Director: Penny Marshall.
Screenplay: Steven Zaillian.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Penelope Ann Miller, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Max Von Sydow, Alice Drummond, Judith Malina, Richard Libertini, Anne Meara, Barton Heyman, George Martin, Keith Diamond, Mary Alice, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Vincent Pastore, Vin Diesel.

“I’m sorry. If you were right, I would agree with you”

Despite being a prominent director throughout the 80’s and 90’s, surprisingly, Penny Marshall seemed to hang up her boots after 2001’s Driving in Cars with Boys. To be fair, her films always had a cloying or whimsical tinge to them and her last few movies didn’t reach the heights of her earlier work like A League of Their Own and Big but she always showed promise as a director – with Awakenings, arguably, being her most accomplished work.

In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) takes a Neurology position in a Brooklyn Psychiatric hospital where he finds patients that have been in a catatonic state for decades due to a condition known as post-encephalitis. With further investigation, he focuses on Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro) and begins to prescribe a drug called L-Dopa. Miraculously, Leonard responds to the drug, awakes from his “sleepy-disease” and begins to move, talk and embrace life once more.Based on the true life events depicted in the late Dr. Oliver Sacks’ novel of the same name, Marshall has a solid handling of the material. Steven Zaillian’s script has a good balance of humour and pathos and an all-important sensitivity to the characters while Marshall is aided with a wonderful cast where she’s able to tease out heartfelt, powerful performances. Even the relative unknowns bring something to the table but, ultimately, it’s the two major players who shine brightest: Robin Williams brings real humanity to his excruciatingly shy doctor while DeNiro is a tic-ridden, tour-de-force as his patient and delivers one of his very best, and heartbreaking, performances. It would not be out of place to argue both actors deliver some career best work here. Williams plays it absolutely straight and resists any urge to wisecrack or improvise while DeNiro is simply astonishing. You can watch him, fully informed of his acting prowess (and plethora of tough-guy characters over the years) yet he still manages to convey and convincingly portray a man-child with an inability to stay still or speak properly. DeNiro was rightly awarded with an Oscar nomination for his work but why he didn’t win is beyond me. In fact, it must have been a frustrating year for him at the Academy Awards in 1991. He lost the Best Actor award to Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune but this was the same year that one of DeNiro’s best films – Goodfellas – would be overlooked and his good friend Martin Scorsese also ignored for Best Director. On reflection (although not unsurprising) the Academy made a number of mistakes but there’s no doubt in my mind that DeNiro took the brunt of it and thoroughly deserved more for his output that year. His work as Leonard Lowe is truly captivating and epitomises the sheer breadth that DeNiro is capable of. Actors embodying a disability or medical condition tend to be Oscar bait with the likes of Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) notably winning the Academy over. DeNiro’s performance is even better than those and the only exception that just might overshadow them all is Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot.

Despite my admiration, Awakenings has come in for some criticism. In particular, a forced sentimentality has been found by many. I suppose this will depend on the individual viewer and in a sense I can see where some might think that. However, I found the sentimentality to be well judged and the performances balanced and authentic. That said, there’s no denying it’s ability to bring on the water works. It’s certainly not easy to keep a dry eye (especially with Randy Newman’s beautifully pitched score) but I personally didn’t see this as being overly sentimental but more about it having the ability to relate and draw you into it’s very personal and tragic story. And what a story it is. Admittedly, I never read Dr. Sacks’ novel on which it’s based but I did read his memoirs and case studies told in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and that, like Awakenings, was a book of medical revelations and anomalies that are nothing short of fascinating.

Powerful and affecting, Awakenings is a film that captures the heart and triumph of the human spirit to it’s empathic core. It also provides two exceptionally excellent performances from Williams and, especially, DeNiro. It’s through these captivating performances that we are allowed access to the wonder and bewilderment of human conditions and Penny Marshall’s delicate handling brings it to the fore. An often overlooked film from the early 90’s that possesses one of Williams’ strongest dramatic roles and one of DeNiro’s last truly committed.  Mark Walker

Trivia: Dr. Sayer, played by Robin Williams, treats the comatose Leonard with a drug called Levodopa (L-DOPA). This was the same drug used to treat Robin Williams’ own Parkinson-like symptoms shortly before his death in August 2014.

39 Responses to “Awakenings”

  1. I’m ashamed to see I have yet to see this movie, your fabulous review has made me want to rectify that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great one to highlight, Mark. Williams and De Niro in unexpected roles, to that time, which really made viewers see them in another light.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In light of losing Robin Williams last year and Oliver Sacks dying last month, what better time to reflect on this film, Michael? I think it’s a genuine treat and I couldn’t agree more on the perception of Williams and DeNiro at this time. I think both their performances surprised a lot of people. They’re both brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. While I liked it well enough (saw it in the theater) the sentimentality of the thing took a few stars off of it for me. While I thought De Niro’s performance was on par with Hanks I really thought Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man as well as Day-Lewis’s in My Left Foot were pretty much perfect. At the time Day-Lewis was pretty much an unknown (not unlike Eddie Redmayne in recent portrayal of, to quote Chris O’Dowd’s Roy from The IT Crowd, “The Hawk”) but Hoffman being a well established actor really made me really forget his real life persona. De Niro didn’t do the same for me on this movie. Maybe it was Penny Marshall’s maudlin directing. What can I say?

