Awakenings (1990)

Penny Marshall

Aliveness, Life, Delight, Grace

Awakenings (1990).  Written by Oliver Sacks (book) and Steven Zaillian (screenplay). Directed by Penny Marshall.  Starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.  Rating: PG-13. 121 minutes.  Rotten Tomatoes: 88%; Metacritic 74%.

So there is Leonard L. (Robert De Niro), virtually a lifelong victim of a baffling disease, later understood as a form of Parkinsonianism, apparently a delayed consequence of those who contracted encephalitis amid the enormous and often deadly 1918 flu epidemic.  Now 41, he has since age 11 been “frozen,” meaning suspended in a strange, unexplainable state of extreme physical and mental inertia akin to a sort of semi-catatonia.  In fact, scientists did not know what to call this condition characterized by torpor and bizarre rigid paralysis.  And then comes a young neurologist from England by the name of Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) who experiments with L-dopa and thereupon “awakens” some of his patients as unto a kind of resurrection from death-in-life.

It is a remarkable tale, to be sure, freely adapted from the late neurologist Oliver Sacks’ first medical best-seller, Awakenings (1990).  The film goes a long way in dramatizing the remarkable benign “awakening” of Leonard L., a condition that does not last as the drug with tragic consequences seems to lose its potency.  The many patients who responded to a regimen of L-dopa eventually recede back to their original condition, save perhaps for brief and partial awakenings in response to other drugs.  While “awake,” though, Leonard L. has a lot to say to the “healthy,” especially on the topic of cherishing the ordinary life that most merely assume as “normal” and inevitable.  This, he is convinced, the “normal” simply do not get.  De Niro performs marvelously, especially with the taxing emotional and physical displays the role requires, nowhere more so than in his display of exhilaration by the awakened Leonard, who comes to exult in just about everything.

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And he implores others to attend to the wondrous and enthralling reality he now apprehends.  As he tells, Sayer, “People have forgotten what life is all about…to be alive. They need to be reminded…of the joy of life, the gift of life…the wonderment of life.”


Cinema as an art form, though, can only go so far, usually unable to go where poets, seers, and prophets go.  It is only the very rare filmmaker, such as Kieslowski or Malick, who can capture within the expressive limits of cinema the experience of someone like Leonard.  A writer of remarkable range, Oliver Sacks fathoms the depths of Leonard’s “blessed” return to life.  The italicized lines especially define his radical posture within the shock of being, one of astonishment and gratitude for the splendor of being alive (bear in mind that the actual Leonard Lowe was not 11 when he fell ill but in his twenties and working on a Ph.D in literature).

Everything about him filled him with delight:  he was like a man who had awoken from a nightmare or a serious illness, or a man released from entombment or prison, who is suddenly intoxicated with the sense and beauty of everything round him.  During these two weeks, Mr. L. was drunk on reality–on sensations and feelings and relations which had been cut off from him, or distorted, for many decades.  He loved going out in the hospital garden:  he would touch the flowers and leaves with astonished delight, and sometimes kiss them or press them to his lips.  He suddenly desired to see the night-city of New York, which…he had not seen, or wanted to see, in twenty years:  and on his return from these night-drives he was almost breathless with delight, as if New York were a jewel or the New Jerusalem.  He read the [Dante’s] “Paradiso” now–during the previous twenty years he had never got beyond “Inferno” or “Purgatorio”–with tears of joy on his face:  “I feel saved,” he would say, “resurrected, re-born.  I feel a sense of health amounting to Grace…I feel like a man in love.”  The predominant feelings at this time were…of a lyrical appreciation of a real world, undistorted by phantasy, and suddenly revealed; of delight and satiety with self and the world–“I have been hungry and yearning all my life,” said Mr. L., “and now I am full.  Appeased.  Satisfied.  I want nothing more.”  He experienced a vanishing of hostility, anxiety, tensions, and meanness–and in their place felt a sense of ease, of harmony and safety, of friendship and kinship with everything and everyone which he had never in his life experienced before…The diary which he started to keep at the time was full of expressions of amazement and gratitude (my italics; New York, 1990, 208-09).

In his brief time of “awakening,” amid the shock of being alive and sensate, Lowe, with Sacks’s eloquent summation, provides a primer of sorts on the posture of being with which one should walk through this mortal life on this remarkable globe hurling through limitless space.  Indeed, from the pair we might learn, finally and deeply, how and what it is to “tune my heart to sing thy grace,” joining the psalmists and a host of American poets past and present: Dickinson, Thoreau, Dillard, Berry, and Oliver, all attesting to the palpable radiance that shows this life here on a tiny planet, a blessed place, a home, worthy of proper praise and adulation.  After all, the film contends that, in Leonard’s words, “We don’t really know how to live.”