It has taken me far too long to respond to the late Robin Williams; partly because to revisit his career in totem – or any of his films in particular – immediately after his passing seemed slightly morbid to downright sacrilege, but more to the point, because I had yet to adjust to a world without this extraordinary individual among us. The vacuum left behind is incalculable; our entertainment a little less kind and charming than it at least seemed before August 11th. In retrospect, the deeper sadness Robin Williams so obviously felt, that which he kept hidden behind the elfin and ebullient mask of an exuberant clown, seems to reach into me on a far more introspective and sincere level tonight; perhaps because I too have understood how one can be so completely surrounded by love, and yet, feel so utterly, tragically and frightfully abandoned by it. Dare I be so bold as to suggest this is hardly an extraordinary condition? We are - all of us - at one time or another, unloved; given to bouts of great confidence, inexplicably usurped by our own nagging insecurities; asking ourselves, ‘were we ever the impressions others thought of us, or even those we aspired to become for ourselves’? Or is it simply an illusion, an act; a trick of the mind to convince the body to go forward with the plans life has in store, affording gumption in tandem with the folly. Arguably, this keeps us humble, honest and mindful of the fact we are all fallible in God’s eyes?
Fundamentally speaking, Robin Williams was a man like any other; though undeniably, funnier than most and irreplaceable by any standard one might wish to ascribe. But beyond the artist, the trickster, the manic raconteur, able to fly off the cuff into an electric spontaneity, clairvoyantly seeing the laughter – or perhaps, more to the point – the absurdity in life and unabashedly poke holes into the balloons of its hypocrisies; Robin Williams was someone who needed something more desperately than the spotlight; a depth of understanding perhaps. Individually at least, this could never be repaid. Some people simply need more than others are able to give. But collectively we – as his fans – somehow failed Robin Williams; no amount of remuneration in applause or laughter ever enough to compensate for the myriad of treasures he so openly shared with us. Several years ago I began my review of the politically scathing Man of the Year (2006) by saying there ought to be a special place in heaven reserved for Robin Williams; although, even I had not anticipated he would find it so soon. But if there is a heaven then, I have little doubt Robin is there; mildly amused perhaps, that he made it, exuberantly finding fault with the plumbing and lack of parking spaces, and not above tempting the providence that put him there.
In preparing this eulogy, I knew exactly which of Robin’s many films I would prefer to remember him by; not the cross-dressing British matron or the stunted child brought back from a haunted board game; nor the flamboyant inventor of children’s toys, or the prototypical robot discovering his own humanity, or even the cutting edge radio shock jock, lightening the load for Vietnam vets or the diligent English classics master, exposing impressionable young minds to the vastness and wonderment of a world beyond academia. As miraculous as these and the many other characterizations he gave us are, and will likely remain for a very long time, my pick for Robin would have to be Penny Marshall’s Awakenings (1990). Critics were summarily divided in their praise back then; leaning toward unfair comparisons with Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988) and labeling the performances in Awakenings as overwrought and sentimental.
Based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir, Awakenings tells of an extraordinary summer in 1969, when Sacks’ a British neurologist, experimented with the drug L-Dopa on a small group of patients inside Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx; momentarily liberating them from their devastating catatonia. Long since renowned as ‘the poet laureate of medicine’, Sacks began his medical career under a cloud of suspicion; the establishment of this chronic care facility merely content to allow patients to languish in their persistent vegetative state: the crippling aftereffects from a 1917 to 1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Sacks’ novelized account and Harold Pinter’s play, based on the book, would serve as a crutch for Steven Zaillian’s screenplay; the story minimally opened up, relying more heavily on characterization than plot once the basic outline of the facts had been established. For legal reasons, Sacks’ was rechristened as an American, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams); his inability to reach his patients initially, and his encountered reluctance from the hospital’s staff, skeptical to regard patients as people, gradually giving way to a more probative analysis. Sacks – nee Sayer – based his findings on commonalities, nee causal links. In uncovering encephalitis lethargica as a probable cause to their catatonia, and buoyed by the promising research surrounding a then ‘new’ drug, L-Dopa, discovered to have minor recuperative properties against the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, Sayer proposes an unorthodox case study with his catatonics; particularly after some of them show a remarkable presence of mind to fetch the tennis balls he gingerly lobs in their direction. Naturally, his cognitive research is frowned upon by Dr. Kaufman (John Heard); a by the book martinet.
