New York Film Review: ‘Oliver Sacks: His Own Life’

A portrait of the poetic neurologist of 'Awakenings,' shot at the end of his life, takes a tender and thrilling look at the sacred demons that drove him.

Ric Burns
Kate Edgar, Robert Calasso, Temple Grandin, Paul Theroux, Lawrence Wechsler, Shane Fistell, Atul Gawande, Lowell Handler, Robert Krulwich, Jonathan Sacks, Steve Silberman, Robert Silvers, Max Whitby.

Official Site: https://www.filmlinc.org/nyff2019/films/oliver-sacks-his-own-life/

The title of the new documentary “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” bounces off the title of the essay that Sacks published in The New York Times on Feb. 19, 2015 (“My Own Life”), days after he’d received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. (He died on Aug. 30, 2015.) It‘s a deceptively plain title. For Sacks, in his impish way, was suggesting that his own life, if you looked at it closely enough, might bear more than a passing resemblance to the idiosyncratic and richly freakish lives he chronicled in his case-study portraits that were really a form of wide-eyed literary biography.

Sacks wrote about people in extreme states — of sensory and neurological damage, of awareness and sheer being. And “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” directed by the redoubtable Ric Burns (“Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film”), is a portrait at once tender and thrilling, a movie that presents us with a man who led an eccentrically defiant, at times reckless existence that was the furthest thing from cunningly planned. He was a wanderer in the body of a clinician, like Jack Kerouac crossed with Jonas Salk. He was that rare if not unique thing, a scientific navigator of the soul.

A great many people, of course, know Oliver Sacks from the 1990 Penny Marshall film “Awakenings,” in which Robin Williams, looking (if not acting) remarkably like him, played Sacks during the time he spent in the late ’60s at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he encountered catatonic patients who had been victims of the 1920s epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. They appeared to have little or no consciousness, but Sacks, treating them with the then-novel dopamine replacement agent L-DOPA, woke them up, revealing their still highly active states of experience. The experiment had a Lazarus-like dimension: He took humans who’d been wasting away for decades and returned them to the world (at least for a while). The Hollywood version played up the feel-good mystical-healer vibes, laying a sentimental coating on the whole thing, but it still caught Sacks’ audacity — the way he shot beyond the limits of medicine because he simply didn’t see them. What he saw, like a beacon, were the inner lives of his patients.

Popular on Variety

You’d think a psychoanalytical neurologist with that kind of humanity and fortitude would be a relatively centered person, one with a rock-solid sense of boundaries. Far from it. At the time of the “Awakenings” experience, Sacks was emerging from his own slow-motion semi-catastrophe, a period of liberation that was also one of staggering self-destruction. Born in England in 1933, he’d come to the U.S., like so many others, searching for a kind of freedom; in his case, he was thirsting to throw off the oppression he felt from a mother who didn’t accept his homosexuality. Arriving in San Francisco in 1966, Sacks became a motorcycle-riding bodybuilder in black leather, an image caught on the cover photo of his 2015 memoir, where he looked like a Tom of Finland stud.

He worked out to the point that he could bench-press 660 pounds, setting a California weight-lifting record. But he also plunged into an addiction to amphetamines, swallowing them in handfuls that would have killed a man with lesser bulk. High as a kite, he would jump on his motorcycle and cruise into the night, driving hundreds of miles at top speed. Making his hospital rounds, he was incorrigible, a loose-cannon empath with little patience for protocol. On one New Year’s Eve, he realized that he’d never make it to the next one unless he ditched the amphetamines. He found a psychiatrist, one he continued to see for the next 50 years, and when Oliver asked if he was schizophrenic like his brother Michael, the shrink said no. Then Oliver asked if he was merely neurotic. The shrink said no.

Oliver never asked again, and part of the teasing mystery of “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is that the movie, like Sacks himself, refuses to pin its subject down to anything as earthly as a diagnosis, because that would reduce him. He had enough torment about his sexuality that, after trying and failing to find a partner (he feared that he was compulsively drawn to straight men), he became celibate for 35 years. He replaced amphetamines — and maybe sex — with writing, and though “Awakenings,” his first book, published in 1973, was not a resounding success (it didn’t sell well, and was rejected by the neurological establishment), it launched Sacks’ singular gift for looking at what most of us would view as a disability and glimpsing, inside it, a state of grace.

He spent a decade writing a poetic book about his own leg injury. And he saw the afflictions of others as windows. Were the tics and whirling-dervish psychic energy of Tourette Syndrome a violation of a personality — or, in fact, the fulfillment of it? Had the Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat taken leave of his senses, or was he living on a different plane of reality? Sacks’ scientifically wired empathy, his ability to capture the fiber of another’s experience to the point where it became transcendent, was a gift that descended from his own sacred demons.

