Awakenings offers an important lesson to appreciate life. Based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks who managed to awaken several catatonic patients in the summer of 69. Between Big and A League of Their Own, Awakenings became director Penny Marshall’s most acclaimed film. Yet it’s technically the most underrated Best Picture nominee of 1990. It’s practically forgotten compared to movies like Ghost, Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III, and eventual winner Dances with Wolves. But Awakenings is a feel good story with a dedicated cast. After proving his dramatic chops with Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams brought just as much thoughtfulness to the fictionalized Dr. Malcolm Sayer.
Dr. Sayer is hired to work in a mental hospital, and although it’s presented in a humorous way, there’s nothing funny about what the patients are dealing with. Sayer’s breakthrough comes when he reaches out to the catatonic patients who were stricken with the sleeplike encephalitis lethargica. The titular “awakening” comes when they’re treated with the experimental L-Dopa. Leonard is the primary patient who miraculously awakens after 30 years. Robert De Niro gives a multilayered Best Actor nominated performance. Going from catatonic to curious about the world. The rest of the cast is just as notable.
Marge Simpson herself Julie Kavner plays one of the more caring orderly’s who has romantic interest in Malcolm. No two patients are the same, but Alice Drummond as Lucy stands out for inspiring the tests. John Heard and Max von Sydow both play doctor’s with differing opinions about the treatment. Several well known actors make an appearance, but the most shocking one is a young Vin Diesel (with hair) in his first film role. In her final film role, Ruth Nelson shows the emotional struggle that comes with being Leonard’s mother. Penelope Ann Miller is just as caring as Leonard’s love interest. Leonard unfortunatly regresses, but the way he saw life was enough to leave a positive impact on others. Awakenings is no One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it is just as tragically inspirational.