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Robert De Niro was outstanding in this film and really gave his all to bring the character of Leonard and this story to life. Robin Williams also gave an amazing performance plus was backed by an impressive script and guided by an amazing director like Penny Marshall. With De Niro, Williams and Marshall, you can't go wrong!
My aversion to Robin Williams partially colored how I viewed this film but fortunately the other elements of the production were enough for me to overlook how annoying the lead was. Director Penny Marshall made two hilarious, smart comedies in Big (1988) and A League of Their Own (1992) but she proved she could pull of serious drama with this critical and commercial success that garnered a Best Picture nomination. I found myself charmed by the film as while it's emotional manipulations were fairly obvious they were well executed and the story was surprisingly gripping as we see the impact that a discovery like this could have on the lives of regular men and women.
In the late 1920s, as a young child Leonard Lowe, Robert De Niro, begins suffering from encephalitis lethargica and soon enters into a catatonic state which he remains in until 1969 when he is being treated at a hospital in New York. He is helped by ambitious new physician Malcolm Sayer, Robin Williams, who is a proponent of the drug L-Dopa for treating sufferers of Lowe's disease. He chooses Lowe as a test patient and the results are almost immediate as while Lowe's loving mother, Ruth Nelson, has her doubts he is able to regain consciousness and walk and talk normally. He is shocked and excited by the modern world and as other patients at the hospital are treated they begin to really enjoy themselves. He falls in love with the daughter of another patient, Paula, Penelope Ann Miller, but his tics resurface and he returns to the catatonic state he had previously been in. Sayer records his regression and Lowe's experiences are used to help research the issue and make future patients lives easier.
The best parts of the film follow Lowe as he delights in seeing the world around him. In a particularly lovely montage he and Sayer wander around town to the sounds of The Zombies' "The Time of the Season" and finally end up at the beach where Lowe walks into the water and stands triumphant. This is a glorious moment not only because De Niro gives a convincing and sweet performance but because Marshall is careful to guide the audience through this world through the eyes of Lowe. Of course it is touching to see him fall in love with a kind, intelligent young woman but these scenes too have something special to them as Miller and De Niro have an enthusiasm rare in films of this sort and the dialogue they share feels honest and simple. We can expect that a woman would fall in love with a man because he is kind, honest and decent, unlike many films of this era this movie believes that a woman could fall in love with a man because he is good. We know that the heartbreak must come but Marshall ensures that these scenes of Lowe's happiness are not wasted and we share in his ecstasy.
The less said about Williams' performance the better as he pulls out his usual tricks, the uncomfortable smile during which he appears to be crying and the manic, angry speech. Fortunately he does not take up too much of the film and we get to enjoy our time with the supporting characters who are lively and colorful despite being nurses and patients, often characters relegated to being dull. Julie Kavner, during the Woody Allen phase of her career, impresses as a nurse sympathetic to Sayer's plight who also has romantic interest in him. Her strength and ability for light comedy shine through in this small role and hint at the bigger things that would come for her in the ensuing years. The director draws this sort of performance out of even the least significant actors and shows that she was truly an actor's director.
I may not have nominated this film for Best Picture but is better than Ghost (1990), Dances with Wolves (1990) and The Godfather Part III (1990) so I clearly did not agree with the decisions that the Academy made in that particular year. I would have preferred to have seen Metropolitan (1990), Avalon (1990), The Nasty Girl (1990) and Open Doors (1990) nominated but this is still a nice little film deserving of wide recognition.
Robin Williams at his finest moment.
Seeing Robin Williams give possibly his best performance in a non-comedy is so satisfying. The plot and premise are very believable. Highly recommend if you enjoy Dramas.
A deeply moving testament to the power of medicine and empathy.
Penny Marshall's medical drama Awakenings (1990) is a profoundly moving film. I find it captures the belief in medical science that doctors should aspire to, but more so relating to their patients' suffering and condition.
Marshall bravely represents a lost portion of society that have been left to die catatonic and hopeless in hospitals. Awakenings is inspired filmmaking from Marshall and inspiring as a story to remind the audience to live life to the fullest of your ability.
Randy Newman delivers his finest musical compositions with his affectionate jazz score. Newman underscores the harsh reality of Awakenings with delicate jazz brought to life with tender piano melodies throughout the film. It fits perfectly and swells just in the right emotional moments. Newman's score just mesmerizes me.
Steven Zaillian's beautiful script is brought to life by numerous brilliant performances within Awakenings' magnificent cast.
Namely, Robin Williams is so tender and empathetic as Dr. Malcolm Sayer. Awakenings is Williams' finest dramatic role as he finds an appreciation for the most down trodden selection of people and opens up to them. Robin Williams will sorely be missed for the warmth, joy, and compassion he brought to his characters and the world.
Similarly, Robert De Niro is inspired Leonard Lowe, a catatonic patient who is given a new life, as he recreates the afflictions suffered by those with a terrible disease. De Niro slurs his speech, lies still, walks with a limp, shakes his hands and arms, violently spasms his head, averts his eyes, droops his mouth, and any other number of realistic aspects to accurately portray his debilitated character. De Niro's depth for humanity shines in Awakenings as the very much alive Lowe. His love and appreciation for love are given to the audience through De Niro's passionate and method performance.
Furthermore, Julie Kavner is adorable as the sweet nurse Eleanor Costello. Her perseverance for her patients and her love are admirable. Kavne plays the character perfectly.
Then, Awakenings features an astonishing supporting cast of actors and actresses. John Heard is so stingy and cold as Dr. Kaufman. Penelope Ann Miller is so sweet and likable as the hopeful Paula. Max von Sydow gets a cool cameo as the knowledge expert on the movie's main disease concern. His research scene with Robin Williams is gripping and moving, if sad and disturbing at his implications of how horrendous the disease can be. Peter Stormare has a funny cameo as a sleazy, nonchalant neurochemist.
Additionally, Awakenings has several other neat supporting roles played wonderfully by Ruth Nelson, George Martin, Richard Libertini, Alice Drummond, Judith Malina, Bradley Whitford, Mary Alice, Keith Diamond, and even jazz legend Dexter Gordon. Would you believe a young Vin Diesel plays an orderly somewhere in there too?
Overall, Awakenings is an enchanting drama about the power of life and the importance of trying to do what is right. The acting is stellar and worth seeing just for Robin Williams and Robert De Niro alone.
Despertares es un melodrama cautivador, eficaz y desgarrador, entre el trabajo excepcional de Robin Willians y Robert de Niro se logra una historia basada en hechos reales que deja claro la importancia de vivir y ser libre, sin duda el mejor intento en la filmografía de Marshall.
The best inspiring movie ever made!
Profound and well-acted movie.
Watching this decades later and still finding it intriguing is proof Awakenings is a timeless drama. The film is anchored in the phenomenal performances of Robert De Niro and the late Robin Williams, supported by a brilliant script for a powerful story.
The humanistic communication gave off a cautious signal out of its potential, realistic sentimentality between Williams' gentle care and De Niro's striving and literally ticking independence - mostly outside of his tough guy image - in this touching, generically rough drama. (B+)
(Full review TBD)