Last week, production started on a new feature film directed by Jim Kohlberg and based on Dr. Sacks’s essay “The Last Hippie,” in An Anthropologist on Mars.
So we were thinking back to Awakenings, which includes an appendix called “Awakenings on Stage and Screen” about the many dramatic adaptations that book has inspired, including a play by Harold Pinter. Dr. Sacks worked closely with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams as they were researching their roles for the 1990 feature film “Awakenings.” Here is what he had to say about Robin Williams:
We had spent a few minutes in a very disturbed geriatric ward, where several of the patients were shouting and talking bizarrely, at one point at least six of them together. Later, as we all drove away, Robin suddenly exploded with an incredible playback of the ward, imitating everyone’s voice and style to perfection. It was incredible to hear this: I felt that he must have taken in everything which went on, all the different voices and conversations together, and held them in his mind with total recall – and now he was reproducing them, or, almost, being possessed by them. This instant power of apprehension and playback, a power for which “mimicry” is too feeble a word (for they were funny imitations, feeling ones, and full of creativity), was developed to an enormous degree in Robin. It constituted, I came to think, the first step in his actorial investigation; the one which provided an intense and minute sensory and motor corporeal image, which he could then scan internally and analyse, and then finally imbue with himself, deepen, subjectivise.
I was soon to find this in regard to myself. After our first meeting, Robin “had,” or mirrored, some of my mannerisms, my postures, my gait, my speech; all sorts of things of which I had been hitherto unconscious. It was uncanny, and disconcerting at first, to see myself in this living mirror. We would talk – and the way we stood, and our cadences, our gestures, were the same: it was like suddenly acquiring an identical twin. But then this too-explicit mimesis gave way to a much profounder, much more subjectivised, actor’s portrait of me – or rather of a being half-Robin, half-me, one created by his imagination and feelings, no less than by his observation of me; and finally, to a new character, neither Robin nor me, but one with a life and personality of its own.
From Awakenings, Vintage paperback edition, pp. 376-7.