Tom Cruise is one of the most iconic actors working in Hollywood. Although his stature and his life choices have been mocked, this hasn’t stopped him from dominating the box office time after time, often as the sole leading man.
Rising to prominence throughout the 80s and 90s, studio executives repeatedly eschewed pairing him with a woman, in favour of a sports car: the ultimate status symbol of the 20th Century.
Cruise’s second feature-film, the panned Losin’ It, had him driving an open-top ’59 Buick Electra 225 – a teenage fantasy that spirals wildly out of control. His commercial breakthrough in Risky Business (1983) had him racing his Father’s Porsche 928 Coupe away from an angered pimp. His iconic role as Maverick, in Tony Scott’s homo-erotic masterpiece Top Gun, has him riding a motorbike, when he’s not flying through the skies in a fighter jet. However his love interest, an Airforce Instructor, drives an extremely vintage Porsche 356. The car featured in the film isn’t even the real thing. Its a replica made by Intermeccanica, hobbled together with some Porsche parts; the car, like the rest of the movie, favours aesthetics over authenticity.
In his critical breakthrough, 1988’s Rain Man, Cruise is on classic charismatic form as a selfish yuppie who sells high powered sports cars – here his occupation is emblematic of his character. The fast and flashy cars that he is selling are on a par with his own attitude. Throughout the film, Charles Babbitt is rushing to achieve his goals. In the opening scenes he argues with a buyer over the phone, pressuring the person on the other line to make a decision quickly, one that will more than likely favour him. This is a clever piece of exposition from the writers. We understand now that Charlie is an impatient man, used to getting his own way and quickly.
So when he is eventually paired up with Hoffman’s Ray (the eponymous ‘Rain Man’), an autistic savant that has considerable behavioural issues, we are prepared for the fact that this team up may lead to some conflict. Of course, by this point a second sports car has entered the frame – one that has a significant amount of importance for both lead characters.
The 1949 Buick Roadmaster that Charlie inherits serves as the emotional link between the two brothers. It is, after all, the point of their first contact. Ray instantly recognises the car as it enters the drive and tells a perplexed Charlie that much, insisting that he has driven the car before with a vocal tick that repeats throughout the film: ‘Dad lets me drive slow on the driveway every Saturday.’
Unlike the cars featured in Cruise’s earlier movies, the Buick is absolutely central to the plot of Rain Man. It initially appears to be Charlie’s consolation prize, offered as a parting short from an estranged Father who seemed to know him better than he knew himself.