Play It Again – Awakenings


By Simon Miraudo
August 18, 2014

Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line. Hey, whatever. It fits!

It’s hard to imagine Robin Williams ever ceding the spotlight. That’s not to say he seemed ungenerous. Anything but. Rather, how could you expect a spotlight operator to turn away from that manic, miraculous whirligig? He could have easily taken the showier part in Penny Marshall‘s 1990 effort Awakenings: that of the near-catatonic, physically-contorted Leonard Lowe. The role would have impeded his obvious abilities, at first, yet it also would have afforded him an opportunity to go hell-for-leather when Leonard is eventually “awakened” and begins embracing his newfound mobility with an exuberant lust for life, all the while attempting to stifle those old tics. Instead, Williams flexed those other muscles that were too often taken for granted: an ability to play a heart-hurt, empathetic introvert, and humility enough to let co-stars give bigger, grander, seemingly more ambitious performances. It was a noble effort. Inevitably though, our eyes always returned to Robin.

In Awakenings, Williams portrays the fictional Dr. Malcolm Sayer, based on real-life doctor and author Oliver Sacks, who was responsible for finding something of a cure for an entire catatonic ward in a Bronx hospital circa 1969. Seyer is perpetually on the brink of fading into the background, until he learns a stirring life lesson from Leonard (another against-type casting choice, Robert De Niro): letting yourself disappear into oblivion, without ever attempting to leave an impression on the world or entering the human race, is equivalent to never living at all. In the wake of Williams’ untimely death, it’s a particularly affecting moral. No one could ever claim he didn’t do both of those things with arms fully outstretched.


Later in his career, Williams would try to fuse his clowning with pathos, and the results (Patch Adams, Jack, Bicentennial Man), er, speak for themselves. Even while eulogising the man, it’s hard to locate the correct, kind words that might make those movies sound good. (‘Meaning well’ isn’t enough to forgive Jack, you know?) He would course-correct in the early-aughts by trying out a novel new twist on his persona: combining that underlying desire to please almost everyone with something sinister. Insomnia, One Hour Photo, World’s Greatest Dad. They belong in the pantheon, alongside his widely-acknowledged all-time greats.

So too does Awakenings, a curiously-underloved film that snagged a Best Picture Oscar nomination in 1990, and only two other nods: one for its screenplay, by a then-unknown Steven Zaillian, and another in the Best Actor category, for De Niro only. It lost all three prizes and has since exited the public consciousness. Those who remember it might only recall it as a weepie in which a bunch of elderly people are healed of their sleeping sickness and given a new, albeit temporary, lease on life. There’s much more to recommend it, and to remember it for.

De Niro does enthralling work with his physically complicated task; Julie Kavner is soft-spoken and tender as a kindly nurse who indulges Sayer’s experimental treatments; and Marshall’s even-handed direction resists all temptation to wring every last tear from the viewer despite the subject matter practically begging her too. A farewell dance between De Niro’s Leonard and his new girlfriend (Penelope Ann Miller) before he returns to the land of the living dead is devastating precisely because it’s underplayed and unexpected. Later, the camera simply rests dreamily on the hospital’s inhabitants as they come to realise their own, similar fate, without invoking our pity. Awakenings will get a re-evaluation in the wake of Williams’ passing, and that’s great. It’s just a tragedy it took a tragedy to precipitate it.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s archive of reviews.

Awakenings is available on Quickflix.

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