To say that the Vegas scenes in this next movie had some influence on my life is like saying that Steve Wynn had some influence upon the Vegas skyline. Like Swingers, this isn't really a full-fledged Vegas flick, with the scenes taking up about twenty minutes of the film's time. However, in that twenty minutes, they manage to squeeze in the most recognizable symbols of Vegas that still remain today. There are lights, a pawning of a watch, blackjack, a swank suite, a hooker, and even some some elevator romance.
Set in 1988 Caesars Palace, Rain Man is quite possibly the definitive and final film representation of the city before it underwent the massive Wynnian reconfiguration. Barry Levinson's road-trip tale of brothers forming a connection seems at first an unlikely candidate to so effectively capture the zeitgeist of the city as it breathed its last few intermittent breaths before the desert got reconfigured into blazing corporate monolithic glory. And yet, given Levinson's great talent for character, I guess it's not shocking that he so effectively captured the character of the city at this strange time.
The Thetan and Dustin Hoffman dance before the skyline as Etta James sings "At Last," as the last of old-school Vegas glitters outside, amidst the sand. The only other large building is the legendary Sands, sitting kitty-corner from their vantage point. Next door, the Mirage hasn't yet been built, but it will open to the public just one year later. They're on the seventh floor of Caesars, and yet the rest of the lights seem dwarfed by today's standards. At that time, the strip beyond them was still one bright vein of neon nestled, so unlikely, in the dark of the desert.
The swank suite they're dancing in was once the quintessential high-roller style, but would now be not even be condiered retro-chic but just plain low-class, lacking in amenities and comforts. With its gilded doors and metallic wallpaper, it still had the '70s wiseguy-guache-chic vibe working for it. In Swingers, Vince Vaughn tells his buddy as they're driving to Vegas, "They're gonna put us in the Rain Man suite!" He didn't have any luck, and in all my years there, neither have I. It's officially called the Ann Margaret suite, located in the Roman Tower, which used to be illuminated by the soft green neon lines from top to bottom. But like most everything else in Vegas, I've been told that's it's been highly remodeled and modernized and bears almost no resemblance to how it looked then.
Gone also from Caesars is the blackjack pit where the Babbitts immortalized card-counting. It's now the site of the Pussycat Dolls casino. Gone too are most of the moving walkways and the enigmatic black golf-ball looking thing that was a signature part of the structure. The entrance where Raymond drove so excellently amongst the gaudy fountains has been scrapped and re-built. Entirely gone are the days where someone would feel it necessary to get a haircut and smart suit before sitting down at the tables.
But, blessedly, some of the corners and highlights remain. See below, Cleopatra and Caesar behind Thetan and Hoffman, watching the action? They're still there.
See all those chips piled up in front of them? If you know what you're doing, you can still make those appear, too. (Contrary to what the film says, it's not an illegal activity to count. Just, uh, discouraged.) The bar where Raymond meets the hooker is Cleopatra's Barge, and it remains almost exactly as it was in the film, which somehow increases the romantic melancholy. There are still a few, very few, nostalgic nooks and remnant corners of older Vegas still alive, but most are just strange anachronisms lost in so much chaotic preening and catering to the cult of "new, big, bright." Some chunks may just be slaves to design -- nearly impossible to remodel because of unworkable locations. But some parts left unchanged are a calculated gamble, based most certainly on revenues and not sentimentality.
Those throwback centerpieces, like that vaulted, gold-lighted casino behind Cleopatra's Barge, have been around for over forty years. They may be unlikely candidates, but they've stood the sands of time and make that connection, fusing the old-school swank with the new gaudy-luxury. And being able to see them on beautiful pieces of film, seeming timeless and now iconic is what makes leaving them untouched such a good bet.