Important films from 1988

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a scene from 'Rain Man'
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a scene from ‘Rain Man’

This year one of our goals at Tail Slate is to look at the films of the past in addition to reviewing the films of the present, and informing you about the films of the future. Towards that we will be publishing articles that look back at significant films celebrating a major anniversary during 2013. As such, we will focus on films from 1963, 1973, 1983, 1988 and 1993.

To kick off the series, we look at three movies from 1988:

Rain Man introduced many to the world of the autistic savant in the form of “Raymond Babbitt”, played by Dustin Hoffman in a performance that was rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Tom Cruise played his brother “Charlie Babbitt” and Valeria Golino was “Susanna”, Charlie’s girlfriend.

Screenwriters Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass based the character of Raymond on a real-life autistic savant Morrow had once met.  Rain Man begins with Charlie trying to import some expensive sports cars into the U.S. but the government is putting roadblocks in his path.  Then he learns his estranged father has died and worse yet, left his multi-million dollar fortune to a brother he never knew existed.  A brother who has amazing memory and math skills but has serious problems in dealing with changes in routine or being away from the institution where he resides.

Charlie decides that he will fight for custody of Raymond in an effort to get the executor of his father’s estate to give him part of it to “go away”.  Susanna is disgusted by Charlie’s avarice and disappears.  Charlie takes Raymond and they embark on a road trip.  Rain Man may well be director Barry Levinson’s best film ever and he won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the film.  Overall the film won five Academy Awards.  It has held up well in the nearly 25 years since its release.

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Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman in a scene from ‘Mississippi Burning’

The next 1988 film of note is Mississippi Burning, based (loosely) on the true story of the investigation by the FBI into the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.  Starring Gene Hackman, Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and R. Lee Ermey, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the Oscar for Best Cinematography.

“Rupert Anderson” (Hackman) and “Alan Ward” (Dafoe) are FBI agents sent to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers in a rural area of Mississippi.  The sheriff of the county has close ties to the KKK and is of little help in the investigation.  Agent Anderson is a former Mississippi sheriff himself so he understands that this is going to be a tricky matter to handle.

After the bodies of the three are discovered, and the source of the ‘leak’ to the FBI agents turns out to be the wife of a deputy sheriff (McDormand), things intensify.  The deputy beats his wife badly enough to require her to be hospitalized and that leads to the kidnapping of the Mayor (Ermey).  He is intimidated by a black man in a hood and ends up giving up the details of the murders.

Most critics give the film positive reviews and it was a commercial success.  But some have criticized it for taking dramatic license with a very important event in U.S. history.  As evidenced by its Oscar for cinematography, it is a gorgeous film visually and contains outstanding acting performances.

Jaime Escalante as portrayed by Edward James Olmos in 'Stand and Deliver'
Jaime Escalante as portrayed by Edward James Olmos in ‘Stand and Deliver’

The last film from 1988 in this look back is also based on a true story.

Stand and Deliver tells the story of Jaime Escalante, a teacher in Los Angeles.  Edward James Olmos played the real-life teacher and received an Academy Award nomination for his performance.  It is listed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry and hold 86th position on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 “uplifting” films in U.S. history.

Escalante is a new teacher at East L.A.’s Garfield High and he is there to teach math.  Most of the teachers there are focused on enforcing discipline and safety, rather than teaching their students.  Escalante is different and once he sees that the students have real potential, he wants to find a way to teach Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus to them.  He devises a program that requires them to go to summer school, even on Saturdays in order to prepare for the senior year Calculus course.

The students take the AP exam and pass, earning college credit.  But the Educational Testing Service invalidates their scores, because there are “errors in common” among their exams.  Stung by the accusations of cheating, Escalante finds a way to allow his students to take the test again, but weeks after they’ve stopped studying for it.  With only one day to prepare for what will undoubtedly be a tougher test, it doesn’t look good for the students.

In real life, only five of the 14 students that were present when Escalante began his program took the exam, and only two of those passed.  But that doesn’t detract from this inspirational story and Escalante is remembered fondly by his students and teachers everywhere as an amazing teacher.

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