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This Was Robin Williams's Best Non-Comedic Performance

Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images Entertainment

"A unique maniacal treasure, part competent actor, part Jonathan Winters spin-off, part social-political surgeon," is how New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffmann described Robin Williams in one mid-'90s review. Williams, who died Monday of an apparent suicide at the age of 63, first became famous in 1978 as a wacky sitcom alien on "Mork and Mindy," but spent the next few decades alternating between comedy, kids' movies, and more serious fare: The World According to GarpGood Morning VietnamDead Poets' Society, Good Will Hunting (for which he won an Academy Award), One Hour Photo. Here, Kauffmann reviews the 1991 film Awakenings, an Oliver Sacks adaptation, featuring what he calls Williams's best "straight" performance.

Harold Pinter's exquisite one-act play A Kind of Alaska was inspired by Oliver Sacks's book Awakenings. "Inspired," Pinter's word, is exactly right: his short play seems to lift off into silver and silence. A woman has been "asleep" for twenty-nine years—after encephalitis—and is brought round by the drug L-DOPA. Then, because the drug is not a cure, she floats back into immobile remoteness—in a long speech that is Pinter at his most haunting.

Now a film called Awakenings (Columbia) has been derived from Dr. Sacks's book. Doubtless it's unfair to compare the play and the film, but if you know the play, it's inevitable. The screenplay, by Steven Zaillian, shows almost nothing of Pinter's gift for making reality abstract, for sustaining action by means of rhythmic pause and lapidary diction. Also the play has the advantage of conciseness. But if we concede that the film must exist in different dimensions, including time, and that it had to take conventionally cinematic shape, then Zaillian's script looks honorably adequate.

He has leaned heavily on the formula of a young scientist trying to push forward despite the establishment. He has borrowed some flavors from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. He has splashed in a dollop of near-romance for the principal patient so that there would be some publicity stills with a pretty face. But within the somewhat standardized framework, Zaillian has treated the material respectfully and has written a number of moving scenes.

Robin Williams plays a doctor who has spent years in research and now—the time is 1969—needs another job. He has had little hands-on experience with patients and is hired reluctantly by a hospital in the Bronx that deals with the mentally incapacitated. Many of them are victims of the encephalitis epidemic that began in Europe in 1916-17 and swept the world in the 1920s. They are mute and virtually immobile, frozen in various stances. Williams is determined to crack the carapace of ice that surrounds these people.

When L-DOPA is discovered—the heroes who discovered it are not named—he persuades the hospital's chief to let him use it. In time all the post-encephalitic patients recover completely. What is not foreseen is that, in further time, the efficacy of the drug wears off. All the patients slip back into their previous state. The film's most terrible moment is when the principal patient, as he is receding into immobility, manages to say, "Learn from me. Learn from me." His plea becomes emblematic for our age, an appeal to science that goes beyond his particular affliction.

This man is the principal patient because the most attention is paid to him. Robert De Niro plays him. As Dustin Hoffman did with autism in Rain Man, De Niro has evidently studied the relevant symptoms and reproduces them chillingly. Where De Niro is not as good as he might be, or used to be, is in the "normal" weeks when he can speak and move and live more or less like anyone else. De Niro doesn't suggest a man who has lived through the experience of being shut in and shut off for decades. He's more like someone who has just come to after an anesthetic.

His mother, loyal and perceptive, is played by Ruth Nelson, who was one of the founding members of the Group Theater in 1930. (I saw her first in Waiting for Lefty, 1935.) She was always a good actress and has done nothing but grow. Here she makes a woman out of what might have been a stereotype.

John Heard enriches his role as the obstinate head of the hospital. Obviously there has to be some obstacle to Williams's ideas, or everything would proceed too smoothly. Zaillian tried to write the part as intelligent opposition, not a stock stuffy dolt, and Heard fulfills it.

Williams gives his best "straight" performance, shorn of all his marvelous manic vaudeville. The man he plays here is not a performer, which he was even in Dead Poets Society, but simply a man. There's some contradiction between the doctor's social isolation—he wants nothing in his life but his work—and Williams's busy chipmunk personality. But he has large reaches of sincerity in him, and he underpins this doctor with them.

Penny Marshall, who did a sturdy directing job with Big, does an even better job here. She cares for nothing but presenting her story straightforwardly, without tricks or adduced "style." And, quite obviously, she knows how to work with actors.

A word for the producers, Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker. (Their best-known previous picture is True Believer, a well-wrought film of a few seasons back in which James Woods played a liberal lawyer.) The Oliver Sacks material might be a natural for TV; for a theater film, where the audience has to be induced to leave home, it was a much more risky venture. Parkes and Lasker took it on. They have made concessions to "heart"; but Awakenings conveys some sense of purpose past its accessible teary-eyed moments.