Awakenings is a 1990 American drama film based on Oliver Sacks's 1973 memoir of the same name. It tells the story of a fictional character, neurologist Dr. Malcolm Sayer, who is based on Sacks and played by Robin Williams. In 1969, he discovered beneficial effects of the drug L-Dopa. He administers it to catatonic patients who survived the 1917–1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Leonard Lowe (played by Robert de Niro) and the rest of the patients are awakened after decades and have to deal with a new life in a new time. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byPenny Marshall
Screenplay bySteven Zaillian
Based onAwakenings
by Oliver Sacks
Produced by
CinematographyMiroslav Ondricek
Edited byBattle Davis
Jerry Greenberg
Music byRandy Newman
Lasker/Parkes Productions
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release dates
December 20, 1990 (limited U.S.)
January 11, 1991 (wide U.S.)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$29 million[1]
Box office$108.7 million

Directed by Penny Marshall, the film was produced by Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, who first encountered Sacks's book as undergraduates at Yale University. They optioned it a few years later. Awakenings stars Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow. The film features a cameo appearance by jazz musician Dexter Gordon (who died before the film's release) and Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Vin Diesel (in his film debut), and Vincent Pastore.


In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer is a dedicated and caring physician at a local hospital in the Bronx borough of New York City. After working extensively with the catatonic patients who survived the 1917–1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, Sayer discovers certain stimuli will reach beyond the patients' respective catatonic states; actions such as catching a ball, hearing familiar music, being called by their name, and enjoying human touch, all have unique effects on particular patients and offer a glimpse into their worlds. Patient Leonard Lowe seems to remain removed, but Sayer learns that Leonard is able to communicate with him by using a Ouija board.

After attending a lecture at a conference on the drug L-Dopa and its success for patients with Parkinson's disease, Sayer believes the drug may offer a breakthrough for his own group of patients. A trial run with Leonard yields astounding results: Leonard completely "awakens" from his catatonic state. This success inspires Sayer to ask for funding from donors so that all the catatonic patients can receive the L-Dopa medication and gain "awakenings" to reality and the present.

Meanwhile, Leonard is adjusting to his new life and becomes romantically interested in Paula, the daughter of another hospital patient. Leonard begins to chafe at the restrictions placed upon him as a patient of the hospital, desiring the freedom to come and go as he pleases. He stirs up a revolt by arguing his case to Sayer and the hospital administration. Sayer notices that as Leonard grows more agitated, a number of facial and body tics are starting to manifest, which Leonard has difficulty controlling.

Although Sayer and the hospital staff are thrilled by the success of L-Dopa with this group of patients, they soon learn that it is a temporary result. As the first to "awaken", Leonard is also the first to demonstrate the limited duration of this period of "awakening". Leonard's tics grow more and more prominent, and he starts to shuffle more as he walks. All of the patients are forced to witness what will eventually happen to them. He soon begins to have full body spasms and can hardly move. Leonard puts up well with the pain, and asks Sayer to film him, in hopes that he would someday contribute to research that may eventually help others. Leonard acknowledges what is happening to him and has a last lunch with Paula, where he tells her he cannot see her anymore. When he is about to leave, Paula dances with him. For this short period of time, his spasms disappear. Leonard and Sayer reconcile their differences, but Leonard returns to his catatonic state soon after. The other patients' fears are similarly realized as each eventually returns to catatonia, no matter how much their L-Dopa dosages are increased.

Sayer tells a group of grant donors to the hospital that although the "awakening" did not last, another kind – one of learning to appreciate and live life – took place. For example, he overcomes his painful shyness and asks Nurse Eleanor Costello to go out for coffee, many months after he had declined a similar invitation from her. The nurses now treat the catatonic patients with more respect and care, and Paula is shown visiting Leonard. The film ends with Sayer standing over Leonard behind a Ouija board, with his hands on Leonard's hands, which are on the planchette. "Let's begin," Sayer says.




