"Read the newspaper. 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 of what they have and what they can lose. What I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of life, the wonderment of life!"
Leonard (Robert De Niro)
I have already written about a couple of Robin Williams' movies that premiered in December, but today is the 25th anniversary of the premiere of a movie that will always be among my favorites — "Awakenings."
It surprised me, though, how much attention was given — and continues to be given — to Robert De Niro's performance. He was good, as always, but so was Robin Williams — who gave a truly sensitive performance (one that was probably surprisingly sensitive for many people). De Niro got the Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Williams was passed over.
Williams played a doctor who discovered the benefits of using a drug that had shown promising results with Parkinson's patients on victims of an encephalitis epidemic that left many people catatonic for decades. De Niro played one of the victims who now had to adjust to life in a world that didn't exist when they became sick.
The movie was an affirmation of life, both from those who portrayed the victims of the illness and those who sought to treat them.
Williams' character came to hospital with no experience working with patients. He worked with earthworms in his most recent project. It was tedious work, but he brought a rare, even for that time, dedication to his task.
Dr. Sayer (Robin Williams): It was an immense project. I was to extract 1 decagram of myelin from four tons of earthworms.
Dr. Sullivan (John Christopher Jones): Really!
Dr. Sayer: Yes. I was on the project for five years. I was the only one who believed in it. Everyone else said it couldn't be done.
Dr. Kaufman (John Heard): It can't.
Dr. Sayer: I know that now. I proved it.
But he quickly developed an empathy for his patients and a deep desire to restore a conscious life to them. When the use of L–Dopa had truly astonishing results with Leonard (De Niro), Williams' character was emboldened to seek the funding necessary to make the drug available to all of his catatonic patients.
As I say, the emphasis was on De Niro, but I really felt the heart of the story was Williams. So, too, apparently did Roger Ebert.
"Dr. Sayer, played by Williams, is at the center of almost every scene, and his personality becomes one of the touchstones of the movie," wrote Ebert. "He is shut off, too: by shyness and inexperience, and even the way he holds his arms, close to his sides, shows a man wary of contact. He really was happier working with those earthworms. This is one of Robin Williams' best performances, pure and uncluttered, without the ebullient distractions he sometimes adds — the schtick where none is called for. He is a lovable man here who experiences the extraordinary professional joy of seeing chronic, hopeless patients once again sing and dance and greet their loved ones."
This was no Mork from Ork or any of Williams' manic characters. It was a character with whom the audience could identify.
Julie Kavner played another such character, a nurse and ardent supporter of Dr. Sayer's vision. The introverted Dr. Sayer never realized what the audience had known for a long time until the end of the movie — that she loved him.
I guess that was something of an awakening in Dr. Sayer.
Sadly, the benefits of L–Dopa turned out to be temporary, and the patients were soon restored to their catatonic states — not unlike the story of Charly, Cliff Robertson's Oscar–winning role.
The manic side of Robin Williams could only be contained so long, of course, and he had a memorable Robin Williams moment during the cast press conference. Director Penny Marshall, in attempting to describe the story, kept saying "menstrual" instead of "mental," prompting Williams to step to the microphone and deadpan, "It's a period piece."
It was also a testament to faith in the human spirit and its ability to overcome just about any obstacle.
"Awakenings" received three Oscar nominations — Best Picture, Best Actor (De Niro) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It lost all three.