When this was made autism was not well-understood by the public or even, to some extent, by the medical community. (One thing we do know is that it is not caused by childhood vaccinations.) Since then we have described what is known as the “autism spectrum.” On one end are people so handicapped that they can’t tie their shoes, and have to wear diapers. On the other is Asperger Syndrome, where one is of normal intelligence but has trouble with social interactions.
Raymond Babbitt is somewhere in the middle. He is verbal, obsessive, cannot endure much physical contact, and has no idea how to interact with his fellow humans. His emotional life we can only guess at, since he can’t express it in any way. Though he is of normal intelligence, he is unable to care for himself. But he has something else. He is what we used to call an “idiot savant.” He has amazing abilities in math and memory.
When Raymond’s father dies his younger brother Charlie shows up. Charlie has had no idea he even had a brother, and is appalled to learn that Ray has inherited the $3,000,000 he feels should have come to him. So Charlie, being a major asshole, kidnaps his autistic brother and sets out to find a way to get the money, one way or another. The road trip across America turns into a voyage of discovery for Charlie.
I hadn’t realized the first time through this that it really is the story of Charlie, how he matures, learns empathy and love. Raymond, sadly, is incapable of change.
This movie won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Dustin Hoffman won for Best Actor. And he deserved it … but Tom Cruise was just as good, in my opinion. But the Academy will always go for the role that requires an actor to act disabled in some way. Not to take away from Hoffman’s performance, but still, that’s the way it is.