Penny Marshall’s Awakenings is most superficially compared to Barry Levinson’s Rain Man for a few understandable reasons, not least of which being the two films feature a famous lead actor playing a character with a severe medical affliction. The two films also came out within two years of each other, and some may suspect Rain Man‘s success to have influenced Awakenings.
Starring Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer (an analogue for real-life Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose memoir provided the basis for Awakenings) and Robert De Niro as mostly-catatonic patient Leonard, the film follows both men as they experience a breakthrough with regards to Leonard’s condition. Sayer’s intuition leads to the application of a new drug which brings Leonard and other patients of the ward out of catatonia and into a clearer existence, “awakened” to the world. The continued treatment of Leonard proves a heartbreaking experience for Dr. Sayer.
De Niro is superb as Leonard, who shows signs of severe Parkinson’s and also must deal emotionally with the waxing and waning of his symptoms. There’s no doubt that Awakenings garnered comparisons to the likes of Rain Man because of De Niro’s performance. It’s Williams, however, who gives the film the real heart, playing perfectly off of Leonard’s mannerisms with a shy, observing, and caring demeanor.
The best I can compare these two lead performances to might be those of Dallas Buyers Club, wherein Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto lead the film with a pair of Oscar-winning turns. McConaughey’s devotion is clear and obvious, up there on the screen in all of its emaciated glory for everyone to see. Leto, though his role as Rayon is still larger-than-life, doesn’t show as much of the discipline. He is completely under the skin of Rayon, and in a similar way Williams is completely under the skin of Dr. Sayer. Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers referred to Williams’s performance as “startlingly mature”; I couldn’t hope to think of a more accurate description.
The ending of Awakenings, though the set-up may be similar to Rain Man and the performances may recall Dallas Buyers Club, is more like Flowers for Algernon than anything else. The “awakening” itself is beautiful, but the heartstrings really get pulled at the inevitable receding of that newfound life. De Niro, Williams and director Penny Marshall paint this last act of the film with sheer brilliance, and in spite of any comparisons you care to make Awakenings is a great film unto itself.