Williams plays it straight, almost, in 'Awakenings'

Movies

January 09, 1991|By Lou Cedrone

You'll see a more subdued Robin Williams in ''Awakenings,'' a new film that opens here Friday.

As the doctor who brings a number of encephalitis victims back to consciousness, if only for a time, Williams is content to let the character play itself. The man he plays, however, is not all one shade. There is a lighter side to the man, but the humor is very gentle, part of the character, who, as Williams plays him, is just a bit absent-minded.

''That's the choice you make,'' said Williams. ''It's kind of cruel to rap on people in a catatonic state. You can't do the film as 'Club Medicated.' You give that up right at the top. But I would use it on occasion. We worked at the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center in Brooklyn, and you have to lighten it up a bit when you're shooting for five months in a mental hospital.

''It's depressing, especially in a hospital that is short of funding. Everything is caged. Even the sun room is a big cage. We changed the character a little, to free him up and to free me up. I know his mannerisms. I could do a dead-on impression of him, but the object is to do something beyond the character and inhabit it.''

Robert De Niro plays a patient who has been out of it for almost 30 years. It is the kind of role Williams could have played as easily as De Niro, and Williams is aware of that.

''Sure, I could have done the other character, but I would have used tricks,'' he said. ''I had to peel away all pretense as the doctor. It's awkward, for me, to try to do something that has no shtick, no gimmicks.

''It's a wonderful thing, too. It was good being on a leash. It was good to give up all the things I can do, to do something without nets.''

The real physician is Dr. Oliver Sacks, a man who found himself working at Bainbridge Hospital in the Bronx in 1969.

Among the patients in his care were a group of post-encephalitis victims, all of them in a catatonic state. Sacks found a way to bring some of these people back to consciousness, at least for a time, then wrote about his experiences in a book called ''Awakenings.''

''When he saw the film, he said it was like looking in a 3-D mirror,'' said Williams. ''The role I play is a synthesis of him and myself.''

Penny Marshall directed the film. She was one of the stars of ''Laverne & Shirley,'' the television series. When she left television, she became a film director, as is her brother Garry (''Pretty Woman''). She did ''Jumpin' Jack Flash'' and ''Big,'' and because the second film was super successful, Marshall was hot, so hot that she got ''Awakenings,'' a real plumb, considering the stars are Williams and De Niro.

Mention Marshall's name and Williams does an impression. Actually, he does a series of impressions, voices, lines, everything, but he isn't always on. He comes down now and then.

He speaks, for instance, very seriously about De Niro. He has known him for about five years.

''He's an amazing person,'' said Williams. ''He's one of the simple, gentle people, but there's a warmth, too. It's the scary part that makes you not want to talk to him. It's all those roles he's done.''

Someone mentioned that one of the supermarket tabloids had said that Williams and De Niro had vacationed together.

''Actually, we were honeymooning,'' he said.

Unlike the filming of the movie, he doesn't think the movie itself is depressing. ''There is something uplifting to it,'' he said.

The film has been tested a number of times.

''You have to,'' said Williams. ''You can pimp a movie only so much. The testing encourages people to tell other people about it. This could be a word-of-mouth film.

''It is wise of the studio to release the film in stages, too,'' he said. ''It would have been dangerous to open it wide. It's a film that must build.''

Williams' last movie was ''Cadillac Man,'' in which he was a car salesman who had to deal with a young man who was holding the agency employees hostage at gunpoint.

The film didn't do very well, but Williams says he wasn't disappointed. ''I knew what it was,'' he said. ''I knew it wasn't all together, that it had rough edges, that the characters were not immediately redeemable.''

He hates guns. ''There is something about them, even if they are fake,'' he said. ''I've only had one pointed at me once, during a robbery attempt, and that was enough.''

Williams' next film may be ''Hook,'' one more version of ''Peter Pan.'' ''I'm waiting,'' he said. ''We haven't signed any contract, but we've talked. I'm training, just in case.''

Meanwhile, there is ''Fisher King'' in which Williams plays a character who is looking for the Holy Grail on the Upper West Side of New York.

It sounds like a Monty Python movie.

''It is,'' said Williams. ''It was directed by Terry Gilliam, who was with the group.''

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