Awakenings: Introspective Medical Drama From Dr. Oliver Sacks

Are you awake?

Almost five years after his death, we’re paying tribute to Robin Williams today with one of his lesser known starring roles: Awakenings (1990).

In an understated performance. He plays a doctor searching for a cure to the 1917-1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica – sleepy sickness. He finds the drug L-Dopa brings patients back from a catatonic state, but initial delight soon takes a turn for the worse.


Adapted from Dr. Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir, Penny Marshall too up directing duties. She sadly passed away in December of 2018 and was primarily a character actress during her career.

With Awakenings we have the story of Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Williams). It’s 1969 and he’s a shy and introverted man who genuinely cares for his patients, placing particular emphasis on those suffering from sleepy sickness.

At a hospital in New York, he experiments with various drugs to see if any will bring patients back to life.

He also befriends nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner – most famous as the voice of Marge Simpson), who offers her learned support with the ordeals ahead.

One long-term patient Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) has his long suffering mother clear Sayer to attempt various experimental treatments. Eventually, L-Dopa triggers off an incredible result – after decades in a catatonic state, he “awakens”.

Despite clearly approaching his 50s, Leonard has a youthful, hedonistic, and eager lust for life is insatiable.

But the initial elation of his – and the other patients’ – return to life is shortlived. Leonard battles with the beauracracy of life, trying to live outside of the hospital but denied the possibility.

Tragically, L-Dopa then triggers off Parkinson’s Disease-type spasms, with Leonard suffering a shocking and steady demise back his catatonic state.

Despite Leonard’s regression into his former state, the knock-on effect of his brief return is a newfound appreciation of life for those around him.

It finally helps Dr. Sayer break out of his mould and he asks nurse Costello out on a date.

Obscure Classic?

Depite the star-studded cast and strangely huge budget of $31 million, Awakenings was only a modest success in earning back $52.1 million.

Since then it’s sort of slipped by the wayside. No one really talks about it, except if it comes up as one of Robin William’s serious roles – more on that below.

It’s certainly in the mould of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but at its heart there’s not really a sense of maverick disorder. We have Leonard just trying to get back into society but coming up against the dreaded red tape.

And for De Niro, we presume this was just another role to show off his natural acting talent. And quite the stunning performance it is. You could expect that by then.

Yet for Williams, this was one of his first forays away from the chaotic nature of his comedic performances. And it’s a habit some others have tried to manage – the funnyman going all serious to show his real talent.

Jim Carrey has managed it with aplomb and, currently, Steve Carrell is doing his best. Previously, Peter Sellers also arguably started the trend with 1979’s Being There.

The irony here is Awakenings focuses so heavily on personal tics and the patients who suffer from them.

Yet the actors involved were entirely free from them. Williams, meanwhile, acting against type is fantastic – but in the real world, his manifestations of depression threw up a thunderstorm of tics the world laughed at.


Although we weren’t major fans of his stand-up material – which, looking back now, seems largely fuelled by his manic depressive disorder – Williams showed incredible versatility as an actor.

He was singlehandedly able to transform potentially insipid films (such as Good Morning, Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire) into classics.

But as Mr. Georg Rockall-Schmidt covers in the above video, we think he was most effective as a dramatic actor.

You’ve got Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, Insomnia, and World’s Greatest Dad. All of which show the introspective, self-aware qualities Williams could portray with such unusual earnest.

One of his final films was Boulevard, released a month before his death in the US.

Again, it’s an indication he was capable of channelling every aspect of his personality for the world to see. From his riotous sense of mischief, right down to a very personal display of his mental health battle. One that ultimately cost him his life.

And first watching his performance in Awakenings circa 2000, we were struck (as very shy individuals ourselves) by his ability to capture the awkwardness of that with such effectiveness.

That’s one of the reasons why we continue to love his work.


Dispense with some gibberish!

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