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Theme Tuesday - Penny Marshall - Awakenings

In honor of one of the few American female filmmakers that regular people could name, I will be watching all of the works of Penny Marshall, who passed away in late 2018, for January 2019.


1990 was the year of Goodfellas vs. Dances with the Wolves at the Academy Awards, the latter winning apparently all the awards. Awakenings was also up for Best Picture. Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) gets a job as a neurologist at a mental hospital in the Bronx, and, quite against his solitary nature, starts to sympathize with the patients, especially Leonard (Robert DeNiro), who was a victim of the encephalitis epidemic from 1917-1928 and is now catatonic. The film follows both men as Sayer finds a potential solution to suppress the symptoms of the encephalitis patients, leading to what are termed “awakenings.”

For a film that seems like typical Oscar bait today (feel-good story with a comedic actor Robin Williams taking a dramatic turn, Robert DeNiro playing a man with a disability), it was quietly groundbreaking. Penny Marshall had become the first female director to direct a film that had made more than $100 million with Big. With her third feature Awakenings, she had become only the second woman to direct a film nominated for Best Picture (after Randa Haines for Children of a Lesser God). Tellingly, she did not get nominated for Best Director; the Academy even now is extremely hesitant to recognize women as directors.

Awakenings is most distinguished by its performances, as Penny Marshall’s films tend to be. Marshall was able to get both Robin Williams, a huge comedy star at this point, and DeNiro at his peak because she was friends with them and at least DeNiro had been in her circle for a long time (he was up for Tom Hanks’ role in Big for the longest time). It is stereotypical to say that playing a person with a disability is sure Oscar bait, and this performance probably reinforced this stereotype, but DeNiro brings precision and real immersion to his role, giving his Leonard a dignity and sympathy, without grossly exaggerating the character’s handicap.

Williams seems to have tamped down his natural charisma, but his earnestness and single-mindedness was affecting and made for a good underdog story to complement Leonard’s. Nothing gets an audience going like an unlikely hero fighting against the establishment, and Williams fulfills this in spades. Marshall also keeps a light touch for a lot of this film, which was a big criticism at this time, but it does keep the film from getting mawkish and is important in making the encephalitis patients seem real and sympathetic beyond just their disability. Even if this is a pretty traditional movie, it’s a well-made one and there have definitely been worse examples of this genre.

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