While Robin Williams is best known for his comedy, his dramatic performances are often some of the best work he’s done as an actor and one such case is the 1990s film Awakenings.
Directed by Penny Marshall, the film follows the story of a New York doctor, Malcolm Sayer (Williams), and his attempts to help the catatonic patients who survived the 1917-28 encephalitis lethargica epidemic. The film is based on the book of the same name by Oliver Sacks, which the character is based.
As Malcolm tries to find out what stimuli any of the patients respond to, one particular patient in Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) shows he’s able to communicate limitedly through a Ouija board. After attending a lecture at a conference about the drug L-Dopa’s success on those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Malcolm gets approval to administer the drug to his patients at his Bronx hospital with astounding results. As the drugs take effect, Malcolm specifically develops a bonding relationship with Leonard as he showed the most progress.
The performances of Williams and De Niro feels natural and warming because of how you see the struggles, frustration and joy of the characters stemming from the miracle drug. As you see the patients experience their own awakenings, you get to see them enjoy every moment reunited with love ones and being active and eager to catch up.
As we see the patients acclimate to normalcy, one inherent struggle is this is only a clinical trial to see the drug’s effect and controlled conditions must be in place, and Malcolm stubbornly realizes this much to Leonard’s disdain. Leonard only wants to feel normal as frustration mounts while Malcolm does everything he can as his doctor his role to protect him from harm.
Hope is a funny thing since it can be granted one moment and taken away the next and the film while fictionalized, doesn’t hide its tragedies as much as its triumphs. It may be difficult to discuss the movie without addressing ultimately how grounded in reality it is. It’s really what we can hope for when it comes to films based on non-fictional material given the creative liberties Hollywood often makes.
To provide such an endearing story is a testament to Marshall and writer Steven Zaillian, who provided the screenplay. While Awakenings was Zaillian’s second film, he would go on to provide some of the most critically acclaimed films including Schindler’s List, All the King’s Men, Gangs of New York, and Moneyball.
The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor for De Niro and Best Screenplay Oscars.
The success of the writing is also a testament to the cast with Julie Kavner, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max Von Sydow. Vin Diesel made his screen debut in an uncredited role as an orderly. Kavner and Miller provided the predominantly supporting roles for Williams and De Niro, respectively. Kavner played Eleanor Costello, Malcolm’s primary nurse who helps keep him emotionally in check, so things do not get out of control throughout the trials. Miller plays Paula, a daughter of one of the patients who takes a romantic interest in Leonard and helps make him feel normal despite being a patient himself.
Awakenings is the type of film that would inspire medical professionals to get into the field. Its message is of humility, inspiration and it’s the kind of story that reminds me why I love the cinema.