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.