Film has the power to inspire the human spirit and imagination just as it has the ability to instill incentive for optimistic action. Viewers watching can have their hearts called to a higher level of consciousness by tapping into change not just as a living concept but as a living miracle. The film known as Awakenings accomplished such a task. The feat was enormous because it transformed a true-life memoir into an artistic masterpiece with quality acting, script writing and production value.
Awakenings was released to theaters in December of 1990. The title was the same name adopted from a novel written in 1973. The book was written by a neurologist from Great Britain named Oliver Sacks. Sacks is portrayed in the film as Dr. Malcolm Sayer played by actor Robin Williams. The time period of the story is 1969 and the backdrop is an epidemic that took place from the years 1917-1928. The epidemic is known as encephalitis lethargica and is a condition that renders people comatose. The setting of the novel and the film is the Beth Abraham Health Services Hospital located in the Bronx, New York. Sacks was a consultant who worked at the hospital with several survivors of this condition. Each person had been in the coma state for decades until a use of an experimental drug known as L-Dopa was used. In the film, it is Dr. Sayer who decides this drug poses a chance for benefit with the motionless but living patients. The result is arrival of many in a time frame that bears little resemblance to the world they were living in. The challenge for the medical staff and the people afflicted is to maintain faith and focus as despair returns despite the clear success of L-Dopa implementation.
Penny Marshall was the lead director of Awakenings. She made her debut behind the camera with the Whoopi Goldberg comedy known as Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986). The humorous and dramatic Tom Hanks-driven epic titled Big was released two years later. Marshall would reach continued acclaim two years after Awakenings with the baseball opus called A League of Their Own. Most remember Marshall back in the 1970’s when she played Laverne DeFazio in the television series, Laverne & Shirley. Steven Zaillian was enlisted as the screenwriter and would go on to make notice with the same role in Schindler’s List (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002).
Robin Williams took on the lead role of the sensitive Dr. Sayer and would receive a Best Actor in a Drama nomination from the Golden Globes. Williams holds a diverse film biography due to eclectic roles in comedy and drama. Many remember him performing stand-up early in his career and being the lead character in the TV show, Mork & Mindy. Robert DeNiro was the other lead and counterpart to Williams as the brave, passionate and tragic patient, Leonard Lowe. DeNiro has held a commanding stage presence on screen since the 1970’s and a large part of that is due to his friendship and collaboration with film director, Martin Scorsese.
Several supporting roles brought Awakenings into emotionally uplifting territory. Julie Kavner, famously known as the voice behind Marge Simpson for the animated series called The Simpsons, portrays the gentle and caring Nurse Eleanor Costello. John Heard, who played the father in the Home Alone series, was cast as a doctor working side-by-side with Dr. Sayer. Penelope Ann Miller, appearing in many films over the years as minor characters, took on the brief love interest of Leonard.
Awakenings opens up in the year 1969. The novel has the setting be the Beth Abraham hospital in the Bronx, New York, but the movie does not give a direct reference to that. This is where the author Sacks had experienced these powerful and significant chain of events in the field of medical science. This is where the Dr. Sayer character will unfold his journey for screen audiences.
Sayer (played with exquisite care in drama and warmth by Robin Williams) is working in a ward with catatonic patients. All of them are survivors of a disease known as encephalitis lethargica, which was a rampant epidemic during the decade of 1917-1928. The majority of hospital staff has written off any substantive chance for a medical recovery. To them, it would take a miracle of divine purposes to transport these lost souls into living and speaking modes again. Sayer, however, spends a great deal of time with the patients and reaches out to test their abilities to communicate. He is able to make slight progress by stirring direct stimuli and reaction time with them. The act of throwing a ball, playing meaningful music of their time period and the presence of physical contact by hand suggests that those who are silent are not necessarily immune from understanding.
Leonard (portrayed with a mature heart and youthful spirit by Robert DeNiro) appears to be the least responsive patient on the ward. Sayer makes considerable efforts but nothing seems to create a visible shift. One day that all changes with the use of a Ouija board. Leonard is able to make subtle movements with it and the doctor wonders just how strong his level of perception and cognition could transform.
Awakenings begins to reach its high point as Dr. Sayer steps out of the hospital serving role and enters the role of professional colleague. He goes to a conference on medicine and attends a discussion centering on a mysterious new drug called L-Dopa. At the time, this drug was used in clinical trial stages and offered the promise of multiple uses. In the talk, doctors refer to the medicine as being a big help for Parkinson’s patients by aiding the difficult side effects of the disease. Sayer becomes convinced from the positive conversation that L-Dopa could create a benefit for his catatonic patients. He decides to set out and obtain permission from his superiors to try it out. Staff are at first resistant but comply when they realize the badly wounded patients have nothing to lose but more to gain from the experiment.
