“OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE”
A Misunderstood and Likeable Guy
Ric Burns’ documentary “Oliver Sachs: His Own Life” is filled with interesting bits and pieces many of which could easily provide enough material for a film in their own right. It is a treasure. Sacks understood, perhaps better than most, how little things can make a person happy. Filmed in the period leading up to his death, this documentary reflects on his work as a doctor and a writer and on a life that was often lonely, one that he survived partly through his ability to find joy in unexpected places.
Director Burns brings us the story of a boy born into a respectable home, both his parents were doctors, who had the opportunity to match his intelligence, yet nevertheless found himself an outsider and who championed the cause of outsiders throughout his life. Sacks was misunderstood and sidelined for a long time by the medical establishment but he managed to achieve widespread public acclaim. Perhaps this came out of his, his willingness to make the field of neurology accessible and his assertion that what a doctor needs most is empathy.
Sacks was empathetic and was likeable, something he did not use for many years because he was shy yet once he mastered it, it was an integral part of who he was. Burns does not ignore the criticism Sacks faced, especially the claims that he put personal glory ahead of ethics and that he exploited his patients. However, it is hard to think ill of a man who seems so open, warm and engaging. Sacks was a man who was shaped by the times through which he lived, the treatment of his schizophrenic brother Michael convinced him that there had to be a kinder way to deal with mentally ill people. His experience of being gay in a profoundly homophobic society led him to take refuge first in bodybuilding and later in recreational drugs, pushing his body and mind to the edge again and again. When he eventually realized he had to get help, he started psychoanalysis and became fascinated by the brain and began to exert his own influence on the world. Up to this point in the film, all was seen through still photographs. Now we move on to Sacks’ life on film and we see his famous awakenings that would later be dramatized in a film with Robin Williams, whom we see briefly talking with Sacks in another piece of archive footage.
Sacks’ most passionate contention was that helping people had to begin with trying to understand the whole of who they were, not just what was different about them. He had been forewarned of his death from malignant melanoma but he still worked hard to sum up his own life in words during his final few months. We meet some of the people who knew Sacks, and from those who drew inspiration from his work; but it’s Sacks himself, reflecting on an injured leg, apologizing for his “multisyllabic swearing” or, in his seventies, falling in love for the first time, who is what shines in this lovely film.
“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.
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. It 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 played Sacks in the film and there are scenes in the documentary showing Sacks on the set with Williams. But of course there was much more to Sacks than that movie.
He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in England. Both of his parents were physicians, but one of his brothers was schizophrenic. Some of the people that we hear from 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 ran from England for America and rebelled as a motorcycle rider and a bodybuilder. Eventually he moved to New York to focus on his medical career, and although his work with psychotic patients was initially controversial, he was eventually admired by 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 interesting as his professional achievements, perhaps partly because of his mother’s disapproval. In his autobiography and here in this film, Sacks says that he was celibate for 35 years. He was in his 70s when he established a loving relationship with photographer Billy Hayes, another person that we hear from in this documentary.
The real heart of the film are 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 emotionally moving. The film is a tribute to Burns’ discretion as well as his filmmaking skill. 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 the documentary 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. It could be that his own torments helped to create the sympathy for society’s outsiders that led to his amazing discoveries. This is the most provocative insight in the film.
Sacks wrote about people in extreme states — of sensory and neurological damage, of awareness and sheer being. “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” is a tender and thrilling portrait of a man who led an eccentrically defiant, at times reckless existence that was the furthest thing from being planned. He was a wanderer and a scientific navigator of the soul.