Burns assembles a fair amount of archival footage, so we can see how Sacks evolved, over time, from bodybuilder to the burly bearded medical holy man he became. But Burns didn’t start filming until after Sacks received his cancer diagnosis and was given a likely six months to live. Much of the film was shot in the living room of Sacks’ Greenwich Village apartment, where the invisibly ailing and, at 81, still ebullient Oliver holds court, sitting among his friends, publishers, and associates. His accent and tone of voice are singular, as he turns stories and confessions — like a hilarious one about a midnight erection and some Jell-O — into a melodious one-world British-Jewish form of verbal play. He found a partner, Billy Hayes, late in life, but what’s most moving about “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is that Sacks, whose extreme love of existence was there in every sentence he wrote, could embrace death because it would be the most out-there adventure of his life. What he saw is that we were all, in our ways, afflicted and all unique. And therefore all extraordinary.

New York Film Review: 'Oliver Sacks: His Own Life'

Reviewed at New York Film Festival (Spotlight on Documentary), Sept. 30, 2019. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production: A PBS/American Masters release of a Steeplechase Films, Vulcan Productions production. Producers: Kathryn Clinard, Leigh Howell, Bonnie Lafave. Executive producers: Paul G. Allen, Arthur Altschul Jr., John Battsek, Greg Boustead, Sean B. Carroll, Christopher Clements, Rocky Collins, Geralyn Dreyfous, David Elisco, Sally Jo Fifer, Julie Goldman, Michael Kantor, Margaret Munzer Loeb, Nion McEvoy, Regina K. Scully, Nicole Stott, Carole Tomko.

Crew: Director: Ric Burns. Camera (color, widescreen): Buddy Squires. Editors: Chih Hsuan Liang, Tom Patterson, Li-Shin Yu. Music: Brian Keane.

With: Kate Edgar, Robert Calasso, Temple Grandin, Paul Theroux, Lawrence Wechsler, Shane Fistell, Atul Gawande, Lowell Handler, Robert Krulwich, Jonathan Sacks, Steve Silberman, Robert Silvers, Max Whitby.

More Film

  • The Painter and the Thief

    Neon Takes Worldwide Rights on Benjamin Ree’s ‘The Painter and the Thief’

    Neon has acquired worldwide rights to “The Painter and the Thief,” directed by Benjamin Ree, which made its world premiere at Sundance, where it won the world cinema documentary special jury prize for creative storytelling. The film was produced by Ingvil Giske and executive produced by Academy Award winning filmmaker Morgan Neville. When two paintings [...]

  • Oliver-Berben-and-Uli-Edel

    Constantin TV, ZDF, Global Screen, Team on 'The Palace' (EXCLUSIVE)

    BERLIN — Constantin Film, the No. 1 German independent behind the “Resident Evil” franchise, is teaming with German public broadcaster ZDF to produce “The Palace,” (“Friedrichstadt-Palast”) a period drama set at the celebrated Berlin music hall. Global Screen will handle international distribution. “Last Exit to Brooklyn’s” Uli Edel will re-team with Constantin Television, directing the [...]

  • Berlin: Embankment Rides With Frankie Dettori

    Berlin: Embankment Rides With Frankie Dettori Documentary 'Frankie'

    Embankment has launched worldwide sales at the European Film Market on feature documentary “Frankie,” the story of champion jockey Frankie Dettori, winner of more than 3,000 races. The film shadows Dettori for one season as, at 49, he looks to win a record third Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe on Enable, his most beloved horse. [...]

  • Pathé Inks Major Pre-Sales on Emilia

    Pathé Inks Major Pre-Sales on Emilia Jones Starrer 'Coda' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Pathé has closed major pre-sales on Sian Heder’s anticipated film “Coda,” starring Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez and Marlee Matlin, after unveiling an exclusive promo reel of the film at EFM. An English-language remake of the French smash hit “La Famille Belier,” “Coda” is being produced by Philippe Rousselet and Fabrice Gianfermi at Vendôme Group, alongside [...]

  • Greenwich Takes U.S. Rights to Caroline

    Greenwich Takes U.S. Rights to Oscar-Winner Caroline Link's 'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit'

    Beta Cinema has sold the German box-office hit “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” by Oscar-winner Caroline Link to the U.S. Greenwich Entertainment picked up the rights to the feature, which has attracted almost one million admissions since its Christmas release in Germany alone. German media lauded the film, calling it “a real godsend for the [...]

  • 'H Is for Happiness' Review

    'H Is for Happiness': Film Review

    More often than not, “A” festival competitions privilege the arty over the entertaining, so hats off to the Berlinale Generation section, where the two qualities frequently coexist. A case in point: the delightful coming-of-age dramedy “H Is for Happiness,” which provides feel-good entertainment for the entire family without pandering — and definitely without sacrificing style [...]

  • 'Jinpa' Review

    ‘Jinpa’: Film Review

    After roaming for more than a year on the international festival circuit, “Jinpa” — the latest effort from Tibetan director Pema Tseden (“Old Dog,” “Tharlo”) — has finally launched a limited run in U.S. art houses, where it might find an appreciative if occasionally perplexed audience for its idiosyncratic mix of deadpan wit and understated [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content