A wonderful film that is sweet and melancholy without being sentimental, with two phenomenal performances by Robin Williams and Robert de Niro


Awakenings (1990)

Di­rect­ed by Loren­zo Vi­gas. Writ­ten by Pen­ny Mar­shall. Screen­play by Steven Za­il­lian, based on “Awak­en­ings” by Oliv­er Sacks. Star­ring Robert de Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavn­er, Ruth Nel­son, John Heard, Pene­lope Ann Miller, Al­ice Drum­mond and Max von Sydow.

British neu­rol­o­gist and au­thor Dr. Oliv­er Sacks (1933–2015) was a man deeply fas­ci­nat­ed by the com­plex­i­ties of the hu­man mind. “The brain is the most in­cred­i­ble thing in the uni­verse,” he once said. Maybe he was right; the brain is a box of choco­lates, so full of se­crets. Sci­en­tists have done a fan­tas­tic job to un­rav­el many of them, but there are just as many that we still can’t grasp. The fur­ther we probe into the mys­ter­ies of our mind, the more we re­al­ize what a beau­ti­ful com­put­er full of in­tri­ca­cies it is. Per­haps when Sacks wrote his non-fic­tion book Awak­en­ings in 1973, he was well aware of that and need­ed to de­tail his ex­pe­ri­ences with some of his neu­ro­log­i­cal pa­tients in an ef­fort to un­der­stand more about him­self too.

In the book, adapt­ed thir­teen years lat­er into this won­der­ful Os­car-nom­i­nat­ed film, he re­counts how in 1969 he went to work at the Beth Abra­ham Hos­pi­tal in the Bronx, New York, and tried to help cata­ton­ic vic­tims of the 1920s en­cephali­tis lethar­gi­ca epi­dem­ic. This atyp­i­cal form of en­cephali­tis (whose cause is still un­known) af­fect­ed near­ly five mil­lion peo­ple world­wide from 1917 to 1928, a third of whom died in the acute stages. It wasn’t af­ter decades of liv­ing nor­mal lives that they start­ed to de­vel­op Parkinson’s‑like symp­toms, such as rigid pos­tures and frozen gaze. They be­came like liv­ing stat­ues. As Sacks wrote: “They nei­ther con­veyed nor felt the feel­ing of life; they were as in­sub­stan­tial as ghosts, and as pas­sive as zom­bies.”

Sacks then de­cid­ed to ad­min­is­ter on one of the pa­tients an ex­per­i­men­tal drug called L‑DOPA, a syn­thet­ic dopamine used in the clin­i­cal treat­ment of Parkinson’s dis­ease. De­spite be­ing a drug made for oth­er ends, the re­sult was ab­solute­ly sur­pris­ing. The pa­tient broke out of his cata­ton­ic state and Sacks asked for fund­ing from donors to try the drug on all his oth­er pa­tients and “awak­en” them back to re­al­i­ty. His whole ex­pe­ri­ence with these pa­tients is de­scribed in his book and this film, adapt­ed by Steven Za­il­lian (who was nom­i­nat­ed for an Os­car and three years lat­er won the award for Schindler’s List) and di­rect­ed by Pen­ny Marshall.

Zaillian’s script is at the core of Awak­en­ings. From sev­er­al short chap­ters about dif­fer­ent pa­tients, he cre­ates a lin­ear nar­ra­tive that moves care­ful­ly and un­hur­ried­ly. When Dr. Mal­colm Say­er (Robin Williams), Sacks’ al­ter ego, is hired as a clin­i­cal physi­cian at the hos­pi­tal, he is ini­tial­ly very un­com­fort­able, giv­en his back­ground as a re­searcher and dif­fi­cul­ty work­ing with peo­ple. But things start to change when he no­tices that the pa­tients are able to re­spond to cer­tain stim­uli, such as a fa­mil­iar song or a ball thrown at them, or even com­mu­ni­cate us­ing a Oui­ja board. It is not just cu­rios­i­ty that dri­ves Say­er but his pro­found care for people.

This love and care for oth­ers is em­braced by Robin Williams in what is ar­guably the most hu­man per­for­mance of his en­tire ca­reer. His eyes are so full of kind­ness and sen­si­bil­i­ty that we fall in love with him. Phys­i­cal­ly, he even re­sem­bles Sacks to a shock­ing de­gree, cap­tur­ing his shy­ness and con­vey­ing with sheer per­fec­tion how hard it is for him to re­late to oth­er peo­ple in a more per­son­al lev­el. His del­i­cate com­po­si­tion is a won­der to be­hold, as he flesh­es out a man who prefers the or­der of things to the un­pre­dictabil­i­ty of peo­ple. It is one of those great in­jus­tices of the uni­verse that Williams didn’t re­ceive an Os­car nomination.

But if Williams shines in a re­strained per­for­mance, Robert de Niro im­press­es per­haps even more as Leonard Lowe, the first pa­tient who wakes up af­ter liv­ing for thir­ty years in a veg­e­ta­tive state. From that mo­ment on, we see Leonard grad­u­al­ly start to talk and be­have like a func­tion­al, healthy per­son, and the way that de Niro shows this evo­lu­tion is phe­nom­e­nal. A method ac­tor such as he is, he com­plete­ly em­braces the hur­ry­ing gait, the tics, tremors and oth­er symp­toms of the dis­ease, es­pe­cial­ly when Leonard tries to con­trol him­self be­fore go­ing on a date with an­oth­er patient’s daugh­ter. It is magnificent.

The moral cen­ter of Awak­en­ings is pre­cise­ly Leonard, who strug­gles to come to grips with the fact that he has been sleep­ing for most of his life. Need­less to say, it must be a real shock to look at your­self in the mir­ror and see a much old­er face that you can­not rec­og­nize. But as he points out, some peo­ple just spend their whole lives not liv­ing them. What ex­cuse do they have? For Leonard, the val­ue of life is in the sim­plest things: “All the things that you peo­ple take for grant­ed,” he says. When mon­ey seems to be some­times more im­por­tant than peo­ple, it is beau­ti­ful and up­lift­ing to dis­cov­er good­ness in those who care.

Find­ing space for hu­mor and light­ness (like the scene at a dance room) while re­main­ing al­ways del­i­cate, Pen­ny Mar­shall cre­ates a film that is sweet, melan­choly and ma­ture with­out be­ing sen­ti­men­tal. Most of all, I love how she cre­ates a the­mat­ic par­al­lel be­tween a real prison (the iron bars of the hos­pi­tal or those of a panther’s cage) and the phys­i­cal prison of a dis­ease that kept those un­for­tu­nate pa­tients locked in their own bod­ies for so many years. A trag­ic blow from fate that seems to be per­fect­ly de­scribed by the words of Rain­er Maria Rilke:

Only at times the pupil’s cur­tain slides
up sound­less­ly — . An im­age en­ters then,
goes through the ten­sioned still­ness of the limbs —
and in the heart ceas­es to be.”


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