Today, films about handicaps and diseases occur occasionally. One example is A Beautiful Mind, which features schizophrenia. Certainly, this is not a topic that is featured as often as the common themes of war/action, romance, and comedy, perhaps due to the greater subtlety involved in the dignity of characters who exhibit serious illnesses and the supreme mastery needed of film directors and actors who would wish to convey it. Too often a majority of individuals tend to be repulsed by the sight of individuals on screen whose bodily functions so evidently and so seriously deviate from health. A film about a disease would need to overcome this ingrained repulsion and portray the patients as genuinely attractive, important, and interesting individuals.
Penny Marshall does this with Awakenings (1990) through her depiction of Leonard as an eager connoisseur of books and toy models, as well as Leonard’s intellectual deliberations about the nature of life. Leonard’s mind is exposed in a manner that welcomes the audience to explore his personality, rather than be repelled by his defects.
The various plots of the film are integrated skillfully. For example, the conflict between Dr. Sayer and the hospital establishment constantly undermines his relationship with his patients, as the hospital always holds and often acts on its financial reservations, and, in the ultimate escalation of its insensitivity, denies Leonard’s harmless request to take a walk alone. This brings about Leonard’s deep spite and his orchestration of a rebellion of the patients against both the hospital and Dr. Sayer. Additionally, Leonard’s conversations with Dr. Sayer and his ultimate relapse into immobility convince Sayer to finally express his affections for Eleanor Costello and take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a caring relationship in full health. Another plot concerns Leonard’s relationship with his mother, who had been his principal caretaker, and who becomes dismayed by Leonard’s interest in and association with Paula. This tension is resolved when Leonard is incapacitated once again, as both his mother and Paula attend to his welfare.
My primary exposure to Robin Williams has been through comedy films such as Mrs. Doubtfire, while Robert De Niro is familiar from action films like The Untouchables. The roles played by both actors in this film are unusual for them, but this is necessitated by the very nature and content of the film. Nevertheless, De Niro did resemble his Al Capone role when, as Leonard, he orchestrated the uprising of patients in the hospital and recruited a ganglike following for himself, endangering and humiliating Dr. Sayer with it. This may have been a deliberate decision on Penny Marshall’s part, as De Niro is known to play well the roles of gang bosses, but that episode was without question an exception to Leonard’s personality rather than the rule. De Niro has been put into a role of an admirable, thoughtful individual, which he has shown to play as well as that of a detestable gangster.
The most memorable secondary character in the film is the female doctor on the hospital board who stated to Leonard when he sought permission to go for a walk, “Are you aware that you are expressing a subconscious disdain for us?” To this Leonard replied, in demonstration of his mental autonomy, “How can I be aware of it if it is subconscious?” This doctor, to me, symbolized a hospital establishment that did not view Leonard and other post-encephalitic patients as fully human and employed pseudo-intellectual sophisms to justify restrictions placed on the patients from some of the most rudimentary and innocent undertakings of human existence.
The visit to an earlier setting of the 1920s presents a stark contrast in appearance and lifestyles with the main setting of the film. The clothing and vehicle styles of Leonard’s childhood are far different from the era of his awakening, and bring about the need for Leonard to adapt to an entirely new world and “catch up” on forty years of change. The effect of this is the creation of an understanding within the audience of just how long Leonard had been incapacitated and how torturous this period had been for him. The historical setting of the 1960s is in itself expressed well through the screams of anti-war protesters near the hospital area, as well as the ragged and often suggestive fashions of people encountered on the streets. One particular scene, of Dr. Sayer and Leonard passing by a dazed bum on the street poses an intense contrast between Leonard, who, having been separated from life for so long, is eager to savor every moment of health and competence, and this apparently young hippie who is deliberately ruining his health and viewing life with a dull contempt.
Leonard awakens literally, from decades of immobility, but also intellectually, being able to reveal his insights and values to the world with immense expressive power which he had hitherto lacked. Dr. Sayer awakens to the idea of enjoying health and competence while they are still available and opening oneself to new opportunities rather than shying away from them. The hospital staff and the sponsors of the project to treat the patients are guided by Leonard and Dr. Sayer into understanding the patients’ full humanity and dignity, as well as appreciating the ability to perform rudimentary life-affirming tasks, such as taking walks or merely speaking, that patients such as Leonard have been deprived of and yearned for greatly. The lesson derived across the board, especially by the audience, is that living must be performed deliberately, without allowing boredom with mundane routine to overshadow an appreciation for and actualization of one’s fundamental ability to extract the most from one’s relationships and undertakings. The audience can awaken to the fact that life is far more colorful than it is often portrayed in a culture that stresses routine, and much more of it can be explored than is customarily taken advantage of.