“The human spirit is more powerful than any drug, and that is what needs to be nourished: with work, play, friendship, family. These are the things that matter. This is what we’d forgotten, the simplest things.” Those words are spoken by Dr. Malcolm Sayer in the beautiful, tender and edifying “Awakenings” (1990) directed by Penny Marshall. It’s interesting to point out that certain films shine brighter under our current dormant stage that started back in March. I hope most of you have been experiencing a state of reawakening — cherishing those “simplest things” that he speaks about. Like the characters in this movie, I have felt during this period – to my own amazement – the gust of realization that I’m alive.
Based on the 1973 non-fiction book by Dr. Oliver Sachs – “Awakenings” is a fictionalized account of patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in late 60s New York City who had contracted encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s. Known as the “sleeping sickness,” the disease attacked the brain and left victims in a statue-like condition, speechless and motionless. They would be conscious and aware but not fully awake. These patients were frozen for decades in their suspended state – forgotten – until Dr. Sachs gave them the new drug L-DOPA – which triggered an awakening effect. The film focuses on Dr. Sayer (a stand-in for Sachs) and focuses on one of the patients – Leonard – as he experiences the explosive reintroduction to a dramatically changed world.
The film opens with Leonard as a young boy experiencing the symptoms of the rare strain of encephalitis – and it forwards to Dr. Sayer applying for a position at the chronic hospital in the Summer of 1969. His background is medical research and he had no clinical experience. The patients he has to look after are catatonic – and at first, he’s overwhelmed by the task. “It gets easier, you don’t think it will, but it does,” Nurse Costello, who takes a liking for the caring physician, tells him. He starts to observe that certain patients start responding to stimuli. One catches a ball when it is thrown at her. “She borrows the will of the ball,” the doctor enthuses to the skepticism of the rest of the staff. He introduces games, music and human touch. After attending a lecture on the subject of the L-DOPA drug and its success with patients suffering from Parkinsons, Sayer administers a dosage to Leonard – and he awakens from his catatonic state. Leonard sees himself and acts as a young man.
Penny Marshall who was beloved as Laverne in the 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” was a terrific director. Her first feature was “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986) with Whoopi Goldberg, quickly followed by “Big” (1988) which was a huge commercial success and received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay. There’s a great balance of comedy and poignancy in “Big” – and it became the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the box office. She followed it with “Awakenings” which shares the similar idea of a young man experiencing the world anew. This time around she worked with Steven Zaillian who is one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood – responsible for “Gangs of New York,” “Schindler’s List” and “Moneyball.” Her cinematographer was Miroslav Odricek – who had a long collaboration with fellow Czech director Milos Forman and worked on “Amadeus” and “Loves of a Blonde” among others. Odricek does a very subtle play with the color palette – keeping everything recessive at the beginning of “Awakenings.” As the characters start to experience stimuli, the color green is introduced in the foliage outside the hospital. As Leonard begins his reintroduction into the world – warm colors start to be introduced – of course bringing a visual vibrancy. Marshall uses the symbol of the window – enclosing the characters as well as Dr. Sayer. Notice the latter’s struggles to open his office window – longing to breathe the outdoor fresh air. Similarly, other patients will gravitate towards the windows – and in pivotal scenes the sight of them will be in the background. There’s a beautiful edited montage articulating Leonard’s first transition to the outside world set to the tune “Times of the Season.” She interspersed 8mm moments – its grainy texture showing the doctor’s documentation of the process.
Robin Williams is terrific in a subdued and controlled performance as the introverted Dr. Sayer. Robert De Niro as Leonard is a virtuosic physical achievement. He was deservedly nominated for Best Actor.
Leonard: “It’s quiet.”
Dr. Sayer: “It’s late. They’re all asleep.”
Leonard: “I’m not asleep.”
Dr. Sayer: “You’re awake.”
Available to stream on Starz, Hulu (with a Starz subscription) and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Redbox, Apple TV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Steven Zaillian
Based on the book by Oliver Sacks M.D.