On September 15, 1989, Liz Smith reported that those being considered for the role of Leonard Lowe's mother were Kaye Ballard, Shelley Winters, and Anne Jackson;[2] not quite three weeks later, Newsday named Nancy Marchand as the leading contender.[3] However, it was not until late January of the following year—more than three quarters of the way through the film's four-month shooting schedule—that the matter was seemingly resolved, as the February 1990 issue of Premiere magazine published a widely cited story (much repeated and embellished in the years since), belatedly informing fans that not only had Winters landed the role, but she'd been targeted at De Niro's request and had sealed the deal by means of some unabashed résumé-flexing:

Ms. Winters arrived, sat down across from the casting director and did, well, nothing. After a moment of silence, she reached into her satchel and pulled out an Oscar, which she placed on the desk. After another moment, she reached in and pulled out another, placing it on the desk beside the first. Finally she said: "Some people think I can act. Do you still want me to read for this part?" "No, Miss Winters," came the reply. She got the part.[4]

Premiere, Newsday and Liz Smith notwithstanding, the film, as finally released in December 1990, featured neither Winters—whose early dismissal evidently resulted from continuing attempts to pull rank on director Penny Marshall[5]—nor any of the other previously publicized candidates (nor at least two others, Jo Van Fleet and Teresa Wright, identified in subsequent accounts),[6][7] but rather the then-85-year-old Group Theater alumnus Ruth Nelson, giving a well-received performance in what would prove her final feature film.[8][9][10][11][6][12] In concluding her review of the film, Wall Street Journal critic Julie Salamon writes:

As Leonard's mother, Ruth Nelson achieves a wrenching beauty that stands out even among these exceptional actors doing exceptional things.[13]


Principal photography for Awakenings began on October 16, 1989, at the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center in Brooklyn, New York, which was operating, and lasted until February 16, 1990. According to Williams, actual patients were used in the filming of the movie.[14] In addition to Kingsboro, sequences were also filmed at the New York Botanical Garden, Julia Richman High School, the Casa Galicia, and Park Slope, Brooklyn.[15]


Awakenings opened in limited release on December 22, 1990, with an opening weekend gross of $417,076.[16] The film expanded to a wide release on January 11, 1991, opening in second place behind Home Alone's ninth weekend, with $8,306,532.[17] It went on to gross $52.1 million in the United States and Canada[16] and $56.6 million internationally,[18] for a worldwide total of $108.7 million.

Critical responseEdit

Awakenings received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 89% of 35 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.7/10. Its consensus states "Elevated by some of Robin Williams' finest non-comedic work and a strong performance from Robert De Niro, Awakenings skirts the edges of melodrama, then soars above it."[19] Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 74 based on 18 reviews.[20] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "A" on scale of A to F.[21]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a four-out-of-four star rating, writing,

After seeing Awakenings, I read it, to know more about what happened in that Bronx hospital. What both the movie and the book convey is the immense courage of the patients and the profound experience of their doctors, as in a small way they reexperienced what it means to be born, to open your eyes and discover to your astonishment that "you" are alive.[22]

Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly praised the film's performances, citing,

There's a raw, subversive element in De Niro's performance: He doesn't shrink from letting Leonard seem grotesque. Yet Awakenings, unlike the infinitely superior Rain Man, isn't really built around the quirkiness of its lead character. The movie views Leonard piously; it turns him into an icon of feeling. And so even if you're held (as I was) by the acting, you may find yourself fighting the film's design.[23]

Oliver Sacks, the author of the memoir on which the film is based, "was pleased with a great deal of [the film]," explaining,

I think in an uncanny way, De Niro did somehow feel his way into being Parkinsonian. So much so that sometimes when we were having dinner afterwards I would see his foot curl or he would be leaning to one side, as if he couldn't seem to get out of it. I think it was uncanny the way things were incorporated. At other levels I think things were sort of sentimentalized and simplified somewhat.[24]

Desson Howe of The Washington Post felt the film's tragic aspects did not live up to the strength in its humor, saying that

when nurse Julie Kavner (another former TV being) delivers the main Message (life, she tells Williams, is "given and taken away from all of us"), it doesn't sound like the climactic point of a great movie. It sounds more like a line from one of the more sensitive episodes of Laverne and Shirley.[25]

Similarly, Janet Maslin of The New York Times concluded her review stating,

Awakenings works harder at achieving such misplaced liveliness than at winning its audience over in other ways.[26]


The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including: the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the Academy Award for Best Actor (Robert De Niro). Robin Williams was also nominated at the 48th Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama.

