Awakenings (Penny Marshall, 1990)

Long time, no post! March was a strange, long month full of madness and other unbelievable things, such as I officially stopped watching Person of Interest without too many tears because you just can’t kill Carter, let Shaw live, and give Fusco scanty screen time to boot, UK gave us an unbelievable, heart-stopping-wrenching-breaking run to the title game, and I actually had to leave the house to discover that Rob Lowe wrote another book, so I have officially deemed the Internet useless. Meanwhile, I didn’t feel inspired to blog about anything — until last night, when I watched Awakenings (which was spurred by watching Bradley Cooper on Inside the Actors Studio cry about everything — aww! —  and flashback to him asking De Niro a question about the film).


Awakenings, based on a true story, tells the story of the shy, slightly backward (the man has the periodic table framed in his living room and his refrigerator is full of plants) Dr. Malcolm Sayer (played by Robin Williams), who begins working in a chronic hospital, specifically focusing on a group of catatonic patients who survived an epidemic of a rare disease in the 1920s. Through his interaction with the patients and his relentless research, he proposes treating them with a new, experimental drug, L-Dopa, designed for Parkinson’s Disease patients. Leonard Lowe (played to heartbreaking perfection by Robert De Niro) is the first of Dr. Sayer’s patients to receive this somewhat controversial treatment. The result is nothing short of miraculous.


“My name is Leonard Lowe. It has been explained to me that I have been away for quite some time. I’m back.” 

Leonard, previously immobile, mute, and completely dependent on others, is now able to talk, walk, and take the greatest pleasure in doing the simplest things, like brushing his teeth and shaving by himself. Leonard’s awakening is so full of awe and enthusiasm for life, he is afraid to go to sleep, fearing he will reawaken to find himself reverted to his catatonic state. He hears rock ‘n’ roll for the first time, sees an airplane takeoff, and even begins to fall in love. The success of Leonard’s treatment prompts Dr. Sayer to seek funds to similarly treat all of the catatonic patients, who subsequently experience “awakenings” just like Leonard’s.

One night, Leonard calls Dr. Sayer late to tell him about things that matter, things that have happened to him, things that he has come to understand.

“We’ve got to tell everybody. We’ve got to remind them. We’ve got to remind them how good it is,” he tells Dr. Sayer excitedly.

“How good what is, Leonard?”

“Look at this newspaper,” he says, handing him the paper. “What does it say? All bad. It’s all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about. They’ve forgotten what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded. They need to be reminded about what they have and what they can lose, and what I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!”

Leonard wants more freedom, a simple freedom, the freedom to go for a walk when he wants to by himself to look at things, talk to people, to do all the things that other people take for granted. When this request is denied and Leonard is confined to the psychotic floor of the hospital, he grows angry and begins to develop facial and body ticks, which gradually worsen to the point where they are uncontrollable.

“Don’t give up on me,” Leonard pleads with Dr. Sayer, who tells him he’s not sure if he can stop the ticks but is trying.

“I won’t,” Dr. Sayer promises.

Eventually, however, Dr. Sayer is pressured by the other doctors of the hospital and Leonard’s mother to cease his treatment. Leonard, too, realizes his medication is no longer working, as he cannot even keep his eyes focused in one spot long enough to read or keep his hands steady to brush his own teeth. He has lunch with Paula, the girl he has begun to develop feelings for, and tells her he cannot see her anymore. She tells him about what she has been doing.

“I worked, went dancing, had friends over, that’s about it. Not much,” she tells him

Leonard responds, “That’s great. I’ve never done any of those things.”

It’s devastating. And then, when he reaches to shake her hand to say goodbye, she doesn’t let go and begins to dance with him. And when she does finally leave, he rushes to the window to watch her catch her bus…and everybody else is just watching him. (By this point, I was really hoping the movie was over soon because I didn’t know how much more I could take.)

Leonard returns to his catatonic state, once again like “The Panther” in the poem he communicated to Dr. Sayer via the Ouija board while in his catatonic state earlier in the film:


His gaze, from staring through the bars,
has grown so weary that it can take in nothing more.
For him, it is as though there were
a thousand bars; and behind the thousand bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
his powerful strides are like a ritual dance around a center
where a great will stands paralyzed.

At times, the curtains of the eye
lift, without a sound
and a shape enters,
slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders,
reaches the heart and dies.  

Dr. Sayer (like everyone else watching this film) is heartbroken by the failure of the treatment. He explains to the staff of the hospital:

“The summer was extraordinary. It was a season of rebirth and innocence, a miracle for 15 patients and for us, their caretakers. But now we have to adjust to the realities of miracles. We can hide behind the veil of science and say it was the drug that failed or that the illness itself had returned or that the patients were unable to cope with losing decades of their lives. But the reality is we don’t know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right. What we do know is that as the chemical window closed another awakening took place — that 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.”

Awakenings is, in a word (for the thousandth time), heartbreaking, reflected in the actors’ powerful performances and haunting soundtrack. But it is also a testament of the human spirit and an unforgettable reminder of what matters in life.

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