Of all the variations of human behavior actors portray on screen, autism may be one that the movies find easiest to signal. Fill a refrigerator with identical boxes of microwaveable macaroni and cheese, have your leading man rock back and forth, repeat phrases, and occasionally bang his head against something, and audiences will get the message. Do that with any sense of nuance, and you just might get nominated for an Academy Award, like Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, and Dustin Hoffman did for their portrayals of characters with autistic traits in weepies like Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, and Rain Man, the most famous pop culture document on autism.
Portrayals of autistic characters have been popular since Elvis teamed up with a posse of inner-city nuns (including Mary Tyler Moore) to help cure a poverty-stricken girl’s autism in 1969’s Change of Habit, and not simply since such roles are an awards lock. Stereotypical characters with autism are a convenient and powerful device for convincing neurotypical people to mend their ways, or for demonstrating the saintliness of the people who put up with them. These cinematic conceits make HBO’s Temple Grandin, a biopic of the acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate (to premier on HBO on February 6 at 8 p.m.), particularly remarkable. From the life of one of the best-known individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, director Mick Jackson has managed to make an utterly original movie about autism, simply by allowing Grandin, portrayed in a stunning performance by Claire Danes, to be the center of her own story.
The standard for Danes’ performance, of course, is Rain Man. It’s clear from the first scene of that movie that Charlie Babbitt—the main character, played by Tom Cruise—is a fairly terrible person. It takes only a little bit longer to explain that his autistic-savant brother, Raymond, will be the agent of Charlie’s moral improvement. Raymond’s life changes marginally after his brother takes him on an impromptu roadtrip; he learns to trust Charlie and to disavow K-Mart. But the movie still ends with Raymond on a train headed back home to an institution in Cincinnati and to the routines that define his existence. The real transformation is in Charlie, who learns to love and defend his brother’s capacity to love him back—and to treat his girlfriend better in the process. Raymond may be an extraordinary creation by Dustin Hoffman, but he’s still a device produced when Charlie needs to change, and stowed back away once he’s no longer a necessary catalyst.
Adam, a 2009 romance about the relationship between a Beth, a privileged young woman, and Adam, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, is even blunter in its uses of autism as a moral barometer for neurotypical people. Among the early signs Beth has that Adam’s brain works differently from her own is his reluctance to give her his laundry card when she forgets hers, and that he doesn’t offer to help carry her groceries up the stairs. At the end of the film, the audience is supposed to see that Adam’s made progress because he offers to help a new coworker with a pile of boxes. It’s a weirdly servile view of Adam’s growth, measuring his progress solely in his utility to other people. Beth is supposed to be rewarded for her goodness in even deigning to date her strange neighbor. She dumps Adam for not loving her in the way she wants, then uses a story he told her as the basis for her first book. It’s as if by briefly resisting her monstrous father, who wanted her to leave Adam from the start, Beth has done something heroic.
In refreshing contrast, the point of Temple Grandin is not to prove the goodness of Grandin’s mother, aunt, and high school science teacher, though their goodness is manifest, and its impact in her life is clear. The support they give Grandin at various points, whether getting her admitted to a school for the gifted, or encouraging her love of animals, is not saintliness, but stubbornness and independence.