Penny Marshall’s movie is as methodical as proves ultimately emotionally satisfying; Marshall investing the necessary time to tell a good – though bittersweet - story involving Sayer and patient, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro); a man who has lost nearly thirty years to his paralytic trance. The film is, of course, blessed to have both De Niro and Williams as its stars. While De Niro’s backlog of intense performances made him a logical casting choice, only in hindsight can we see the leap of faith Marshall took in selecting Robin Williams as his counterpoint. It’s even more unsettling when one contemplates De Niro’s performance as the flashier of the two. Williams – a superb mime – is given the monumental task of restraining himself, allowing Sayer’s frustrations, elation and humanity to shine through an equally as debilitating personal shyness. Williams had, in fact, broken out of his stand-up mold the year before with a powerful dramatic turn in Dead Poet’s Society (1989); the movie’s reputation displaced in its own time – unceremoniously criticized, but since evolved in the public’s estimation as a fine and compelling melodrama.
However, audience acceptance for Robin Williams – extraordinary actor – as opposed to gifted clown had yet to be proven. It would remain something a running gag with his harshest detractors until Williams’ Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting (1997). But in Awakenings Williams illustrates – perhaps, for the very first time – the elemental qualities of being a well-rounded performer. In light of his suicide, Williams’ acting departure as the social misfit, discovering his own niche in a room full of such marginalized individuals, takes on even more painful overtones; the probing physician nearly broken by the internalized assumption he is failing his Hippocratic oath. Williams is consciously invested in finding the truth in his comedy herein; the movie’s opening scenes playing to his obvious strengths as the mildly harried fop we all know and love – baffled, frightened and amusingly terrified by these madhouse oddities; retreating to the relative solace and safety of a private residence, only to be momentarily accosted by the neighbor’s dog. But gradually, Williams and director Penny Marshall ease us away from this stereotype; Williams hitting his stride as Sayer becomes more invested in his patients’ quality of life and less conflicted about the purpose of his own meandering tenure at the hospital.
To some degree both Robin Williams and Robert De Niro are working against type; De Niro flinching as a man not in control of his own body; contorting his limbs into tortured extremities that flail and shake as though by some otherworldly force of nature; his Leonard Lowe heartbreakingly encouraging Sayer, during one of his most grotesque fits, to film, study and ultimately ‘learn’ by documenting this horrific affliction. Near the end of the film, Williams’ Sayer comments how unfair it is to have given Leonard Lowe back his life, only to have it taken away once again; Sayer’s kindly nurse, Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) reasoning how universally fallible humanity is to the aging process; a note of distinction, at once forbidding and yet sobering, as it revives Sayer’s faith in moving forward with his own life. The crueler realization is, of course, the cure is as ephemeral as hope; Lowe’s mother (Ruth Nelson) eventually pleading with Dr. Kaufman to stop the grand experiment and let her son slip back into his catatonia.
Arguably, Awakenings is a movie that could only have been made in 1990; the public’s appetite whetted for medical-themed drama; arguably taken more seriously throughout the decade with films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Terms of Endearment (1983) and the aforementioned Rain Man, also capped off by the enduring success of television’s longest running soap opera, General Hospital (1963-present) and the even more impressive success of its prime time zeitgeist, St. Elsewhere (1982-88). To some extent, the balance of power in Awakenings is set slightly off kilter by the casting of two box office dynamos at its helm. Is this Dr. Sayer’s story or Leonard Lowe’s? The answer, obviously, is that the film is dedicated to both; also, to the unlikely friendship blossoming between doctor and patient, only able to enrich one life while callously depriving the other of even the faintest opportunity to partake of that renaissance for very long. In fact, Sayer’s experiment is little more than a narrow window of opportunity to reach beyond the netherworld of mental disease. The impact on Sayer’s patients is marginal at best – one summer’s escape into ‘normalcy’ denied them for decades before and many more yet to follow as they once again regress into the darkened recesses of their own minds.
