Directed by Penny Marshall, the film was produced by Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, who first encountered Sacks's book as undergraduates at Yale University and optioned it a few years later. Awakenings stars Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, and Max von Sydow. The film features a non-speaking cameo from jazz musician Dexter Gordon (who died before the film's release) and then-unknowns Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, and Vincent Pastore play a doctor, neurochemist, and psych-ward patient, respectively.
In 1969, Dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) is a dedicated and caring physician at a local hospital in the New York City borough of The Bronx. After working extensively with the catatonic patients who survived the 1917–1928 epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, Sayer discovers certain stimuli will reach beyond the patients' respective catatonic states; actions such as catching a ball, hearing familiar music, and experiencing human touch all have unique effects on particular patients and offer a glimpse into their worlds. Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) proves elusive in this regard, but Sayer soon discovers that Leonard is able to communicate with him by using a Ouija board.
After attending a lecture at a conference on the subject of the L-Dopa drug and its success with patients suffering from Parkinson's Disease, Sayer believes 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 experience "awakenings" back to reality.
Meanwhile, Leonard is adjusting to his new life and becomes romantically interested in Paula (Penelope Ann Miller), the daughter of another hospital patient. Leonard also begins to chafe at the restrictions placed upon 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. Sayer notices that as Leonard grows more agitated, a number of facial and body tics are starting to manifest, which Leonard has difficulty controlling.
While Sayer and the hospital staff are thrilled by the success of L-Dopa with this group of patients, they soon find that it is a temporary measure. As the first to "awaken", Leonard is also the first to demonstrate the limited duration of this period of "awakening". Leonard's tics grow more and more prominent and he starts to shuffle more as he walks, and all of the patients are forced to witness what will eventually happen to them. He soon begins to suffer full body spasms and can hardly move. Leonard puts up well with the pain, and asks Sayer to film him, in hopes that he would someday contribute to research that may eventually help others. Leonard acknowledges what is happening to him and has a last lunch with Paula where he tells her he cannot see her anymore. When he is about to leave, Paula dances with him, and for this short period of time his spasms disappear. Leonard and Sayer reconcile their differences, but Leonard returns to his catatonic state soon after. The other patients' fears are similarly realized as each eventually returns to catatonia no matter how much their L-Dopa dosages are increased.
Sayer tells a group of grant donors to the hospital that although the "awakening" did not last, another kind — one of learning to appreciate and live life — took place. For example, he himself overcomes his painful shyness and asks Nurse Eleanor Costello (Julie Kavner) to go out for coffee, many months after he had declined a similar proposal from her. The nurses also now treat the catatonic patients with more respect and care, and Paula is shown visiting Leonard. The film ends with Sayer standing over Leonard behind a Ouija board, with his hands on Leonard's hands, which are on the planchette. "Let's begin," Sayer says.
Principal photography for Awakenings began on October 16, 1989 at the functioning Kingsboro Psychiatric Center in Brooklyn, New York and lasted until February 16, 1990. According to Williams, actual patients were used in the filming of the movie. In addition to Kingsboro, sequences were also filmed at the New York Botanical Garden, Julia Richman High School, the Casa Galicia, and Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Awakenings opened in limited release on December 22, 1990 with an opening weekend gross of $417,076. The film then expanded to a wide release on January 11, 1991, opening in second place behind Home Alone's ninth weekend, with $8,306,532.
The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of 31 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.7 out of 10. Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 74 based on 18 reviews.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film a four-out-of-four star rating, 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."
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."
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."
Desson Howe of The Washington Post felt the film's tragic aspects did not live up to the strength in its humor, saying that
"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."
Similarly, Janet Maslin of The New York Times concluded her review stating,
"Awakenings works harder at achieving such misplaced liveliness than at winning its audience over in other ways."
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.