This movie is an emotional knockout, an almost certain Oscar contender for Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert De Niro and Robin Williams) and Best Director (Penny Marshall). So a lot of people are going to bitch about what’s wrong with it. Awakenings is a true story, adapted from the 1973 book by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a clinical neurologist who in a New York hospital in 1969 used the experimental drug L-dopa to awaken a group of post-encephalitic patients. These survivors of a post-World War I sleeping-sickness epidemic had lived in a state of catatonia but remained “alive inside” for decades. Dr. Sacks’s book told how his patients experienced about a month of wellness before suffering hellish side effects and retreating to their private limbos.
The script, by Steven Zaillian, isn’t exactly the book. Robin Williams isn’t playing Dr. Sacks; he’s playing a facsimile called Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a change that allows for dramatic inventions, including a flirtation with a nurse, played with flinty charm by Julie Kavner. De Niro’s portrayal of the patient Leonard Lowe is closer to the book, though a flirtation with an outsider, pretty Penelope Ann Miller, has been trumped up. The movie focuses on the doctor’s close bond with Leonard, playing down the stories of the other patients, whose more violent and sexually aggressive reactions have been softened. Events are condensed; the crucial awakening sequence that takes place simultaneously for fifteen patients in the film actually happened over several weeks. And the film sometimes slips into easy sentiment, which Randy Newman’s score crassly underlines.
And yet Awakenings works. With Dr. Sacks as technical advisor, the film stays devastatingly true to the nature of the illness. Marshall’s direction shows the patients’ situation, which the real Leonard once described as “wonderful, terrible, dramatic and comic,” with pitiless clarity. In only her third film (Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Big preceded), Marshall joins the front ranks of directors. She draws exceptional performances. Alice Drummond and the late jazz master Dexter Gordon stand out among the patients, and veteran actress Ruth Nelson is magnificent as Leonard’s protective mother. But the film belongs to its two stars. Williams gets under the skin of this shy, committed doctor, registering every nuance of victory and heartbreak; this is his most mature screen work to date. De Niro may be criticized unfairly for following the Oscar-winning Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) and Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot) in a handicapped role. But he acts with staggering courage, especially when Leonard tries to stop his trembling body from dragging him back to darkness. Williams and De Niro are astounding. So’s the movie. It takes a piece out of you.