The Next Reel • Season 11 • Series: John Heard • Awakenings

Awakenings

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We continue exploring the films of John Heard with our current series. In this episode, we look at the second of two films he did directed by Penny Marshall. He’s a supporting character and delivers well opposite Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. It’s the 1990 film ‘Awakenings’ based on Dr. Oliver Sacks’ 1973 book. Tune in!

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“You want there to be a connection. That doesn’t mean there is one.”

Penny Marshall came on to Awakenings after Steven Spielberg stepped off the project apparently. Perhaps that’s why it feels a bit different for a Marshall film. But how well does this pseudo-true story work as it recounts Dr. Oliver Sacks’ experiments on patients with encephalitis lethargica in 1969? Join us – Pete Wright and Andy Nelson – as we continue our John Heard series with Marshall’s 1990 film Awakenings.

Is Awakenings more than just Marshall’s bid at an Oscar?

We think it’s more, but it sure feels like Oscar bait. But again… couldn’t it just be Marshall’s desire to tell an interesting story and step outside her comedy box? Same goes for Robin Williams. He delivers the goods here as an introverted doctor who would rather work with worms than people. And of course Robert De Niro gives a performance where you’re convinced he’s afflicted with the disease the character of Dr. Sayer is trying to cure. Even Dr. Oliver Sacks, upon whose studies the film is based, thought De Niro performed accurate to the disease.

But did Dr. Sacks have any issues with the film? Turns out he had some issues with Steven Zaillian’s script. So do we. There are times it feels very written. Is that intrinsically bad? Or can it work?

As for the rest of the cast, it’s a great group of performers. Too bad Penelope Ann Miller isn’t given more to do.

All told, it’s a strong movie with a powerful performances but also a script that feels very written and in the end, something you can see once then not worry about it again. Still, it’s worth talking about so check it out then tune in. The Next Reel – when the movie ends, our conversation begins!

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