Awakenings opens with an ominous prologue; the adolescent Leonard Lowe (Anthony J. Nici), inexplicably stricken with a slight paralysis in his right hand while attempting to carve his name into a park bench under the George Washington Bridge. His boyhood friends (Oliver Block, Buck Smith) come to visit him while he convalesces, but are quietly put off by Mrs. Lowe, who realizes something is terribly wrong. Flash ahead to 1969 and the arrival of a very reluctant Dr. Malcolm Sayer. Desperately in need of a job, Sayer’s initial interview with Beth Abraham administrator (Yusef Bulos) and Dr. Kaufman does not go well. After all, Sayer is somewhat of a recluse, having spent his entire tenure in the field of research with no actual contact with patients. Nevertheless, he is hired and begins by tending to these catatonic patients. Anthony (Keith Diamond), the orderly forewarns Sayer he should not expect too much from his assignment. The patients are regarded as little more than ‘plants’ to be watered and daily maintained in their persistent vegetative state. Alas, Sayer’s nagging desire to connect with these chronically institutionalized as people, rather than as case files, leads him to eventually discovering a similarity in their charts. All were survivors of the aforementioned epidemic of encephalitis lethargica.
Sayer’s resolve is buoyed after his newest patient, Lucy (Alice Drummond), is wheeled in, staring off into space like the rest, yet able to catch the glasses that have fallen from her face. Testing a hunch, Sayer tosses Lucy a tennis ball that she reaches out and catches with startling accuracy. Kaufman is unimpressed by Sayer’s find, seeing it as a mere reflex. Nevertheless, Nurse Eleanor Costello is empathetic to Sayer’s research and makes several valiant attempts to engage him for a cup of coffee after hours. Sayer resists; the screenplay increasingly drawing its parallel between the good doctor’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of humanity (except his patients) and that which unwillingly has made petrified statues of these helpless victims. Sayer turns for inspiration to Dr. Peter Ingham (Max Von Sydow); a brilliant, though retired physician who spent his own lifetime unsuccessfully studying the anomalies of this disease. Ingham fills in some of the blanks in Sayer’s research; the other piece of the puzzle becoming more apparent after Sayer attends a lecture given by a rather pompous neuro-chemist (Peter Stormare) who refuses to even consider L-Dopa’s properties might benefit any test subjects outside the limited scope of patients suffering from Parkinson Disease.
Conducting experiments with lights and playing various types of music to elicit a momentary response, Sayer takes a particular interest in Leonard Lowe after he realizes he is able to communicate with him using a Ouija board. He visits Leonard’s mother at home; Mrs. Lowe taking Sayer on a tour of her son’s bedroom, still perfectly preserved. Mrs. Lowe informs Sayer of the circumstances leading up to her son’s institutionalization; the increasing bouts and durations of his catatonia until, at last, it consumed him entirely. Sayer appeals to Mrs. Lowe, then Dr. Kaufman to put Leonard on L-Dopa on a trial basis. At 500 mg, Leonard is unresponsive and Sayer struggles to understand why the drug is having no effect. Secretly, he increases Leonard’s daily dosage to 1000 mg and changes its suspension from orange juice to milk. Still, nothing happens.
Falling asleep in a chair next to Leonard’s bed, Sayer awakens with a startle in the wee hours of the morning to discover Leonard has gone into the recreation hall. He is cognitive, responsive and writing his name in crayon on a piece of construction paper. No one, in fact, can believe their eyes, least of all Mrs. Lowe, who is tearfully reunited with the son she lost nearly twenty years before. Sayer begs Kaufman to let him put the rest of the catatonics on L-Dopa. At a staggering cost of $12,000 a month, Kaufman flatly refuses. It’s not in the hospital’s budget. And what’s the point? There’s no proof Leonard’s ‘awakening’ will last. Alas, the orderlies and nurses, once jaded in their daily routines, have been moved to reconsider their chosen calling, pledging their own checks in support of Sayer’s research. Sayer now appeals to the board of governors and donors who help fund the hospital, showing them 16mm footage of Leonard’s miraculous progress. Impressed with the results, the trustees make up the difference to cover expenses. All of the catatonics are put on L-Dopa; each experiencing their own renaissance.
After all the restrained melodrama gone before it, these ‘awakenings’ are appropriately dealt with in a comical montage; director Penny Marshall lightening the mood as each patient begins to ask for ‘luxuries’ most of us take for granted; a juicy steak, hair dye to improve their withered looks, the opportunity to go to a nightclub and dance, and so on. The psychological repercussions of having lost so much time are dealt with slightly, Marshall more intent on showing us what it means to be human – and humane – fully formed, with all our faculties intact. Sayer organizes a road trip for the patients. Attracted to Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), who daily comes to visit her father after he has suffered a terrible stroke, Leonard makes several attempts to procure a burgeoning romance. Mrs. Lowe becomes concerned and more than a little possessive of the fact her son seems to have found a ‘new woman’ to occupy his free time. Alas, Leonard’s growing normalcy will be the highlight of Sayer’s breakthrough.
