony.

This year’s ceremony remains one of the most infamous in Oscars history, for all the wrong reasons. In an attempt to make the ceremony more of an event, the Academy hired film producer Allan Carr (Grease, You Can’t Stop the Music) to produce the show. Carr made the daring decision to do away with the traditional host/s for the ceremony, choosing instead to use presenters for each category who had a personal or professional connection to each other, including Donald and Keifer Sutherland, Beau, Jeff, and Lloyd Bridges, and even two James Bonds – Roger Moore and Sean Connery.

Carr also hired comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch to work as a writer for the broadcast. Vilanch still holds this role to this day, providing snappy dialogue for both the host and the show’s presenters. But what Carr is mostly remembered for are his disastrous attempts to add showmanship to the ceremony. In an elaborate and flashy 11-minute long opening number, Carr staged a production inspired by the musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon, in which Snow White, played by Eileen Bowman, comes to Hollywood to make it as an actress, meeting stars like Doris Day, Cyd Charisse and Merv Griffin, along the way. It only got worse from there when Rob Lowe joined Snow White on-stage to perform Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” but with re-written lyrics referencing the movie industry. If you have the nerve, please enjoy this horrendous nightmare here.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Carr staged another garish musical number, halfway through the show. This time, it was an original song called “I Wanna Be an Oscar Winner” featuring 18 young actors, including Patrick Dempsey, Ricki Lake, and Corey Feldman, all dreaming of one day taking home an Academy Award. Side note – no one involved in this number ever went on to win one. It’s perhaps the most 80s thing you will see all year, so please also enjoy that here.

The response to the ceremony was woeful, with most television critics calling the telecast a complete disaster, devoid of the usual glitz and pizzazz associated with the Oscars. It even promoted an open letter from members of the industry, including Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, and Billy Wilder, deriding the ceremony as “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry”.

Making matters even worse, The Walt Disney Company filed suit against the Academy for the unauthorised use of the likeness of Snow White. The Academy issued an apology, as well as firing Carr from his role as producer of any future ceremonies, and Disney dropped the lawsuit. With his name in complete ruins, Carr would never produce a film or theatrical production ever again. To this day, this particular ceremony is remembered as one of the lowest points in Oscars history.

As for the awards themselves, leading the way with eight nominations was Barry Levinson’s road trip familial drama Rain Man, followed by Dangerous Liaisons and Mississippi Burning with seven nominations each. Despite failing to truly sweep the awards, the major winner was Rain Man, taking home four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for Levinson, Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman, and Best Original Screenplay. It may surprise you to learn the second most-awarded film of the evening was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which received three Academy Awards (including a shock win for Best Film Editing – a category often linked to Best Picture), plus a Special Achievement Award for director Richard Williams.

The nominees:
The Accidental Tourist
Dangerous Liaisons
Mississippi Burning
Rain Man
Working Girl

The winner:
Rain Man

When abrasive and selfish car dealer Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) learns that his estranged father has died, he returns home to Cincinnati, where he discovers that he has an autistic older brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) and that his father’s $3 million fortune is being left to the mental institution in which Raymond lives. Motivated by his father’s money, Charlie checks Raymond out of the facility in order to return with him to Los Angeles. The brothers’ cross-country trip ends up changing both their lives.

Why did it win?
Rounding out the decade, the Academy journeyed back to a film which met one of the oldest and simplest criteria to win Best Picture – an engaging and entertaining American film featuring two huge and beloved American stars. After years of biopics and adaptations, Rain Man managed to shine just that little bit brighter by being a wholly original piece of cinema. After five years of “based on a true story” cinema, perhaps there was exhaustion in the Academy. The time was right for something new, even if it may have been a film just as heavily Oscar-baited as a sweeping biopic.

In the late 1980s, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise were two of cinema’s biggest drawcards. Hoffman had starred in a string of commercial and critical darlings, which had earned him an incredible five Best Actor Oscar nominations and one win. Cruise was perhaps the biggest movie star in the world, after the huge success of Top Gun, The Color of Money, and Cocktail. Combining these two, and casting them as brothers, no less, proved to be a winning formula, both with audiences, critics, and the Academy.