Leonard is the first to receive the medication and the effects cause him to awaken from his coma. Sayer and the staff are stunned and overjoyed at once. In a touching scene demonstrated by the authentic emotions of DeNiro, the patient reunites with his devoted mother and sets off on a personal journey to understand the world around him. Technology and age has advanced since the moment Leonard fell in the coma in the first place. He finds himself fascinated and confused at once.
Meanwhile, Sayer is adrift in pride and excitement with the success of his efforts. All instincts proved accurate and that allows the doctor to convince outside donors to fund further use of L-Dopa. Sayer believes the results that took place with Leonard can also be accomplished with the other comatose patients in the ward. It doesn’t take long to earn the funding and professional backing. Soon each person steps out of their coma and becomes as coherent and functional as Leonard.
Awakenings encounters its first conflict with the arrival of Paula (played by actress Penelope Ann Miller, with sensitivity and openness). She is the child of another hospital patient and develops romantic feelings for Leonard when she meets him. Leonard is equally drawn to her and they start spending personal time together when she drops by to visit her father. The former coma patient finds himself filled with desire and intensity to make up for lost time and became a part of this world. At the same time, he struggles with frustration as the hospital rules and hospital staff prevent him from having absolute freedom to start his life over with a new direction. His efforts to plead his case to Dr. Sayer and the subsequent medical superiors create tension within the hospital itself.
The film transforms away from a scenario of human miracles and descends into human tragedy. L-Dopa proves to be a temporary and fleeting remedy for a group of patients who had lost over thirty years of their lives in unconsciousness. In a heart-wrenching scene displayed with emotional intensity by DeNiro, Leonard is denied the chance to freely leave the hospital out of fear for his safety. Williams as the tender friend and devoted professional says more in silence as Sayer watches the patient decline in his mental state. From there, Awakenings inches closing to its stunning conclusion.
Leonard is the first of all the patients to experience a noticeable relapse in physical effects. He develops face and body twitches and grows further agitated with stress. Sayer can see the signs already that the L-Dopa experiment is failing. The other patients grow sad and unnerved as they witness what will become their fate in behavior. The hospital would like to shift the negative circumstances, but are unable to do so after careful and long planning. Leonard gets worse and moves to the point where basic physical functions and conversation are non-existent without considerable assistance.
Leonard can sense that his time of consciousness is rapidly changing and fading away. Disheartened about returning to his prior state, the patient enlists the participation of Sayer to film him in a brief segment that may prove of benefit to research as well as people individually. Leonard next tries to resist the fate that is coming to him and turns belligerent with everyone around him. In one of the most haunting segments of the film, Leonard accuses Sayer of being a weak man avoiding life and the doctor responds by telling him he could cut off his medication any time he wanted to.
Awakenings reaches the end of its story when Leonard has a final visit with Paula. He explains that soon he will not be the same person and they cannot see each other as a result. The girl is loving and understanding in response and pulls him into an embrace. Leonard makes sure to find private time with Sayer and they manage to resolve their hostile dispute. Leonard soon lapses back in a coma and the medical staff scrambles to save the rest of patients. Neither an increase nor decrease in L-Dopa prevents the group from retreating into catatonic states. The hospital wing is quiet once again and the observers around are devastated. All of the positive experiences gained by the unexpected experiment appear futile and fruitless in the eyes of many.
The finale of the film ties the subject matter back to its optimistic and heartfelt roots surrounding human nature. Sayer addresses a silent but watchful crowd of medical professionals and potential future donors in a crowded auditorium. He declares that while the L-Dopa trial run for the encephalitis patients proved to be a failure, but reminds everyone that the visible success for all involved was being able to see and come in contact with the quality of life. The results afterward can be demonstrated with vivid and noticeable poignancy. Paula continues to make hospital visits and spends time with Leonard as he sits motionless in bed. The nurses have more compassion and make more efforts with the patients in the wing. Sayer has been plagued by shyness but manages to fight through those traits and proceeds to ask Nurse Costello out on a date for coffee.
Awakenings reached the theaters in 1991 and was the second-highest grossing debut of that year alongside Home Alone. Critics were overwhelming positive and praised the performances as well as the storyline. The movie ended up being nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for DeNiro. Williams was nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes.
Awakenings will be remembered as an eloquent and challenging piece of filmmaking. What makes it remain in the consciousness of many is the fact that it was based around a novel and true story. Robert DeNiro got in shape for the role by researching and spending time with hospital patients in a similar being. Robin Williams proved his durability as an actor by sidestepping his high-energetic, comedic performances for a soft and introspective one. The film had another level of emotional depth by the no-nonsense approach of Julie Kavner and the sensitive humanity of Penelope Ann Miller. Penny Marshall crafted an ominous yet bright caliber of filmmaking with her camera lens. Oliver Sacks penned a true story of his work as a doctor that holds many other pieces of characters finding a temporary bout of recovery from a seemingly hopeless condition.
Director: Penny Marshall
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, John Heard
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Running Time: 121 minutes
Brian’s Rating: 5-out-of-5 stars