    Speaking of getting into character I saw Sling Blade with an old girlfriend of mine and she didn’t even realize the she was watching ol’ Billy Bob until I told her after the movie was over. LOL.

    Williams perfect movie for me was Good Morning Vietnam. I thought it was his best showcase of his humor and drama chops… along with Good Will Hunting. I saw Good Morning Vietnam in a packed 700 seat theater and you could only make out every other line because everybody was laughing so much.

    Fun fact Mark… Barry Levinson directed both Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam.


    • As always it great to have your input, Dave. I can see where you’re coming from. And many would agree. Maybe I’m just an old softy at heart but I found the sentimentality worked well. It maybe pushes it too far on occasion but I found the story heartbreaking as it is and it didn’t really have to push too hard anyway. If you know what I mean?

      As for DeNiro, I thought he was outstanding. Hoffman is magnificent in Rain Man, as is Hanks in Gump, but DeNiro did take me away from his persona. Day-Lewis’ unknown quality at the time probably worked his favour but there’s no denying he could very well be the one to beat in terms of depicting disabled characters. (Leo DiCaprio was none too shabby in Gilbert Grape either).

      Williams was just wonderful in Awakenings too. Its a hard one when picking a favourite from him. As much as I loved him in Vietnam and Will Hunting, I’d probably sway more towards Awakenings or The Fisher King. All in all, though, this film benefits from two very strong performances.

      Maudlin? Maybe. But it worked for me, man! 🙂


      • It’s funny I thought of Gilbert Grape too but DiCaprio was pretty damn good already holding his own against De Nero in This Boys Life which came out seven months before Gilbert Grape so he was already on my radar.

        In fairness I haven’t seen Awakenings since ’89 and De Niro’s career has been flagging for quite some time (except for Silver Linings Playbook. I had to go back to Ronin in ’98 to find a dramatic movie of his I liked. Although I will say he was funny in Analyze That and Meet The Fockers playing off his past roles.) so I may be have a jaded opinion of his late 80’s/early 90’s stuff without Marty.

        I forgot about the Fisher King. It mos def belongs in that group I mentioned above. But then again you had Levinson, Gilliam and Van Sant vs Penny Marshall… so there’s that. I should probably give Awakenings a rewatch. Patch Adams was maudlin. I guess it wasn’t on that level. It was still a bit too sentimental for me. And hey, I just cried earlier this week while watching Me and Earl and The Dying Girl. So I guess I’m a softy too! LOL. 🙂 My favorite movie of the year so far. The parodies of The Criterion Collection types of movies are brilliant beyond words. Only a true film lover could appreciate their genius.


      • DiCaprio was on my radar too after This Boys Life. He was brilliant and more than DeNiro’s match. I like to take comfort in knowing about DiCaprio before the heights of Titanic.

        As for DeNiro he done some great stuff in the late 80’s like Angel Heart and Midnight Run. The 90’s also a delivered some good stuff from him (outwith Marty) like Heat, A Bronx Tale, Wag the Dog and Jackie Brown. But it’s true he was starting to tail off and become less committed in his approach to a role.

        I’ve yet to see Patch Adams but that’s a good point about Van Sant, Gilliam and Levinson vs Marshall. To someone unaware looking over that, it doesn’t inspire confidence in Marshall. Lol

        I must check out Me and Earl. I’ve heard of it but not much. Those posters are great, man. You might find some you like from my own collection of Movie Poster Mash-up’s


  4. Mark! Hi! Great review. 🙂 Man, I haven’t watched this since it first came out. It’s one I’d like to re-visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello there. Yes, it’s I. The one and only. It’s been a while eh? 🙂

      I have to say, the welcome back I’ve received has been humbling.

      As always, though, I have a penchant for all things DeNiro and this is good one in my eyes. Well worth a revisit.


  5. Mark, I found you 😉 Awakenings is a good one. I liked both performances by Williams and DeNiro. I should revisit it again with a fresh/older pair of eyes.


    • Always a pleasure to see a friendly face, Cindy. 😉

      Awakenings is part of a little DeNiro trilogy I decided to return with. Who better than Bob to get me back into the blogging mood eh?

      As you can see, I’m a big fan of Awakenings. It’s such a heartbreaking story and it’s delivered with aplomb by Williams and my main man!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review! you’ve definitely made me want to revist this.


  7. This movie was on TV today, but I missed it. Will have to see if it’s on Netflix or LoveFilm,.


  8. Never heard of this one! Sounds like a good one

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This looks fantastic, and I haven’t seen it! I will have to rectify that ASAP by the looks of it. Nice work Mark!

    Miss seeing De Niro in solid films with brilliant and dedicated performances.


  10. Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched this but your fine review brings it all back. Great to be reading your stuff again Mark. When De Niro’s great there’s nobody better.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Holy shit, with a cast this good how can I not see this???

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hello hello! How’re you Mark? Glad to see you back reviewing again, I miss your writing, my friend. Oh man, how could I not realize this is by Penny Marshall?? I haven’t seen this yet but I definitely should, esp with THIS cast! Your Bobby D and the late Robin Williams must be electrifying on screen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Ruth! Yeah, I’m doing good. Thought I’d show my face around the blogosphere for a bit and see how everyone is getting on.

      As for this flick, it often surprises me how few people have actually seen it. It’s a great film and one I’d very much recommend to you, Ruth. I reckon you’d take plenty from this.

      Liked by 1 person

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