‘Why do they have to be brilliant?’ The problem of autism in the movies
Over 30 years since Dustin Hoffman twitched his way to an Oscar in Rain Man, our experts give their verdict on a season of portrayals of the neurodiverse, from Sia’s Music to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
A quick experiment. Close your eyes, and think of autism in the movies. I bet you’ve got an image in your head of Dustin Hoffman being driven by Tom Cruise in a Buick Roadmaster Convertible, repeatedly saying: “I’m an excellent driver.” Or Hoffman glancing at a box of scattered toothpicks and announcing there are 246 of them. Or Hoffman learning the phonebook to “g” off by heart in a couple of minutes. Or Hoffman doing miraculous mental arithmetic.
Rain Man was released in 1988. Watch it now, and it seems like a throwback to a simpler world where autistic people were geniuses, and no cliche about the idiot savant was left unturned. Hoffman tic-d, squinted and stuttered his way to an Oscar in a fabulously mannered performance.