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British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a series of non-fiction books about his work with patients suffering from such diseases of the brain as encephalitis, Tourette's syndrome, and Parkinson's disease. But instead of writing in clinical medical terms, Sacks told the stories anecdotally, making them understandable and sympathetic to everyday readers. His most famous work was Awakenings, about his work in the 1960s with a group of patients in a Bronx psychiatric hospital who had been victims of encephalitis (sleeping sickness) in the 1920s, and had been catatonic ever since. Sacks learned that a new drug called L-Dopa had achieved some success with similar cases, and he tried it on his patients with startling results. The patients began to respond to stimuli, "awakening," after decades-long "sleep." But he found that the patients eventually reverted to their non-responsive states. The book, and Sacks' work, was the subject of a 1974 documentary, also called Awakenings, the first in the BBC Discovery series. It also inspired a play, A Kind of Alaska, by Harold Pinter. The film Awakenings (1990) is a fictionalized version of Sacks' book, starring Robin Williams as the Sacks character, a shy and reclusive doctor named Malcolm Sayer. Robert De Niro plays Leonard, one of Sayer's most extreme cases, and the first on whom the drug is tried.
Comic actress Penny Marshall, who had played Laverne DeFazio in the television series Laverne and Shirley, and had turned to directing films six years earlier, had recently directed the hit comedy Big (1988). She may have seemed an odd choice to direct Awakenings, but she provided the lightness that the film's downbeat story needed. Still, it took her two years to get Awakenings off the ground. 20th Century Fox was reluctant to commit to the project until Marshall convinced her friends Williams and De Niro to play the leading roles. In a 1992 New York Times Magazine interview, Marshall recalled that "the screenplay was collecting dust. It was too dark, too depressing. I didn't think it had to be oppressive. I just have to lighten the script, I can't help it." And as an actor herself, her strength was in drawing excellent performances from actors.
Both Williams and De Niro spent time with Oliver Sacks at the hospital, observing him and his work with patients. De Niro even filmed a scene with the only surviving patient from Sacks' L-Dopa experiment group. As Sacks later recalled, he had no idea how closely Williams was observing him. "When I'm nervous, I get this sort of odd posture, and I realized that Williams was in the same posture. Not because he was imitating me, but because by that point he had incorporated me, and that was a natural position for me. He had incorporated my posture, as he had incorporated my memories, my hopes, my experiences, my character. It was wonderful and rather frightening, suddenly having this younger twin. And at that point, both of us decided that we needed to make some space for him to create a character out of himself, which he did."
Sacks did have some reservations about Awakenings, but not about the performances. In a 1996 interview with Dwight Garner in Salon.com, Sacks said, "I was pleased with a great deal of it. I think in an uncanny way, De Niro did somehow feel his way into being Parkinsonian. So much so that sometimes when we were having dinner afterwards I would see his foot curl or he would be leaning to one side, as if he couldn't seem to get out of it. I think it was uncanny the way things were incorporated. At other levels I think things were sort of sentimentalized and simplified somewhat."
Some critics shared Sacks' concerns, and felt that Marshall's leavening the tragedy with comedy was misguided. Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times that Sacks' account "is quite free of false sentiment, preferring to let the extraordinary facts of Dr. Sacks' medical detective story speak for themselves....Ms. Marshall's film....both sentimentalizes its story and oversimplifies it beyond recognition. At no point does the film express more than one idea at a time. And the idea expressed, more often than not, is as banal as the reality was bizarre." However, most critics had high praise for the performances. And at awards time, Awakenings racked up several nominations. Awakenings was a Best Picture and adapted screenplay Academy Award nominee, and De Niro got a Best Actor nomination. De Niro and Williams shared best actor honors from the National Board of Review, and De Niro won the Best Actor award from the New York Film Critics. Williams was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance.
Director: Penny Marshall
Producer: Walter F. Parkes, Lawrence Lasker
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, based on the book by Oliver Sacks
Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Editor: Jerry Greenberg, Battle Davis, Jere Huggins
Costume Design: Cynthia Flynt
Art Direction: Bill Groom
Music: Randy Newman
Principal Cast: Robert De Niro (Leonard Lowe), Robin Williams (Dr. Malcolm Sayer), Julie Kavner (Eleanor Costello), Ruth Nelson (Mrs. Lowe), John Heard (Dr. Kaufman), Penelope Ann Miller (Paula), Alice Drummond (Lucy), Judith Malina (Rose).
by Margarita Landazuri