Before Robin Williams earned his Oscar for Good Will Hunting, he deserved one for Awakenings. Based off the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks, Awakenings depicts the debilitating effects of a post-encephalitic brain disorder that left its victims with so many tics and tremors that they effectively froze, and the brief return to life that an experimental drug afforded them. With its subtly beautiful score and moving performances, Awakenings deserved so much more praise than it received in a year dominated by Dances with Wolves, Goodfellas, and Ghost.
Though slightly sentimental, the acting is phenomenal, not just for its nuance and realism but because of who was cast. This was not Robin Williams’s first dramatic role, but considering his proven comic energy, the level of control he exhibits to play a timid but impassioned neurologist is exceptional. Likewise, Robert De Niro sheds his tough-guy gangster persona (seen even that year in Goodfellas) for a sensitive portrayal of helplessness as Leonard Lowe. He, at least, was nominated for Best Actor and definitely deserved it. Other excellent roles include Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson) as supportive nurse Eleanor Costello and John Heard as nay-saying Dr. Kaufman, whose negativity is rebuffed with a communal donation similar to Rudy’s jersey scene.
Though he is fonder of plants than people, Dr. Sayer insists that there is still hope for the frozen chronic cases and relentlessly endeavors to reach them by any means possible, including an actually practical use for a Ouija board. I remember how my mom choked up a bit at the reunion of the awakened Leonard with his mother. The joy of the patients, including Anne Meara and Alice Drummond (the librarian from Ghostbusters), and their families is keenly felt as an almost literal resurrection from the dead. Their return to life and the realization of their lost decades are poignant and occasionally humorous as they adapt to their new circumstances and try to live as they could not, with “the freedom of life, the wonderment of life.” The loss of that freedom is heartbreaking as Leonard twitches and convulses like an advanced Parkinson’s patient. Such spasms could have become ridiculous with a lesser actor, but De Niro retains the human connection that holds the tragedy in his potentially grotesque performance.
Because of the helpless agony endured, one might wonder about the morality of letting such suffering continue. While such concerns are raised, the solutions luckily never veer toward euthanasia, even as the patients return to their vegetative states. Leonard’s mother knew he was aware of her presence, and his brain responded to his own name. Such details and the patients’ awakenings themselves proved that, however deep within, they were still alive and entitled to care and love.
Awakenings may not be as popular as their other films, but my VC and I consider it the best for Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, and director Penny Marshall. Compared with their others, it is also a thoroughly clean film, save for a lone, unnecessary F-word. It’s sobering, though, to consider that Williams’s knowledge of the effects of Parkinson’s from this film may have factored into his suicide when he learned he was in the early stages; I hope and pray that one day we will understand the human brain well enough to assist those still suffering from such chronic conditions.
Best line: (Anthony, an orderly, as all of the awakened patients are excitedly running around) “I think I liked ‘em better the other way.”Rank: 56 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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