Director: Penny Marshall
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian
Adapted from: Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
Cast: Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Julie Kavner, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Max von Sydow
Nominations: Picture, Actor – Robert De Niro, Adapted Screenplay
Stay-at-home (and similarly named) orders weren’t exactly a surprise in the United States after numerous countries throughout Europe issued such orders as COVID-19 invaded their borders. While pandemics aren’t exactly uncommon—there have been eight in 21st century (yes, Wikipedia isn’t the best source, but the table has references, so that’s a plus)—the extent that COVID-19 has affected all areas of life and the world hasn’t been experienced for 100 years when Spanish flu spread across the globe.
Along with Spanish flu, another pandemic was causing harm to people: encephalitis lethargica (EL). From 1915 to 1926, almost five million people suffered from the disease, with about a third dying during the early stages of affliction. Despite decades of study and research, the cause of EL is still unknown and debated—some experts blame a virus, others suggest a bacterium—which makes understanding its pathology and developing treatments all the more difficult. (An interesting note: the EL pandemic of the 1910s-20s and an 1890s EL epidemic in Italy overlapped with influenza epidemics.)
Those who contracted EL and lived did so in catatonic states, forgotten and ignored as it was assumed nothing could be done for them. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote
They would be conscious and aware—yet not fully awake; they would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite, affect or desire; they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies.Awakenings by Oliver Sacks (1973)
And that’s when Awakenings picks up the story.
Based on the real-life Sacks, the fictional Dr. Malcolm Sayer begins work at long-term care facility in the Bronx in 1969. He encounters about fifteen catatonic patients—all of whom contracted EL during the 1920s—and discovers that despite their catatonia, they react to external stimuli, including catching a ball, walking on a patterned floor, hearing music, and being touched by another person. As he builds upon his research, Sayer learns of a Parkinson’s disease medication called L-Dopa and administers the drug to his patients. The drug works, reviving the patients from their “sleep.” The effects, however, and unfortunately, are short-lived, and before long, each of the “awakened” fall back to their previous states.
While Awakenings is ostensibly about the treatment and brief recovery of the EL patients, it is more obviously about the importance of life and the celebration of humanity.
The ultimate lesson we should leave the film with is that there is beauty, value, and wonder in the very fact that we are alive. It’s imperative that we use the time we have to enjoy what is around us before what is around us is taken away. The EL patients’ catatonia is an apt metaphor for the current stay-at-home orders in place around the world: we realize how special and meaningful the simple acts we’ve taken for granted for so long truly are. For Leonard, being able to write his name, read a book, and go for a walk outside are what makes life something worth fighting for. While Leonard succumbs to the onslaught of his disease, his passion is contagious: Dr. Sayer, who’s always had the ability to reach out to others, final does; the nurses and orderlies, who’ve worked with the patients for so long, learned more about their charges and now care about their patients as much as they give care to them.
The saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone;” perhaps there should be an addendum that includes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until you see someone without it.” Sure, both sentiments have a bittersweet quality, but what Awakenings shows us is that they should be interpreted in a more uplifting fashion. Let’s learn from what’s missing in our lives—especially as many of us spend weeks in our homes—and find ways to better appreciate those things as they return to us. Take a deep breath of fresh air on your next walk in the park, savor the taste of the first drink you have when dining out after restaurants re-open, show your respect to the teachers who have dozens of kids to teach every day, and let yourself become completely and fully immersed in the next film you see in a movie theater.
Above all, be sure to tell your friends and family that you care about them and that you’re glad they’re in your life. We can’t get through the tough times alone, and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to.