Directed by Penny Marshall
Starring Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, John Heard, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller and Max von Sydow
The Real-Life Story Behind “Awakenings”
Sacks was the author of several books about unusual medical conditions, including “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” and “The Island of the Colourblind.” “Awakenings” was based on his work with patients treated with a drug that woke them up after years in a catatonic state. Sacks came across the patients in 1966 while working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham hospital, a chronic care hospital, in the Bronx. Many patients had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues. He recognized them as survivors of the encephalitis epidemic that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to recover. These patients became the subjects of “Awakenings,” which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter – “A Kind of Alaska.” The 1990 film version, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, was nominated for three Oscars including best picture. (theguardian.com)
About Author Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks was born in 1933 in London, England into a family of physicians and scientists (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner). He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. In 1965, he moved to New York, where he was a practicing neurologist and author until his death in 2015. From 2007 to 2012, he served as a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university’s first Columbia University Artist. From 2012 to 2015, Dr. Sacks was a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, where he practiced as part of the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Warwick. In 1966 Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his bookAwakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter (“A Kind of Alaska”) and the Oscar-nominated feature film (“Awakenings”) with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars,” in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease. He investigated the world of Deaf people and sign language in Seeing Voices, and a rare community of colorblind people in “The Island of the Colorblind.” He wrote about his experiences as a doctor in Migraine and as a patient in “A Leg to Stand On.” He wrote extensively about music and music therapy in his best-seller, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” (Knopf, 2007). He chronicled his own experience with ocular melanoma and examined the visual brain in his books “The Mind’s Eye” (2010) and “Hallucinations” (2012). He is also the author of two autobiographies, “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood” (2001) and “On The Move: A Life” (2015). Sacks’s work, which was supported by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, regularly appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, as well as various medical journals. The New York Times referred to Dr. Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine,” and in 2002 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru. (oliversacks.com)
Director Penny Marshall on Bringing “Awakenings” to the Screen
“It wasn’t my plan to do a drama or anything,” says Marshall…“I just couldn’t shake it,” she says about the script for “Awakenings,” adapted by Steve Zaillian (“The Falcon and the Snowman”) from an autobiographical book by physician-author Oliver Sacks. “And the message of it: How special life is and how precious it is. Here I was sitting with all these scripts, complaining and worrying about my teeth, and here are people with real problems.”…When she first read the “Awakenings” script, sent to her by her agents at the Creative Artists Agency, Marshall says she cried. She took it to Dawn Steel, who was still in office presiding over pre-Sony Columbia, and “she wanted to make it. I called Bobby (De Niro), and he wanted to do it.” They had a movie. Yet some of her many funny friends counseled her against it. “I had friends who said, ‘Why do you want to be in a hospital for four months?’ I said, ‘I was depressed in a toy store, what difference does it make?’ I’m a depressed person. People said it was so brave to do a drama. I didn’t think it was bravery. I figured I had an excuse: If it didn’t work, I could say, well, ‘That’s not my strength.’ ” “Awakenings” is anything but a comedy, yet Marshall found herself faced with the same challenge of trying to maintain a consistent tone, in this case one somewhere on the border between pity and hope.
…“I told (art director) Anton Furst, ‘Don’t make it look depressing. I don’t want it to be this oppressive place. It’s a hospital, the story has a sadness to it, the people have this disease, but let’s not make it dark and dank.’ ”But neither could she let in too much light on the characters, she points out. “The hardest thing was not allowing Robin, who is funny, to be funny. Let other people be funny. Oliver Sacks himself is really funny. In person, he’s this eccentric guy who carries a thermometer around with him and if it gets too hot he puts an ice pack on his head. Now, if I put that on Robin, they would think Robin’s doing schtick. So, in some ways I pulled away from the real doctor.” By the time the movie was in production, Sony had bought Columbia, Steel was gone and the team of Peter Guber and Jon Peters were on their way to the studio’s top executive jobs. “It was interesting,” Marshall says. “Dawn green-lighted it, and then Dawn wasn’t there. I don’t know who was there. And we were going a little bit over (budget). But they weren’t yelling. So we figured maybe Sony liked it.”… (latimes.com)
About Director Penny Marshall
Carole Penny Marshall was born on Oct. 15, 1943, in the Bronx and grew up there, at the northern end of the Grand Concourse. Her father, Anthony, was an industrial filmmaker, and her mother, Marjorie (Ward) Marshall, taught dance. The family name had been changed from Masciarelli. After she graduated from Walton High School, in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, Ms. Marshall attended the University of New Mexico. There she met and married Michael Henry, a college football player. They had a daughter, but the marriage lasted only two years, and Ms. Marshall headed for California, where her older brother, Garry, had become a successful comedy writer. She made her film debut in “The Savage Seven,” a 1968 biker-gang drama, and had a small part the same year in “How Sweet It Is!,” a romantic comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and James Garner. Ms. Marshall continued acting, mostly playing guest roles on television series, until she got her big break in 1971, when she was cast in the recurring part of Jack Klugman’s gloomy secretary, Myrna Turner, on the ABC sitcom “The Odd Couple.”…That same year she married Rob Reiner, who was then a star of the hit series “All in the Family.” He adopted her daughter, but they divorced in 1981, when “Laverne & Shirley” and Ms. Marshall were at the height of their television popularity. That series grew out of a 1975 episode of “Happy Days,” in which Laverne (Ms. Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams), two fast blue-collar girls, turned up at the local hangout as blind dates for Richie Cunningham and Fonzie, the two lead characters.
When “Laverne & Shirley” ended in 1983, after considerable on-set conflict between the co-stars and a final season without Ms. Williams, it was the first time in 12 years that Ms. Marshall had not had at least a relatively steady job on a television series. She began making a handful of films and television appearances. Then Whoopi Goldberg, a friend, asked her to take over for a director she wasn’t getting along with on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986), a comic spy caper. (Ms. Marshall had directed a few episodes of “Laverne & Shirley.”) The movie was far from an unqualified success, but it led to “Big.”…Ms. Marshall’s two films after “A League of Their Own”… were “Renaissance Man” (1994) and “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996)…Ms. Marshall did not direct again until 2001. “Riding in Cars With Boys,” a saga of teenage motherhood starring Drew Barrymore, earned mostly positive reviews but was a box-office disappointment. It was the last film Ms. Marshall directed. Her farewell to television direction was a 2011 episode of the multiple-personalities series “United States of Tara.” She devoted some time to producing, notably with the 2005 movie inspired by the classic sitcom “Bewitched,” and took on the occasional acting job, including a 2012 guest spot on the series “Portlandia” and voice-over narration in the film “Mother’s Day” (2016), directed by Garry Marshall, who died in 2016. In 2012 she published a best-selling memoir, “My Mother Was Nuts”…Her final screen appearance was on the new version of “The Odd Couple,” in a November 2016 episode that was a tribute to her brother, and featured cameos by stars from his many hit series. Ms. Marshall, who lived in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, is survived by her older sister, Ronny; a daughter, the actress Tracy Reiner; and three grandchildren. (nytimes.com)