Whatever his personal demons, there is no denying Robin William's enormous talent as an actor. While not as inspiring as "Dead Poet's Society" or "Patch Adams," "Awakenings" has another talented actor Robert De Niro, who adds something intangible to this film. De Niro was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Leonard, the first patient to receive an experimental drug, which is able to rouse patients from catotonia, a state in which mental patients are unable to move spontaneously or even verbalize. This is one of the worst symptoms of schizophrenia and is tragic to behold. Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, who comes out of his own shell through his friendship with Leonard.
The sheer exuberance as the patients awaken from their catatonic state is very touching to watch. Though unfortunately the wonder drug, as so often is the case with psychiatric drugs, proves not to be so wondrous; that is the tragedy of the story. It is this reality that makes the movie so sad.
The fact that it is based on a true story, only makes it a more fascinating film. While I will always enjoy Robin Williams as an irrepressible Peter Pan or a uncontainable force in "Mrs Doubtfire" more than any of these melodramas, I have to admit Robin William's legacy is more these films, in which he gets serious about the black dog I never suspected he faced. His shocking suicide is what opened up a worthwhile debate about mental illness, and so I think his genius was not wasted on an unaware and often uncaring world.