By Marc S. Sanders

The title of Penny Marshall’s film Awakenings has at least two meanings.  The most obvious focuses on Robert DeNiro’s character, Leonard Lowe, who comes out of a near thirty-year catatonic state one day.  As well, Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, the doctor who uncovers the experimental drug that awakens Leonard, along with other patients who reside in the caretaker ward located in the Bronx.  Many of the patients share the same abnormality as Leonard, due to all suffering from a wave of encephalitis that swept through the area in the 1920s. 

DeNiro and Williams are a top of their game pair together.  Both of them go against type that many audiences were accustomed to by the time this film released in 1990; DeNiro – the tough, short tempered, unhinged guy; Williams – the manic, fast talking, quick on his feet comic.  Both actors bring it down many notches to bring this story to light that was inspired by the documented experiences of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Still, Penny Marshall has a way a bringing gentleness with touches of comedy to this film just like she did with Big and A League Of Their Own.  Okay, maybe those films were more energetic at first and then quieted down, thereafter.  Awakenings performs in the opposite direction, but Marshall’s recipe of drama mixed with humor is so appreciated.

Dr. Sayer is a shy individual with limited social skills.  He relates more to plant life than actual humans.  When he’s recruited by the hospital administration, led by the intentionally obnoxious and objectionable John Heard, to oversee the patients at the ward, he does so without any intent to make a difference.  The hospital staff is just fine with that.  Soon though, Dr. Sayer is recognizing a behavior in some of the patients.  They seem to be staring into space, open mouthed with no emotion or change in expression, but they respond to a variety of unusual stimuli.  A woman will walk across the social hall on the black squares of a checkered floor.  Leonard, and a few other patients, will catch and toss a tennis ball around.  Yet, they won’t blink or wince or smile.  Through further research, Dr. Sayer takes a pharmaceutical risk and increases the dosage of an untested prescription over time.  One night, his patient zero, Leonard, is sitting up in bed and awake.  Shortly thereafter, he’s speaking, walking, and functioning like a regular forty something man.  Thereafter, the drug is administered to the other patients who demonstrate the same outcome. 

The challenge comes first from the hospital, though.  They are not prepared to take Dr. Sayer’s methods or assessments seriously and they are stubborn to recognize some exceptional progress.  Like any standard drama, this leads to conflicted debate.  The debates Dr. Sayer has with the hospital board never took me out of the picture, but I do question if the antagonism needed to be so close minded.  After all, should such unexpected and miraculous development be so dismissed?  The challenge seems so forced at times that a scene is offered where the doctor’s support from nursing and janitorial staff gladly gives up their hard-earned paychecks to help alleviate the expense of the experimental drugs.  It puts a lump in your throat for sure, but would this really happen? 

A hint at a romantic angle presents itself when the lovely Penelope Ann Miller arrives at the ward to tend to her ill father.  Leonard becomes smitten with her.  He is not free to go about as he pleases.  Miller’s character can.  Eventually, Leonard becomes rebellious of his “incarceration” within the ward while the hospital exercises its mandated caution.  While this is occurring, Leonard’s condition is deteriorating. 

Robert DeNiro received an Oscar nomination for this role and its easy to see why.  His physical performance comes so naturally, at first in the catatonic state, later as a man witnessing daily life in the hippie of age of the 1960s and then again as his body dwindles into uncontrollable spasms, when the drugs’ positive effective doesn’t hold.  His enunciation falters, his body violently twitches and he can’t even grasp anything.  It’s a sorrowful and marvelous performance to see.

Awakenings is a picture that performs with real heart and tenderness.  Marshall’s film offers a glimpse into a short period of time when adults who hadn’t gotten the opportunity to live active lives were suddenly offered an opening.  Leonard gets to see a jet liner fly overhead and take a walk in the ocean.  He can taste ice cream for the first time in years and get a glimpse of young hippie’s derriere.  The other patients get a chance to go to dance at a swing club.  As well, Dr. Sayer’s guarded exterior gradually sheds as he persists to act beyond the administrators’ objections and also consider a little romance for himself with a nursing assistant.  (Point of fact: Oliver Sacks was actually gay in real life.  So, some liberties are taken with the film.)

It’s important to point out a forgotten performance from Ruth Nelson as Leonard’s elderly mother.  She visits Leonard every day by reading to him, dressing him, and changing his diapers like any loving mother would.  Yet, as Leonard gets more independent, Nelson is terrific as the kindly elderly woman who has to become a different kind of mother to her son.  She is an quickly awakened from being the mother of a helpless child to the elderly mother who is not as capable of controlling her son’s choices.  Mrs. Lowe is rightly uncomfortable with Leonard’s affection for Miller’s character.  She’s just not used to this dynamic that’s come about so quickly.  What an amazing character arc and Nelson pulls off the portrayal beautifully.

Tear jerking films work best when they operate like Awakenings.  You’re given many opportunities to laugh and enjoy the pleasures and quirkiness of the characters.  Later, it becomes a welcome and satisfactory cry fest when what was once celebrated is at a risk of loss.  Penny Marshall worked best with this formula on these kinds of pictures.  It’s why a simple, seemingly silly story like Big worked.  It’s also why a female baseball movie worked as well beyond the diamond.  There was more dimension than just the basic summary.  Marshall always delved deeper and she allowed her actors to go that far as well.

Awakenings is a terrific film, blessed with a gamut of emotions.

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