Shortly thereafter, Leonard begins to experience the first signs of a regression; facial tics, tremors and other severe side effects that leave him paranoid and uncontrollably flailing. At one point, Leonard is physically restrained and isolated from the rest of his friends, ranting about how the doctors are to blame for his condition. Paula, who has become emotionally attached to Leonard, is heartbroken by his fading progress; her tender touch providing a momentary calming influence. Sayer helplessly observes as one by one his patients return to their former selves; their moment of ‘awakening’ having come to an end.
In his final address to the hospital’s grant donors, Sayer explains how another awakening occurred, one in which the patients were able to briefly appreciate the act of living for themselves. Before Leonard completely reverts to his former self, he implores Sayer to reconsider how he has been allowing his own life to slip away without the excuse of being ill; Sayer, reconsidering these prophetic words as he forces himself to overcome his shyness and ask Nurse Costello out on a date; an invitation she graciously accepts. The film concludes with a bittersweet epilogue; Sayer employing the Ouija board with his hand over Leonard’s and the planchette, gingerly coaxing with, “Let's begin” – a title card revealing for the audience the tragic final chapter in our story: that although further tests with various medications would yield minor breakthroughs, the ‘summer miracle’ was to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to study and document the effects of this debilitating illness.
Expressing the sheer pluck and will power of these unfortunates, Awakenings was nominated for 3 Academy Awards; alas, rather unceremoniously dismissed by almost all the critics, who invariably found it cloying, sentimentalized and overly-simplified; moot points in retrospect. What the movie does spectacularly well is to treat both its test subjects and the medical profession with a sort of imperfect dignity. Awakenings is neither a story of personal triumph, nor one devolving into abject despair. With unvarnished resolve, Penny Marshall’s movie is dedicated to the difference one marginalized doctor made; his sincere hope to unlock the secrets of the human mind, not for self-aggrandizing fame or fortune. And Robin Williams conveys such spectacular amounts of clear-eyed empathy throughout the story; his bearded, sad-eyed visage flickering with insight, compassion and that gift of giddy anticipation well-known to his fans as a very William-esque quality.
De Niro’s Leonard Lowe is no less illuminating; De Niro invested in his craft, body and soul. While the last act of De Niro’s performance (Leonard’s slow descend to his former self) is a tour de force for De Niro – the actor - to illustrate how perfectly possessed he has become of the tics and mannerisms of a patient suffering from Parkinsonian-like symptoms, it is in the middle act of the story - as Leonard slowly awakens from his silence – in which De Niro really catches the flavor and wonderment of a middle-aged man still a youth of twenty in his own mind; re-experiencing the simple pleasures of feeling the warm caress of a summer’s breeze across his brow or the tickle of gentle waves as he wades, fully clothed, into the ocean. Once seen, Awakenings is a film not so simply forgotten nor as easily dismissed. It lingers in the imagination as a sort of tragic fable about people who live in their minds, who must reconcile some sort of contentment for themselves, to have lived a lifetime in only a mere wrinkle of their own longevity as prisoners of their bodies.
Image Entertainment’s Blu-ray is, in a word – disappointing. Owing to the fact Awakenings is a movie produced by Columbia Pictures, the rights reverting to Image from Sony Home Entertainment, more was expected than what is available on this woefully undernourished 1080p offering. Color fidelity is almost immediately called into question; the old Columbia logo looking washed out with weaker than anticipated contrasts levels. These marginally improve after the main titles and the 1940’s prologue, photographed Miroslav Ondrícek with an appropriately vintage feel. But the visuals throughout are softly focused and frequently blurry. Flesh tones are never accurate. I don’t know what displeased me more; their range from orangey ugly to piggy pink or the fairly muddy overall quality of the image, rendering fine details a moot point entirely. Grain looks clumpy at intervals and practically nonexistent elsewhere. We also get hints of video-based noise. Honestly, the image herein is comparable to the old DVD - which isn’t saying much. I couldn’t break a sweat for the 5.1 DTS audio either. Arguably, one isn’t watching a dialogue-driven film like Awakenings to be impressed by its sound design. And yet, this one seems unremarkable in the extreme, with ever so slight distortions in dialogue and SFX. Randy Newman’s score is the only benefactor here. There are no extras – not even a trailer. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)