Awakenings (1990)

Based on the true story of a people shy doctor who has to overcome his fears and work with chronically ill patients. He notices that many of his patients are in a completely motionless catatonic state, but discovers that they break out of their frozen postures for short moments when provoked by different stimuli. Through a number of unusual experiments and despite of ridicule being thrown at him, he gets to the root of the issue and finds a drug that has the potential to awake his patients who have seemingly turned into living statues.




Full Plot:
At the beginning of the 1990 drama “Awakenings”, we get introduced to Leonard, an 11 year old boy, and his friends, who hang around the streets of New York in the 1920s. He carves his name into a bench, but suddenly his hand cramps up. It gets worse and worse and at some point he can not even properly write with a pen anymore. Slowly, his entire arm becomes stiff and his mother decides to keep him home at all times.

At this point we learn that this movie is based on a true story and there is a switch of location and time: It is 1969, when Dr. Malcolm Sayer enters the Bainbridge chronic hospital in the Bronx. He applied for a position in their neurology lab and is there for a job interview, but his interviewers explain that he will have to work with people. He is hesitant, as he has no experience working with people and prefers not to. They insist that he must have had made experiences with basic medical procedures like measuring someone’s blood pressure before graduating from college. Unwillingly, he admits that to be true and gets the job at the hospital against his secret wish.

On his first day, Anthony, one of his colleagues, walks him through the hospital where patients exhibit all kinds of strange behaviors, making Dr. Sayer very uncomfortable. A screaming patient stresses him out so much, the he flees into his office and opens the window to breathe. Eleanor, a nurse, who is with him in the office, promises that it will get easier for him over time. After work, Sayer immerses himself in a book on plants while eating all by himself.

Next day, he is presented with a new arrival: An old lady named Lucy, who is completely motionless in her wheelchair and totally unresponsive. Sayer does his best to write a diagnosis, but when he turns around, Lucy is frozen in a different position, leaning out of her wheelchair, holding her glasses which apparently have almost fallen down. Sayer is puzzled, takes the glasses out of her stiff hand and tries to provoke her into some kind of reaction. He fails to do so until he holds the glasses in front of her face and then drops them. Swiftly, she catches the glasses and goes back to being her motionless self.

He presents his colleagues with her strange behavior, suggesting that there is more to it than a mentally distant patient who is exhibiting nothing but mere reflexes. They ridicule him and advise him to let it be. Eleanor is the only one who supports his theory.

The following day, Sayer spots another patient at the clinic, who also sits in his wheelchair not moving one inch. Sayer steps close to him and drops his pen. The patient catches it, just like Lucy did. Later, he sees Lucy walking across the community room, but as soon as she is done crossing the part of the room which has a floor with a black and white checker board pattern and faces the part which has a floor with a plain color, she stops and freezes mid motion. Sayer starts to suspect that different forms of sensory stimulations can trigger the patients to break out from their catatonic state.

The more he observes the patients at the hospital, the more he spots more patients who exhibit the same symptoms as Lucy. One of these patients is Leonard Lowe, the boy we got to know at the beginning of the movie – just 30 years later. His mother is still by his side, constantly visiting him at the clinic.

Just before his shift ends, Sayer goes through the files of the catatonic patients and he finds that they were all classified as atypical cases and didn’t have any improvements in their state for many years. Just before he heads home, Eleanor asks him out for a cup of coffee, but Sayer gets nervous and declines with the excuse that he already has other plans for the evening. However, when he gets home, he just takes a nap and plays the piano for a while.

The next day, Sayer finally finds what connects all of his motionless patients: All of them are survivors of an encephalitis epidemic in the 1920s. He finds Dr. Peter Ingham, who has studied the post-encephalitic syndrome and meets him. Ingham explains that the first symptoms started to occur in the survivors in the 1930s. People could no longer dress themselves, eat, speak and seemed to have went elsewhere in their minds, driving their families mad. Sayer asks him what he thinks is going on in their minds, but he just assumes that they are not thinking at all, as the alternative would be unthinkable.

Sayer feels confirmed in his assumption that the encephalitis has caused the catatonic state in his patients, but is somewhat disappointed that Ingham is not interested in examining what might be left inside them. He continues his research by himself and starts by painting the plain floor of the community room with the checker board pattern to fit the rest. Just as he hoped, Lucy continues to walk all the way to the window and doesn’t stop as she did previously.

Sayer then goes on to get to know Leonard. Mrs. Lowe tells him about how it all started when he was 11 years old and how it became continuously worse until she had to take him to the Bainbridge hospital in 1939, when he was 20 years old. Until then, he spend his entire time with reading, as it was the only think he could do.

