Movie fans with long memories may experience déja vu watching Awakenings, Penny Marshall’s affecting adaptation of neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1973 book about victims of sleeping sickness. Based on Sacks’ efforts to bring his postencephalitic patients out of a catatonic state with an experimental drug, only to see them fall into oblivion again, Awakenings focuses on the relationship between Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) and his primary subject, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro). In so doing, it’s almost a remake of director Ralph Nelson’s Charly, a drama starring Cliff Robertson as a gentle retardate given temporary intelligence through radical brain surgery. In one way, Charly even went Awakenings one better: Where De Niro was only nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Robertson won. Together, these movies make an intriguing video double bill with lessons in how different Hollywood generations can approach similar stories.
Lesson No. 1: Given a choice between sticking to the source or sugarcoating it, Hollywood will break out the corn syrup. Daniel Keyes’ story Flowers for Algernon, on which Charly was based, is in the form of Charly Gordon’s diaries; you follow his thoughts as he progresses from the mental level of a 6-year old to that of a grown man. In the film, the transformation is absurdly brief: Charly learns to spell school correctly, and in the next scene he’s solving complex syllogisms and checking out Claire Bloom’s butt. That romance then becomes the movie’s focus.
Surprisingly, Awakenings is guilty of the same sentimentality. The movie significantly alters facts to better hammer your heartstrings. The real patient on whom Leonard Lowe was based, for instance, had more trouble adjusting to the world than his movie counterpart: Obsessed with women, he became a chronic and public masturbator. Awakenings diverts that unpretty truth into a secondhand romance between Leonard and a sweet, understanding young woman (Penelope Ann Miller).
Lesson No. 2: A Best Actor Oscar does not necessarily a great performance make. Robertson has plenty of fine portrayals on his resume (in Underworld, U.S.A., and J.W. Coop), but Charly isn’t one of them. Before Charly has his operation, Robertson plays the character as a very slow Jimmy Stewart; afterward, he’s like Hugh Hefner with a Ph.D. in physics, tooling around in a Triumph and chatting about Einstein. Chalk that Oscar up to sentiment or intra-industry politics.
De Niro has his Oscars already, of course, and for the first two-thirds of Awakenings he seems to be coasting on his rep. But as Leonard’s condition worsens, the actor gets down to business, and his depiction of an intelligent man grown furious at his body’s betrayal is painful to watch. This performance, more than Marshall’s too-tasteful direction, is what will keep Awakenings from regressing into another Charly over the years. B+