September 10, 2019

by Stephen Farber

Author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, best known for inspiring the Robin Williams-Robert De Niro movie ‘Awakenings,’ is profiled in this documentary.

Telluride, like many festivals, always showcases fine documentaries. One of the strong entries this year, about celebrated neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, is directed by Ric Burns, the brother of documentarian Ken Burns. (The two worked together on the 1990 miniseries The Civil War.) Oliver Sacks: His Own Life closely follows the autobiography that Sacks published shortly before his death in 2015. Burns conducted several interviews with Sacks in the months before his death, and he also included interviews with celebrated writers, physicians, friends and family members.

The film, co-produced by the American Masters television series, will find a home on PBS, but the filmmakers are also seeking theatrical distribution, which this effort deserves, at least in part because of Sacks’ immense popularity.

Sacks is probably known to most audiences from the movie Awakenings, a best picture Oscar nominee from 1990 that starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The pic was based on Sacks’ book about his work with comatose patients back in 1969, when an experimental drug treatment led to these patients coming back to life after years or even decades asleep. Williams in effect was playing Sacks in the film, a doctor with tremendous empathy for his patients. There are scenes in the doc showing Sacks on the set with Williams. But of course there was much more to Sacks than that one hit movie.

He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in England. Both of his parents were physicians, but one of his brothers was schizophrenic, and some people interviewed in the doc speculate that this family experience might have created Oliver’s interest in understanding emotionally troubled people.

His family life was painful in other ways as well. When he told his mother that he was gay, she replied, “You are an abomination.” Sacks fled England for America, where he first rebelled as a motorcycle rider and a bodybuilder. (A sexy picture of him in his motorcycle garb adorns the cover of his autobiography, On the Move.) Eventually he moved to New York to focus on his medical career, and although his work with psychotic patients was initially controversial to the hidebound medical establishment, he eventually won accolades from his peers.

Many prominent people pay tribute to Sacks in the film, including a number of fellow writers like Jonathan Miller (his classmate at Oxford) and Paul Theroux, New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, members of the medical establishment and Temple Grandin, who was part of a study on autism that radically changed popular understanding of this condition.

Sacks’ personal life was as startling as his professional achievements. Perhaps partly because of his mother’s disapproval, he reported both in his autobiography and in the film that he was celibate for 35 years. Late in life (in his 70s), he established a loving relationship with photographer Billy Hayes, another person who is interviewed pointedly in this doc.

The heart of the film lies in the interviews that Burns conducted with Sacks himself, some in private and some with his friends and colleagues in attendance. When Sacks realizes his death is imminent and says his goodbyes to these long-term associates, the scenes are extremely moving. The pic is always elegantly photographed, and it is a tribute to Burns’ discretion as well as his filmmaking skill that he earned the trust not just of Sacks but of so many others who played an important role in his life.

One of the surprising and moving lessons of this revealing film is how often the most gifted people are unappreciated. Late in life, Sacks earned many honorary degrees and awards from the medical establishment, but he spent a far longer period of his life as an outsider and often miserably unhappy, even suicidal man. Perhaps his own torments helped to create the sympathy for society’s outsiders that led to his brilliant discoveries. At least that is the most provocative insight contained in this thoughtful, deeply affecting film.

Production company: Steeplechase Films
Director: Ric Burns
Producers: Leigh Howell, Bonnie Lafave, Kathryn Clinard
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Editors: Li-Shin Yu, Tom Patterson, Chih Hsuan Liang
Music: Brian Keane, Dana Kaproff
Venue: Telluride Film Festival