To test whether Leonard is aware of his surroundings, Sayer attaches him to an EEG device and exposes him to a strobe light, before calling him by his name. When Sayer examines the brainwave pattern produced by the device, he notices that Leonard didn’t have any reaction to the strobe, but definitely reacted to hearing his name.

With the confirmation, that there is some awareness left in Leonard, he lines all of his patients up and repeatedly throws a baseball. Many of them catch the ball, revealing that they have the same mysterious condition. He takes all of those who reacted to the ball and brings them to a room where he begins step two of his experiment. Some are animated by music, some by sudden movements, others by being touched.

At some point, Sayer sees two older women playing with a Ouija board and he decides to try it with Leonard. He puts Leonard’s hand onto the planchette, puts his own on top and then moves the planchette towards letter L, trying to provoke him into spelling out his own name. To his surprise, the planchette spells out “rilkes panther” instead. After a bit of research, Sayer finds out that “The Panther” is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, describing the life of a caged panther, who has grown weary of looking through the bars of his cage.

Empowered by this experience, Sayer continues his research and eventually develops the idea that what his patients are suffering from might be an extreme form of the Parkinson’s disease, but as the tremor happens at such a high speed, it becomes unnoticeable and the patient are motionless instead. Sayer then comes across a drug called L-DOPA, which is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and he wonders whether it could help his patients.

His superior, Dr. Kaufman, is not impressed and thinks it is probably just another one of these supposed miracle drugs which turn out to be disastrous in the end. Sayer insists and Kaufman allows him to try it on one patient, but only if he should get the family’s consent, approved with a signature.

Sayer doesn’t hesitate and immediately gives Mrs. Lowe a visit. He admits to her that he doesn’t know what it will do to Leonard, if anything at all. She is skeptical, but finally agrees in hopes that it will bring back her son and signs the consent document.

Initially, Sayer gives Leonard a low dosage of L-DOPA, but when he shows no reaction at all he continuously keeps increasing the dosage until it becomes night. Mrs. Lowe leaves and Sayer falls asleep next to Leonard’s bed.

When Sayer wakes up, Leonard is nowhere to be found. Sayer runs through the hospital and finds Leonard sitting at one of the tables of the community room, trying to write his name onto a piece of paper. Leonard looks up to Sayer and smiles. With some difficulties, he speaks, commenting on how quite it is. Sayer is overwhelmed by what he is seeing, but keeps calm and explains to Leonard that it is night and that everyone is asleep.

The next day, Leonard spends his time looking at and touching everything he can get his hands on. Mrs. Lowe comes over and is instantly blown away. Tears run down her cheeks after seeing her son standing upright, smiling and reaching out to her for a hug.

The news about Leonard’s miraculous recovery travel fast and he goes around the hospital, greeting everyone as they watch him with awe in their faces.

After some time, Sayer decides that it’s time for Leonard to go out for a walk in the real world. He finally sees people outside of the hospital, recognizes his old school, hears Rock’n’Roll for the first time and is astounded by the strange clothing that people are wearing; especially a girl in a super short dress catches his attention. He eats soft ice, sees a modern airplane, walks into the water at the beach and finds his old carving in a bench that has been since painted over.

In the evening, the two go back to Sayer’s place. Leonard notices that he is not married and he asks why. Sayer explains that he is not good with people and doesn’t understand them because they are so unpredictable. Leonard then says that Eleanor would disagree there and reveals that she said about him that he is a kind man, that cares very much about people. Sayer is visibly touched.

The following morning, Sayer talks to Kaufman and asks whether they can put the other patients on L-DOPA, but gets nothing but skepticism and ridicule in return, as the cost of the endeavor would amount to 12.000$. Sayer asks for permission to talk directly to the patrons of the hospital, but Kaufman points out that Sayer is highly overestimating the effect that Leonard has on people and that nobody would spend their money on this. He gets proven wrong instantly, when many of the staff members come to their table and place checks in front of Kaufman, making him change his mind.

Sayer then presents his case in front of a large audience of patrons and luckily, he gets his support, allowing the other patients to be put on L-DOPA.

The effects are the same as with Leonard. They get up from their beds, walk around and explore the hospital, chatting away with excitement in their voices. Leonard watches them with a big smile.

Next day, their relatives come by to witness the miracle. As they cheer and hug each other, Leonard spots Paula, a girl who is visiting her father, who is a patient in a different ward. While the others are taken dancing to celebrate their recovery, Leonard stays behind and decides to follow Paula to the caféteria of the hospital.

She is instantly charmed by him and asks whether he is visiting someone or works there, as he doesn’t look like a patient at all. He is flattered, but explains that he is a patient, but is doing well thanks to a new kind of medicine. She is glad to hear and tells him about her father, who is mentally distant and probably doesn’t even notice that she visits him.

The two continue to have a conversation while eating together, but she soon has to go. Before she leaves, Leonard tells her that her father knows that she visits him and she smiles in return.

Some time passes and the patients continue feeling well and go about their day doing things they like: They entertain themselves with crafty projects, play the piano and read books, but some of them start to become bitter over having lost so many years of their lives.

Click here to unfold the remaining story (SPOILER WARNING)

Leonard grows weary of staying indoors all the time and asks the doctors whether he can be allowed to go for a walk without hospital employees accompanying him. He explains that he is not a criminal and is not a danger to others, nor to himself. All the doctors, including Sayer, agree that it is too early, as it is still an experiment without a final conclusion and that they don’t want to be held responsible if anything happens to him.

Upon hearing this, Leonard becomes angry, jumps up and rushes to the exit. Sayer quickly calls the reception to warn them and before Leonard can leave the building, the guards grab him and drag him to the ward for psychotics, all while he struggles and shouts that all he wanted to do was to go for a walk.

It pains Sayer to watch Leonard being treated like this and he begs the guards to stop being so violent. After this spectacle, Mrs. Lowe gets called to the hospital, unable to comprehend how her little boy, who was never disobedient and never demanded a single thing, could do something like this. She turns to Sayer and blames him for turning Leonard into something that he is not.

In the meantime, Leonard is still upset and talks to the psychotic patients around him. Overcome with constant spasms and ticks, he shouts that it is the doctors who have a problem, not the patients. The others in the ward keep repeating his words in a slurred manner, clearly not understanding what they are saying.

Sayer first defends Leonard’s behavior as he might just have become weary of his cage, but soon has to recognize that L-DOPA is not working as well as it did at the beginning. He approaches Leonard and tries to explain to him that the aggression he is feeling, as well as the ticks, are most probably side effects from the drug. Leonard gets even more angry and pushes Sayer onto the ground, while the other patients giggle.

The next day, Sayer comes back and sees Leonard sitting on the floor, shaking uncontrollably. He asks him for help in the faintest voice and Sayer picks him up.

From then on, Sayer starts experimenting with lower dosages of L-DOPA, but nothing seems to work as well as at the beginning and soon the other patient start developing side effects as well.

Leonard meets Paula one more time. This time, he is shaking back and forth and tries his best to speak as clear as he can to her. He explains that he is not well after all. He feels better when he sees her, but can not see her anymore. He gets up and shakes her hand as a way to say goodbye, but she doesn’t let go and pulls him close. She puts his arm around her waist and dances with him. He goes along with it and calms down, with a smile forming on his lips, while a tear rolls down Paula’s cheek.

This night, Leonard falls back into a catatonic state and Sayer feels defeated.

The following day, after his experiment has been finally declared a failure, he gives a speech to the hospital staff and it’s supporters. He talks about an incredible summer that was full of rebirths, miracles and awakenings – but admits that when the winter came, they had to face that the drug has failed. However, he points out that as the chemical window had closed, another awakening took place: The realization that they need to remember to appreciate their lives and the wonderful things that fill it: work, play, friendship and family.

At the end of this day, Eleanor heads out of the building to go home, but she gets stopped by Sayer who suddenly jumps up from his chair in his office and shouts out the window for her to wait. He runs outside and finally asks her out for a cup of coffee. She smiles, agrees and wants to head for the car, but Sayer suggests to just walk instead.

At this point a text informs us that Dr. Sayer continued to work with the post-encephalitic patients, trying new drugs as they entered the market. Some of the drugs had a positive effects for short periods of time, but never reached the potential L-DOPA had demonstrated in the summer of 1969.

The final scene shows Sayer using the Ouija board with Leonard once again. He says “Let’s begin.” and the movie ends.

Robert De Niro as Leonard Lowe
Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer
Keith Diamond as Anthony
Julie Kavner as Eleanor Costello
Alice Drummond as Lucy
Ruth Nelson as Mrs. Lowe
Max von Sydow as Dr. Peter Ingham
John Heard as Dr. Kaufman
Penelope Ann Miller as Paula

Penny Marshall

Oliver Sacks and Steven Zaillian

Awakenings (1990) on IMDB

One thought on “Awakenings (1990)

  1. I love this movie, I’ve watch this movie to our schools,However,there also many part i cried at my first time i watch this movie i love you Dr.sayer because you didn’t give up.

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