On a relatively small budget of $25 million, Rain Man became a roaring success few could have predicted. After initially failing to reach the #1 spot at the U.S. weekend box-office, the film was helped by strong word-of-mouth and reached the top spot in its second weekend, where it remained for over a month. By the end of its initial run, the film had earned a staggering $172 million in the U.S. to end the year as the highest-grossing film of 1988. The film was also a resounding success internationally, earning an additional $182 million to bring its worldwide total to $354 million. For a simple and low-key drama, this result is genuinely astonishing.

The success of Rain Man at the box-office was even more impressive, given the film received a somewhat mixed response from critics. While the New York Times praised Rain Man as a “modest, decently thought-out, sometimes funny film,” and Variety called it “one of the year’s most intriguing film premises,” the Washington Post found the film “never really succeeds in making its points register with any authority,” while the New Yorker deemed the film “a piece of wet kitsch” where “Hoffman humps one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes.” Ouch.

After years of the precursor awards essentially ending the race for Best Picture before the Oscar ceremony had even commenced, we finally have a year where the results were much more mixed. The National Board of Review fell in love with Mississippi Burning, awarding it four awards including Best Picture. The New York Film Critics went with The Accidental Tourist as their Best Picture choice. And while Rain Man took home Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Actor for Hoffman, it failed to win Director or Screenplay. But when Levinson surprised the industry by winning the Directors Guild award, it cemented Rain Man as the Best Picture frontrunner, and the Academy followed suit.

Did it deserve to win?
Potentially unpopular opinion – the best thing about Rain Man is actually Tom Cruise. Yep. You heard me. The man who wasn’t even nominated winds up being more impressive than his co-star who won the Academy Award. Look, I’m not an idiot. I completely accept Hoffman’s performance is something amazing, and it’s ultimately the type of role destined to win over the Academy. It’s not at all surprising Hoffman was the chosen one elevated to awards success, while also being the element of the film that still remains most memorable. However, it’s a damn shame Cruise was so criminally overlooked because his performance is sublime. His character arc and journey are far more layered and complex than his co-star, and Cruise handled it with deft skill.

This wasn’t the first time one of Cruise’s co-stars received all the glory. The focus of The Color of Money became Paul Newman. In a few years time, the focus of Jerry Maguire would become Cuba Gooding Jr. And here, Hoffman steals the limelight. You have to feel for poor Tom Cruise. That’s three films where his co-stars have not only received nominations, they’ve won an Academy Award, and he walks away with nothing. Well, not nothing. He is exceedingly wealthy…even if half his money goes to Lord Xenu. Anyway…I’m getting off topic.

So, did Rain Man deserve to win Best Picture? While the film is genuinely enjoyable with two terrific lead performances from Hoffman and Cruise, it’s somewhat of a leap to call it the best film of the year. When you drill down to it, Rain Man is really just a simple road trip film, mixed with some familial drama, which attempts to hit the heavy notes but falls rather short. It’s obviously elevated by the impeccable performances of its cast, particularly the unique and remarkable chemistry Hoffman and Cruise have with each other. But, much like many Best Picture winners in the past, a terrific and award-winning performance helps to overlook a film’s many flaws.

Hoffman is so downright masterful as Raymond, delivering a performance that never falls into offence or caricature, it’s easy to forgive the film’s rather cliché screenplay and its competent but unimaginative direction. It’s hard to see what the Academy found so compelling about Levinson’s work that earned him a win for Best Director. We’re still in the time of Best Picture and Director matching up (although that’s about to be shattered next year), so one can only surmise that’s the explanation for his victory.

Were there “better” films in 1988 more deserving of the Academy’s top prize? Absolutely. While they weren’t even nominated, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Big could easily lay claim to being more deserving of Best Picture. The former mixed live-action and animation to create something genuinely groundbreaking and wonderfully entertaining. The latter may seem deceptively simple, but scratch its giddy surface and you’ll find a beautiful tale of innocence lost and maturity found. But, much like actual Best Picture nominees Working Girl or Dangerous Liaisons, these were genre films, and they don’t play well with Academy voters.

It’s not hard to see why Rain Man won Best Picture. Its box-office success was utterly remarkable. It ticked a lot of the boxes for Academy voters. It had the star power of two of the most famous actors of the time. It hit you right in the feels with its warm and tear-jerker of an ending. It featured a performance for the ages that’s still fondly remembered to this day. It was Oscar-bait, and they ate it up. Does that mean it was deserving of Best Picture? No, but, sometimes, you just have to accept these things.

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