‘People have forgotten what life is all about…’
The concept of a YouTube rabbit hole is often presented as an insidious time thief, rather than a viable way to spend an afternoon. And yet, a popular culture rabbit hole can be a wonderful thing. A recent conversation with a friend about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest led to Oliver Sacks’ seminal novel The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Reading that book led me to Sacks’ other work, until eventually, months later, I finally landed on Awakenings – a film adaptation of another of Sacks’ works about his time working with patients suffering through the difficulties of a chronic illness. And now you’re this, and so the cycle begins anew…
When appointed to work with patients suffering from catatonia brought on by encephalitis, Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) throws everything at trying to bring his patients back from the brink. His star patient is Leonard (Robert De Niro) – a man who hasn’t spoken or moved in thirty years.
Firstly, it’s weird how much this film hasn’t resonated at all across popular culture. In all my years of talking about films in dive bars, nobody has ever told me to watch Awakenings. Despite an all star cast and a fascinating premise. Indeed, it’s surprising that nobody received an Oscar nod here. Not Robin Williams, quietly understated but always compelling. Not De Niro, playing against type in a vulnerable and heartbreaking turn. Not even director Penny Marshall, who did at least have a huge hit two years earlier with Tom Hanks vehicle and ’80s classic Big.
Awakenings certainly deserves to be remembered. Wonderfully acted, poignant and chilling in equal measure, Marshall’s film has all the elements to endure, and yet, thirty years later it has been roundly forgotten. This is a shame. Marshall ignores the low hanging fruit of sentiment, instead opting to take a grown up and well rounded look at mental illness, and the result is something quietly beautiful. Time to bring Awakenings back into the public consciousness.