Awakenings (1990): De Niro as Patient in Penny Marshall’s Oscar Nominated Medlodrama, Co-Starring Robin Williams

Despite a potentially intriguing story, under the helm of Penny Marshall, Awakenings is not as effective or as touching a movie as it could or should have been.

An ultimately therapeutic melodrama, based on the experiences of the real-life Dr. Oliver Sacks, “Awakenings” is overly sentimental and too uplifting for its own good.

These two weaknesses mark all of Penny Marshall’s movies (“A League of  Their Own”), as well as those of her brother-director, Garry Marshall, perhaps due to the fact that both have hailed from TV and Sit-Com at that.  Penny is still best known for co-starring with Cindy Williams in TV’s iconic, long-running series, Laverne & Shirley.

As scripted by Steve Zaillian, the movie is also burdened by a tiresome subplot about the doctor’s own problems and resultant awakening through his professional relationship with his patient (Robert De Niro, in a state of coma for half of the movie) and a romantic affair with Julie Kavner.

Detailed Synopsis

Set in 1969, the tale centers on Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Williams), a dedicated physician at a Bronx local hospital.

After working with the patients who survived the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, Sayer discovers a stimuli that promises to reach beyond the patients’ catatonic states, enabling them to catch a ball, hear familiar music, and experience human touch.

Most of the film depicts the evolving relationship between Sayer and one patient, Leonard Lowe (De Niro) who is at first elusive, but Sayer discovers that he can communicate by using a Quija board.

After attending a conference, Sayer believes the drug L-Dopa may offer breakthrough for his Parkinson patients. A trial run with Leonard yields astounding results, when he “awakens” from his catatonic state. This success inspires Sayer to ask for more funding so that all the catatonic patients can receive the L-Dopa medication and experience “awakenings.”

Adjusting to his new life, Leonard becomes romantically interested in Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), the daughter of a hospital patient. Leonard also chafes at the restrictions on patients, asking for greater freedom. In fact, he stirs up a revolt, and Sayer notices some facial and body tics, which Leonard can’t control.

Sayer and the hospital staff soon find that it is a temporary measure. The first to “awaken,” Leonard is also the first to show the limited duration of “awakening.” Leonard’s tics grow more prominent and he starts to shuffle more as he walks. He begins to suffer body spasms and can hardly move. Leonard asks Sayer to film him, hoping to contribute to the research.

Leonard lunches with Paula for the last time. Paula dances with him, and his spasms disappear. Leonard and Sayer reconcile their differences, but Leonard returns to his catatonic state. The other patients’ fears materialize, when each returns to catatonia, regardless of the L-Dopa dosages.

Sayer tells a group of grant donors to the hospital that although the “awakening” did not last, another kind–learning to appreciate life–occurred.  He himself overcomes his shyness, asking Nurse Eleanor Costello to go out for coffee, long after he had declined a proposal from her. The nurses also now treat the catatonic patients with more respect and care, and Paula is shown visiting Leonard.

The film ends with Sayer standing over Leonard behind a Ouija board, his ands placed on Leonard’s hands, saying, “Let’s begin.”

“Awakenings” received mixed-to-negative reviews by the film critics, but at Oscar nomination time, the biggest scandal was the inclusion of the picture as one of the top five contenders, while omitting its director, Penny Marshall.  This happened again the following year: in 1991, “Prince of Tides” was nominated for Best Picture, but its director, Barbra Streisand, was not.

Many critics saw this as more than a snub, a blatant case of sexism on the part of the Directors Branch.  Some critics claimed that Marshall (and her picture) did not deserve to be nominated in the first place.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker
Actor: Robert De Niro
Screenplay (Adapted): Steven Zaillian

Oscar Context

In 1990, Awakenings competed for the Best Picture with the Western “Dances With Wolves,” the spiritual romantic melodrama “Ghost,” Coppola’s last installment in his Godfather saga “The Godfather: Part III,” and Scorsese’s well-crafted gangster feature “GoodFellas.”

Kevin Costner’s Western “Dances With Wolves” won Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, among other awards. British thespian Jeremy earned a well-deserved Best Actor for his dead-on impersonation of Claus Von Bulow in the biopic “Reversal of Fortune.”

Was 1990 the “year of the coma”? You may recall that in “Reversal of Fortune,” Von Bulow is charged with putting his wife (played by Glenn Close, who spent half of the movie on the floor) in coma.



Robert De Niro as Leonard Lowe

Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer

Julie Kavner as Eleanor Costello

John Heard as Dr. Kaufman

Penelope Ann Miller as Paula

Max Von Sydow as Dr. Peter Ingham

Ruth Nelson as Mrs. Lowe

Alice Drummond as Lucy

Judith Malina as Rose

Anne Meara as Miriam

Richard Libertini as Sidney

Keith Diamond as Anthony

Peter Stormare as Neurochemist

Bradley Whitford as Dr. Tyler

Dexter Gordon as Rolando

Libby Titus as Club Singer

Vincent Pastore as Ward patient (as Vinny Pastore)

George Martin as Frank

Anthony J. Nici as young Leonard Lowe