The Good Doctor

Originally published on December 17, 1990 | New York Magazine | written by David Denby

The patients in "Awakenings" -- Penny Marshall's new film, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro -- appear to be frozen at a moment of supreme effort. In a hospital in the Bronx, they sit in grotesquely contorted postures, each with a shoulder hiked up, unblinking eyes wide open, mouths hanging open, too. This movie, a volatile mix of strength and weakness, intellectual boldness and commercial calculation, is a fictionalized account of the clinical work that Dr. Oliver Sacks described in his remarkable 1973 book of the same name. The Sacks figure (Williams), called Malcolm Sayer, is put in charge of a group of apparently catatonic men and women, victims of a postencephalitic neurological disorder. He is determined to wake them up.

For they are not "dead," not even in a metaphorical sense. They are experiencing, often with complete lucidity, something like stasis in life. They may walk a little and then suddenly stop, the motor stalled. As re-created by a group of actors, the patients seem not so much inert as arrested -- sculpted, almost, or encased, as if lava had flowed over them while they were going about their business. What it takes to unlock the energy inside, and then the exhilarations and tragedies of that unlocking, are the heart of this film, which, believe it or not, is an entertainment, and a smart one at that.

The subject, of course, is booby-trapped. Passing someone on the street who is insane or deformed or neurologically disabled, we are disturbed and often fascinated, and may even stop to stare; then we are ashamed by our own fascination. Children make fun; grown-ups are educated out of ridicule, though not out of fear, since it is a version of ourselves in extremis that we see. Frederick Wiseman, in his celebrated documentary about the criminally insane -- as well as in his films about the blind and the deaf -- looks at his subjects so steadily and in such detail that the twin issues of voyeurism and squeamishness are simply transcended by the intensity of his gaze. But that kind of transcendence is harder to achieve in a commercial venture; we are aware that trained actors are using all their skill and tricks to work up an impersonation of a suffering person.

Awakenings has been made with sensitivity and taste. There is certainly no exploitation of the obvious sort, and nothing in the sensational, brazen style of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (the high reputation of that ideological nuthatch bash amazes me). The patients are always treated as people, not as spectacle, though in fact the strangeness and the stress of their clinical symptoms are the most arresting things in the movie. Awakenings is actually too tasteful and a bit soft -- somewhat evasive and too easily upbeat -- but I enjoyed a lot of it, and I think it may break some ground in the treatment of such subjects.

As concocted by screenwriter Steven Zaillian, Sayer needs awakening himself. Timid and guarded, kindly yet cut off and asexual, he is a man with a vital element missing. Williams, having dropped the adorable Pied Piper act that made his performances in Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society so tiresome, does some serious work. Masked by a fuzzy beard, he holds his arms at his side and hunches slightly, as if he were trying to stop cold air from sliding up his tummy. Williams makes Sayer a brainy nerd, at home with worms but not with people, and he does it without caricature. He conveys Sayer's attentiveness to his patients and als, at the same time, his fear of them as human beings. Yet Sayer, though awkward and self-protecting, is no bumbler. When he knows he's right, he becomes obdurate, as virile as John Wayne.

This neurotic genius is a plausible modern hero, a satisfying, less sanctimonious equivalent of Paul Muni's indomitable scientific researcher in The Story of Louis Pasteur a half-century ago. He doesn't need the additional buildup given him by Zaillian and Marshall, who turn the hospital administrators into dismissively sarcastic types in order to set off his heroism. Ah, the lone battler against the gray-souled medical Establishment! In Sacks's book, there is nothing so corny and obvious.

Yet when Sayer works with the patients, Marshall comes through. As her direction of Big suggested, she has a gentle way with aberrant behavior. She plays the therapeutic stuff for comedy, a daring move that feels right; much of the material is bizarrely funny.

Almost as soon as he enters the hospital, Sayer notices that seemingly immobile patients will jerk to life if exposed to the right stimulus. One woman catches a dropped pair of eyeglasses, her hand shooting out as if released by a powerful spring. A quartet of cardplayers, as furiously intent as a group of friends at an all-night gin-rummy session at the Fontainebleau, sit locked, unable to make a move, until a nurse drops a card on the table, at which point they all slap cards down violently. Music can reach them -- bits of La Bohème or something from their youth; some swing, say. Awakenings is about responsiveness itself, a theme obviously dear to actors and directors, who all long to stir us out of our stone-like apathy. The movie shines with the right kind of dedication.

Sayer administers a new "miracle" drug, L-dopa, to a patient, Leonard Lowe (De Niro), who has been ill since boyhood, a gnarled, angry man fussed over by his ancient mother (Ruth Nelson). At first, the improvements are startling, and startlingly genial. Leonard begins walking and talking, he takes care of himself, loses his anger, conducts a genteel courtship of a beautiful woman (Penelope Ann Miller) who visits her father in the hospital. The others given the drug stir, shake, and spring to life. Joy overtakes them; they can run, dance, make friends. They get "drunk on reality" (in Sacks's words), experiencing the normal things of life as revelation. Some of this stuff, though touching, isn't as well directed as it could have been. Marshall makes the "awakenings" occur too suddenly, without the many half-steps from near-paralysis to normal physical competence, the inutterable strangeness of arising from a 20- or 30-year sleep. She gives us a few messily inept scenes with actors whose faces we recognize -- Richard Libertini and Anne Meara -- running around trying to register in the background of shots.

But she does impressive work with De Niro. His limbs and face, tilted, askew, like a ship listing badly, attain something like normality. Then the drug begins to fail, or side effects set in (this issue is never made clear), and Leonard begins, by degrees, to regress. At first, he develops a tic, then goes more and more out of control. The most wonderful and frightening thing about De Niro's performance is the way, despite several paranoid outbreaks, he remains generally lucid throughout Leonard's increasing physical disarray, commenting bitterly on each defection of his body as it occurs. The process of alienation from one's own body -- what we all go through as we age -- has never been made so vivid.

Strong stuff, yet it could have been even stronger. The truth of what happened to Leonard is more disturbing. He did not conduct a polite flirtation with a girl but went into wild libidinal rages, chasing nurses, masturbating in public. Tormented by voluptuous dreams and grandiose fantasies, at the edge of madness he finally pulled himself together and wrote what Sacks says is a remarkable autobiography before slipping all the way back into his disorder. The filmmakers must have felt that Leonard's fierce intellectual clarity would be too much for us.

The material, by its nature, is ineluctably tragic, since the freedom granted the patients by Sayer's treatment ebbs away from them and they all sink again under the weight of their illness. The film's explicitly stated "moral" -- that the patients' awakenings make us all feel the value of the ordinary elements of our existence -- is a bit hollow when the unhappiness remains acute, the period of light so brief. Sayer himself is redeemed and finds his humanity, which is nice but almost a distraction from what happens to the others. Rather than feeling grateful for the "up" ending, I felt cheated out of my rightful share of mourning.