Penny Marshall, Awakenings and Living Your Life

A lot of people remember her as the Golden Globe Award winning actress from Laverne & Shirley, one of the most beloved sitcoms of the 70’s and early 80’s. I watched Big all the time when I was a kid, so I remember her as the director who turned a small boy into Tom Hanks. Others may recall her witty cameo from Hocus Pocus (possibly without even realizing it was her), who as “The Master’s Wife” cracked wise and told those witches to get the hell out of her house. Thanks to A League of Their Own, I always wait for Tom Hanks to show up and chastise someone for crying in baseball whenever I see a person crying in baseball.

Whatever your memories of the indelible Penny Marshall are, either her career as an actress, her collaborations with Hanks or anything in between, there is no disputing the impact that she had on both television and film. A trailblazer if there ever was one, an entertainer with a rather underrated body of work and whom unbeknownst to me was also a major sports fan, even possessing season tickets to both the Lakers and Clippers. I’ve been watching basketball for years and never knew, but it was likely both her intention to stay out of the spotlight during those games and the camera only cutting to Jack Nicholson at courtside that caused me to miss that.

Marshall’s desire to avoid that kind of attention while still endearing herself to those around her encapsulates her career as a director rather well. When I heard she had sadly passed away just a few weeks ago, I made a mental note to rewatch Awakenings because I view it as the ultimate Penny Marshall film.

My reasoning is simple: it’s likely the greatest movie that you have never seen.

I swear that I’m not trying to be pretentious or snobby, but Awakenings has flown under the radar just as much as Marshall has over the past 29 years. There’s a chance that you’d never even heard of it until you started reading this article. Case in point? When you think of Robert De Niro, you probably think of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Heat, the hard-edged hits as the big tough guy that he’s known for. When Robin Williams is brought up, classics like Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Aladdin and Good Will Hunting come to mind. Rarely if ever do you hear Awakenings mentioned in the same breath as those two famous actors.

Based on a true story, Awakenings relays the efforts of Dr. Malcolm Sayer to treat his catatonic patients with the drug L-Dopa, and how the drug seemed to reach those patients and pull them out of their catatonic state (hence the title). Williams plays Sayer and De Niro plays one of his patients, and that’s as far as I’m going to delve into plot details. Most of you haven’t seen this before, remember?

By now you’re probably asking, “If this film is so great, why didn’t I know about it and what’s the big deal?” I’m sticking to a couple of the reasons I gave before, mainly how the public eye usually typecasts De Niro as a brute or a gangster and Williams as a comedian, but another likely explanation is that it was simply overshadowed the year of its release. Dances with Wolves won Best Picture at the Oscars and Ghost, Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III and Pretty Woman were all up for awards as well, so let’s just say that people had other famous movies on their minds that year. It’s certainly not uncommon for a well-made film to slip through the cracks and go unnoticed.

Let’s start with the performances of the two leads. As Leonard, the catatonic patient who one days finds himself able to do all of the simple things that have eluded him for so long, De Niro shows off his dramatic range in fine fashion. Leonard’s always been alive, you see, and he’s aching to make up for lost time. De Niro’s vulnerability in the role is astounding, as are all of the facial tics of a man adjusting from essentially being frozen to normally functioning. Imagine feeling lust for the first time and not fully knowing how to act on it, or being told you can’t go out and do the things you wish to do, then watching as people around you willingly pass up the same opportunities. It is this dilemma that frustrates and befuddles Leonard, and anytime someone tells you that De Niro is overrated or is only good in a certain kind of role, you can direct them here.

If it was Leonard’s health that prevented him from living a full and happy life, Sayer is restricted by his own reticence to make a meaningful connection with another person. What a predicament to find oneself in: to be willing to go to great lengths to improve the lives of your patients, but too shy to take small measures to help yourself. For all his expertise at making people laugh, and there was arguably no one better at that, these are the instances where I felt that Williams truly shined. His overall decency and humility seeps into the role and combines with his considerable talent as an actor, and the end result is a character that we feel close to and who fully resonates with us. I believe it was the very best performance of his landmark career.

And of course what would be lost without Marshall behind the camera, expertly relaying this real-life event to audiences with all of the uplifting poignancy that it deserves? After she passed, Dan Rather said that Marshall “understood humor comes in many forms and some of life’s deeper truths require a laugh.” I believe she also understood that some of those truths also lead us to making a hard choice, such as the end of Big when Josh has to choose between returning to his old life or staying with the woman he loves. As the other doctors audibly sneer and roll their eyes at Sayer’s attempts to reach these patients, he too encounters his own difficult decision: does he go forward with treating them with L-Dopa despite a lack of support from his colleagues, and what will happen to his career if he’s wrong?

The laughter and heartbreak that ensues is all a result of that choice, what it makes Sayer realize about himself and what he learns from Leonard and the other patients. Are we truly awake if our lives are devoid of the simple joys and interactions that make us whole, and if we don’t share that life with others?

I’m sure you could guess what Marshall’s stance on that subject would be. My hope is that one day Awakenings will experience a renaissance of sorts, and that future generations will mull over that message and realize not only how talented Marshall was, but the beacon of light that shone through everything that she touched.

It’s something we could all use a little more of in our lives and one of the many things that I will dearly miss about her.

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