Awakenings (1990)
December 13, 2014 8:55 AM - Subscribe

Directed by Penny Marshall in 1990, Awakenings focuses on a group of patients frozen in a trance like state until Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) begins to experiment with a drug called L-DOPA.

Based on the book Awakenings by Dr. Oliver Sacks,, movie focuses on a group of patients in a Bronx psychiatric hospital in 1969 suffering from a "sleeping sickness." As conventional methods have done nothing to improve their state, they remain essentially cared for by the staff of the hospital but dismissed as hopeless. Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a shy man uncomfortable with other people, arrives and begins to make discoveries with these patients, namely that they are "alive inside."

In addition, he begins experimenting with a drug called L-DOPA initially on one particular patient, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro). As Leonard begins to recover, doctor and patient form a bond. Sayer begins to treat all of the patients with L-DOPA. While bringing them "back to life" brings them and their loved ones joy, it's also complicated. These people missed decades of their lives. Leonard Lowe "fell asleep" as a little boy and woke up a full grown man. Adjusting to all that missing time is challenging for the patients and their families alike.

Unfortunately, the beneficial effects of L-DOPA begin to fade, and the patients regress back to the trance like state. Despite this, the movie does end on a sad note. Both Sayer and Lowe are transformed by their bond. The film captures the spirit of Dr. Sacks, who, despite the radical challenges his patients face, seems to always marvel at how humanity can cope with illness.

Awakenings is available for rent and purchase on Amazon Instant Video.
posted by miss-lapin (9 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I recently re-watched this and was surprised at how well-put together it is, and how it holds up. This is not only a standout role for Rober De Niro (and my god he kicks ass here), but for Robin Williams as Dr. Oliver Sacks, and for director Penny Marshall, who can often slip into maudlin/emotional sloppiness in her films, but who is absolutely at the top of her game here.

The only niggling problem I have, reassessing it, is that the big bad doctors are too comically Bad, it probably would've strengthened the story just a bit to make them less one-dimensional.

However that's a minor problem in what is a moving film, probably in my all time top ten. That this film is sort of forgotten is tragic, because it is not only a great example of a film based on a manuscript of someone's research, but an example of depicting mental illness and how to treat and understand it. (The woman who catches the ball that's thrown at her automatically is a great example of accurate depiction of very real cases doctors were dealing with. Plus her zombie-like performance is Just. So. Good.)

Heartbreaking when the L-DOPA stops working for the patients and they start to regress again.

I love this film, no doubt about it, and not just because it has Williams and is part of this series - but I'd love to hear other people's thought on it. Does it work for you? Why or why not?
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:52 AM on December 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Oh and this is a great FanFare post, thanks for doing it!)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:53 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

(would love to read that but I get a subscription block)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 12:19 PM on December 13, 2014

In terms of Williams, this was a pivotal role as he was "cast against type." Sayer is a very internal character. He's shy and introverted, the opposite of what the viewing public thought of in terms of Robin Williams in 1990s. This film really showed his range as an actor. It's a personal favorite as I'm also a huge fan of Dr. Sacks.
posted by miss-lapin at 12:29 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're a fan of Dr. Sacks you might appreciate this podcast pointer.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 12:58 PM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

From the New Yorker article:
When Marshall directed “Awakenings,” in 1990, she cast Williams as a doctor who tries dopamine on encephalitis victims who are unable to move. The treatment works for a time, particularly on Leonard, a patient played by De Niro. “Robin had already done a drama, ‘Dead Poets Society,’ but he told me he was afraid Bobby was going to blow him off the screen. I said, ‘I won’t let that happen.’ So it was my job to keep Robin from being funny. We had a shorthand signal for when he got a little flamboyant, improvising.” She curled her fingers tight and dropped the fist to her groin: “It meant ‘More balls.’ ” She smiled, remembering how hard it was to corral him: “There was a scene where a cockroach was going to crawl across the table, and Robin suddenly did a thing where he was a cockroach who was up for a Raid commercial.” She went on, “Robin could make Bob laugh so hard his face got all red, and Bob was supposed to be, you know, sick.”

On the press tour, she recalled, “I slurred, and said the film was set at a menstrual hospital, instead of a mental hospital—and Robin immediately said, ‘It’s a period piece.’ But he also made you cry at the end, when all the patients go back to being frozen.” She grabbed another cigarette—“I’m going to stop smoking”—and continued: “We had a Ouija-board scene, and it looked like a monkey was doing it, and I told him, ‘Robin, you gotta take the hair off your hands!’ He said, ‘I know: I sweat! I’m hairy! God’s gifts to me!’ He made fun of himself, which a lot of comedians can’t, and he had a great laugh, and there was not a mean streak in him.”

posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 11:49 PM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was a fan of Robin Williams since childhood yet I only just saw this movie. I agree that it's quite good and holds up well. It's sad and moving but not maudlin. The acting was excellent. There are parts where they could have spelled things out more, like when Leonard is struggling to write as the medication stops working, an echo of the scene earlier in the film from when he first got sick, or it could have been snappier, like when Leonard dances with Penelope Ann Miller. For the most part, the movie has a light touch and it served it well.
posted by kat518 at 7:02 PM on October 4, 2015

Sad thing I read on IMDB - supposedly Williams' Parkinson's disease was being treated with L-Dopa before his death.
posted by kat518 at 7:18 PM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older The Walking Dead: TS-19...   |  Star Trek: The Return of the A... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments