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Theatrical release poster
Directed byPenny Marshall
Screenplay bySteven Zaillian
Based onAwakenings
by Oliver Sacks
Produced by
CinematographyMiroslav Ondricek
Edited by
Music byRandy Newman
Lasker/Parkes Productions
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • December 12, 1990 (1990-12-12)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$29 million[1]
Box office$108.7 million

Awakenings is a 1990 American drama film based on the 1973 non-fiction book of the same name. Directed by Penny Marshall, it was written for the screen by Steven Zaillian, who based his screenplay on Oliver Sacks's 1973 memoir of the same name. It tells the story of neurologist Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), based on Sacks, who discovers the beneficial effects of the drug L-DOPA in 1969. He administers it to catatonic patients who survived the 1919–1930 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Leonard Lowe (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. Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Stormare and Max von Sydow also star in the cast. Awakenings was produced by Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, who first encountered Sacks's book as undergraduates at Yale, and optioned it a few years later. The film was a critical and commercial success, earning $108.7 million on a $29 million budget, and was nominated for three Academy Awards.


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 1919–1930 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, Sayer discovers that 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 unmoved, 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 that 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 on 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. As Leonard becomes more agitated, Sayer notices that a number of facial and body tics begin 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 gradually grow more prominent, and he starts to shuffle as he walks. All the patients are forced to witness what will eventually happen to them. Leonard soon begins to have full body spasms and can hardly move. He tolerates the pain, and asks Sayer to film him, with the hope that he would someday contribute to research that may help others. Leonard acknowledges what is happening to him, and has a last lunch with Paula, at which he tells her that 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 soon returns to his catatonic state. The other patients' fears are similarly realized, as each eventually returns to catatonia, no matter how much that their L-DOPA dosages are increased.

Sayer tells a group of hospital grant donors that, although the "awakening" did not last, another kind — one of learning to appreciate and live life — occurred. 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 treat the catatonic patients with more respect and care, and Paula visits Leonard. Sayer and Leonard continue to communicate with the Ouija board.




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] In January 1990 — more than three quarters of the way through the film's four-month shooting schedule[4][5][6] — the matter was seemingly resolved, when the February 1990 issue of Premiere magazine published a widely cited story, belatedly informing fans that, not only had Winters gotten the role, she had been targeted at De Niro's request, and had been cast by displaying her Oscar awards (for the benefit of veteran casting director, Bonnie Timmermann).[a]

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.[b] 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.[14]

Despite Liz Smith's, Newsday's and Premiere's seemingly definitive reports (which, minus any mention of the specific film being discussed, would be periodically reiterated and ultimately embellished in subsequent years),[15][16] the film was released in December 1990, featuring neither Winters (whose early dismissal evidently resulted from continuing attempts to pull rank on director Penny Marshall)[17][18] nor any of the other previously publicized candidates (nor at least two others, Jo Van Fleet and Teresa Wright, identified in subsequent accounts),[19][20] but rather the then-85-year-old Group Theater alumnus, Ruth Nelson, giving a well-received performance in what would be her final feature film.[21][19] "As Leonard's mother," wrote The Wall Street Journal critic, Julie Salamon, "Nelson achieves a wrenching beauty that stands out even among these exceptional actors doing exceptional things."[22] In her 2012 memoir, Penny Marshall recalled:

Ruth was a great lady. She was a New York stage actress in the 1930s who transitioned to movies but was blacklisted in the 1950s when her second husband was among those Senator Joseph McCarthy labeled a Communist. She was victimized by association and didn't work for three decades. When I met her, she was eighty-four and had battled a brain tumor and also had arthritis. I stared at her slender arms and gnarled hands. It looked like she had pushed her kid's arms and legs down for years. I liked her. I couldn't get her insured, but I didn't care. Neither did she. She wanted to do it. To me, that’s what the movie was about.[23]


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.[24] In addition to Kingsboro, sequences were filmed at the New York Botanical Garden, Julia Richman High School, the Casa Galicia, and Park Slope, Brooklyn.[25]


Awakenings was released theatrically on December 12, 1990, with an opening weekend gross of $417,076,[26] opening in second place, behind Home Alone's ninth weekend, with $8,306,532.[27] It went on to gross $52.1 million in the United States and Canada,[26] and $56.6 million internationally,[28] for a worldwide total of $108.7 million.

Critical response[edit]

Awakenings received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 82% of 38 film critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 6.6/10. Its consensus states: "Elevated by some of Robin Williams'[s] finest non-comedic work and a strong performance from Robert De Niro, Awakenings skirts the edges of melodrama, then soars above it."[29] Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score from reviews of mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 74 out of 100, based on 18 reviews.[30] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade of "A" on scale of A+ to F.[31]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a rating of four stars out of four, 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.[32]

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.[33]

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.[34]

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

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.[35]

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

Awakenings works harder at achieving such misplaced liveliness than at winning its audience over in other ways.[36]


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

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Neither as printed in the following 1990 Premiere excerpt nor as recounted by Winters herself six years later does this anecdote identify by name the casting director in question. As regards gender, however (and notwithstanding subsequent versions to the contrary), Winters's own account clearly cites a "casting lady",[7] and Bonnie Timmerman is indeed the credited casting director on the finished film.[8]
  2. ^ At this point, a red flag regarding this story's accuracy should have been raised by any truly well-versed Winters fan, given the fact that roughly fifteen years earlier (as was widely reported, both at the time and subsequently), she had famously donated the first of her two Oscars to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.[9][10][11][12][13] Indeed, Winters' own version of events, as recounted to Tom Snyder in 1996, while failing to inform viewers that she did not in fact land the role in question, is accurate as regards both number of Oscars involved and gender—i.e. female—of both the film's unnamed "casting lady" and director Penny Marshall, towards whom, at least in retrospect, Winters displays a markedly greater degree of deference: "If Penny Marshall, who was the director, was going to ask me to read, that was okay with me."[7]


  1. ^ Awakenings. AFI.
  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. ^ "New Film Starts". Variety. October 18, 1989. p. 24. ProQuest 1286179696. Awakenings (Col) 10/11/89.
  5. ^ "Film Production (Films Currently in Production)". The Hollywood Reporter. December 5, 1989. p. 23. ProQuest 2610466570. Shooting in New York (Start October 16).
  6. ^ Filming & Production; Filming Dates. IMDb.
  7. ^ a b "SHELLEY WINTERS ~ Interview Tom Snyder Show (1996) pt 1". YouTube.
  8. ^ "Awakenings. USA, 1990". Monthly Film Bulletin. March 1, 1991. p. 72. ProQuest 1305840679. Cert—12. dist—Columbia TriStar. p.c.—Columbia. exec. p—Penny Marshall, Anne Schmidt, Elliot Abbott. p—Walter F. Parkes, Lawrence Lasker. assoc. p—Amy Lemisch. p. office co-ordinator—Harriette Kanew. unit p. manager—Timothy M. Bourne. location manager—Richard Baratta. casting—Bonnie Timmermann. (addit.) Todd M. Thaler, Judie Fixler.
  9. ^ Reuter (January 11, 1975). "Winters' Oscar Going to Anne Frank Museum". The Globe and Mail. p. 34. ProQuest 1239438574. Miss Winters is in London to make a comedy, Heaven Save Us From Our Friends, opposite Lee J. Cobb. She surprised the cast of the picture by turning up with the little statuette in her luggage. [...] This weekend the unit moves to Bruges, in Belgium, for more shooting and Miss Winters plans to go to Amsterdam to hand over the coveted trophy. A spokesman for Miss Winters said: 'She plans to do this very quietly. She doesn't want people to think she is cashing in on such a tragic story for publicity for herself.
  10. ^ United Press International (January 16, 1975). "Actress Gives Oscar to Museum". San Bernardino Sun. p. A-3. Retrieved January 13, 2022.
  11. ^ Biederman, Danny (May 1979). "'Oscarisms' Through the Years". American Cinematographer. p. 493. ProQuest 2296239796. Shelley Winters, Best Supporting Actress winner for THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK in 1960[sic], would 16 years later donate her Oscar to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsrerdam—the actual house where the thirteen-year-old Anne, in 1942, wrote her journal. At first, the Museum turned down the trophy because they couldn't decide what to do with it. Eventually they changed their mind and accepted the statuette during a ceremony that was attended by Anne Frank's father, Otto.
  12. ^ McCombs, Don; Worth, Fred L. (1983). World War II Super Facts. New York: Warner Books. pp. 572–573.
  13. ^ Levy, Emanuel (1987). And the Winner Is... : The History and Politics of the Oscar Awards. New York: Ungar Publishing Company. p. 238. ISBN 0804425108.
  14. ^ "Shelley Winters Flaunts Talent". The Baltimore Sun. January 25, 1990. p. 2F. Retrieved March 6, 2022. See also:
  15. ^ Ebert, Roger (May 12, 1995). "'Sharks' Takes Sardonic Swipe at Hollywood". Chicago Sun-Times. p. 37. Retrieved—via RogerEbert.com. "When we first meet [Guy], he's having lunch with a table full of other ambitious young would-be executives, at Musso and Frank's. He's telling an anecdote about how Shelley Winters was asked to audition for a producer once, and simply pulled her Oscars out of her handbag and lined them up on his desk. It would be a great story, if the others had heard of Shelley Winters (one of them finally remembers her from 'The Poseidon Adventure'). Retrieved March 6, 2022. See also:
  16. ^ Cronin, Brian (July 6, 2022). "Is the Famous Shelley Winters Oscar Story Really True?". CBR. Retrieved February 6, 2023.
  17. ^ Agan, Patrick (1993). Robert De Niro: The Man, the Myth and the Movies. London: Robert Hale. pp. 187–188. ISBN 9780709052241.
  18. ^ Baxter, John (2003). De Niro: An Autobiography. London: HarperCollinsPublishers. p. 289. ISBN 0-00-653230-6.
  19. ^ a b Haun, Harry (2000). The Cinematic Century: An Intimate Diary of America's Affair with the Movies. New York: Applause. ISBN 1557834008.
  20. ^ Spoto, Donald (2016). A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 9781628460452.
  21. ^ Stone, Judy (December 20, 1990). "De Niro Shines in "Awakenings'". The San Francisco Chronicle. p. 4. ProQuest 302504282. 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'). See also:
    • Honeycutt, Kirk (December 13, 1990). "De Niro Shines in "Awakenings'". The Hollywood Reporter. pp. 9, 18. ProQuest 2610464859. 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.
    • 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.
    • Svitil, Torene (December 21, 1990). "Reviews: Awakenings". Screen International. p. 14. ProQuest 1014656550. Williams and Julie Kavner (who plays his nurse) are sympathetic and Ruth Nelson is flawless as his mother.
    • Agan. op. cit., p. 188.
  22. ^ Salamon, Julie (December 20, 1990). "Real Rip van Winkles in 'Awakenings'". The Wall Street Journal. pp. A14. ProQuest 135423138..
  23. ^ Marshall, Penny (2012). My Mother Was Nuts: A Memoir. Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 239–240. ISBN 978-0-547-89262-7.
  24. ^ Robin Williams Interview on the Tonight Show, 1991. Tonight Show. NBC. Archived from the original on 2021-12-11. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  25. ^ "Awakenings Details". Sony Pictures Television. Sony Movie Channel. Archived from the original on April 29, 2014. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  26. ^ a b "Awakenings (1990)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Evan Frook, John (June 26, 1992). "Col TriStar tide rising overseas". Daily Variety. p. 1.
  29. ^ "Awakenings". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 4, 2024.
  30. ^ "Awakenings". Metacritic. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  31. ^ "Cinemascore". Archived from the original on 2018-12-20. Retrieved 2019-08-25.
  32. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 20, 1990). "Awakenings". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
  33. ^ Gleiberman, Owen (December 21, 1990). "Awakenings Review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
  34. ^ Garner, Dwight (December 23, 1996). "The last curious man". Salon. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  35. ^ Howe, Desson (January 11, 1991). "'Awakenings'". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 16, 2013.
  36. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 20, 1990). "Movie Review – Awakenings". The New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2013.

External links[edit]