List of awards and nominations
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipients Result
Academy Awards March 25, 1991 Best Picture Walter F. Parkes,
Lawrence Lasker
Best Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Steven Zaillian Nominated
Awards of the Japanese Academy March 20, 1992 Best Foreign Film Awakenings Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards 1991 Best Actor Robert De Niro Nominated
Golden Globe Awards January 19, 1991 Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Robin Williams Nominated
Grammy Awards February 25, 1992 Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television Randy Newman Nominated
National Board of Review Awards March 4, 1991 Best Actor Robert De Niro,
Robin Williams (Tie)
Top Ten Films Awakenings Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards January 13, 1991 Best Actor Robert De Niro Won
Writers Guild of America Award March 20, 1991 Best Adapted Screenplay Steven Zaillian Nominated


  1. ^ AFI - Awakenings
  2. ^ Smith, Liz (September 15, 1989). "Guess What She's Doing for Love". Daily News (New York). p. 8. Retrieved March 6, 2022.
  3. ^ Fleming, Michael; Freifeld, Karen; Stasi, Linda (October 4, 1989). "Inside New York: Big Wigs at Lunch". Newsday (New York). p. 12. Retrieved March 9, 2022.
  4. ^ "Shelley Winters Flaunts Talent". The Baltimore Sun. January 25, 1990. p. 2F. Retrieved March 6, 2022. See also:
  5. ^ Agan, Patrick (1993). Robert De Niro: The Man, the Myth and the Movies. London: Robert Hale. pp. 187–188. ISBN 9780709052241.
  6. ^ a b Haun, Harry (2000). The Cinematic Century: An Intimate Diary of America's Affair with the Movies. New York: Applause. ISBN 1557834008.
  7. ^ Spoto, Donald (2016). A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 9781628460452.
  8. ^ Stone, Judy (December 20, 1990). "De Niro Shines in "Awakenings'". San Francisco Chronicle. p. 4. "For an all-too-brief time, he's free of the deeply symbiotic relationship with his too-devoted mother (Ruth Nelson, so splendidly shaken by his unexpected 'recovery')." Retrieved March 6, 2022.
  9. ^ Honeycutt, Kirk (December 13, 1990). "Awakenings". The Hollywood Reporter. pp. 9, 18. "The film's most tough-minded performance belongs to Ruth Nelson as Leonard's tenacious, white-haired mother. Having tended him for decades, she is overwhelmed by his recovery, yet better prepared to face its consequences than the doctors." Retrieved March 13, 2022.
  10. ^ Carroll, Kathleen (December 20, 1990). "De Niro Rises and Shines in 'Awakenings'; Robin Williams and Ruth Nelson also touch the heart in this Tale of medical miracles". New York Daily News. p. 31, 39. Retrieved March 13, 2022.
  11. ^ Svitil, Torene (December 21, 1990). "Reviews: Awakenings". Screen International. p. 14. "Williams and Julie Kavner (who plays his nurse) are sympathetic and Ruth Nelson is flawless as his mother." Retrieved March 13, 2022.
  12. ^ Agan. op. cit., p. 188.
  13. ^ Salamon, Julie (December 20, 1990). "Real Rip van Winkles in 'Awakenings'". Wall Street Journal. p. A14. Retrieved March 13, 2022.
  14. ^ Robin Williams Interview on the Tonight Show, 1991. Tonight Show. NBC. Archived from the original on 2021-12-11. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  15. ^ "Awakenings Details". Sony Pictures Television. Sony Movie Channel. Archived from the original on April 29, 2014. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  16. ^ a b "Awakenings (1990)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  17. ^ Broeske, Pat H. (January 14, 1991). "Home Alone in 9th Week as No. 1 Film : Movies: 'Godfather Part III' takes dramatic slide from second to sixth place in its third week out. 'Awakenings' is in second". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-01-01.
  18. ^ Evan Frook, John (June 26, 1992). "Col TriStar tide rising overseas". Daily Variety. p. 1.
  19. ^ "Awakenings". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 26, 2021.
  20. ^ "Awakenings". Metacritic. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  21. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on 2018-12-20. Retrieved 2019-08-25.
  22. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 20, 1990). "Awakenings". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
  23. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (December 21, 1990). "Awakenings Review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
  24. ^ Garner, Dwight (December 23, 1996). "The last curious man". Salon. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  25. ^ Howe, Desson (January 11, 1991). "'Awakenings'". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  26. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 20, 1990). "Movie Review – Awakenings". The New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2013.

External linksEdit