Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

M, 151 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The subject of this fine documentary was one of society’s eccentrics. A medical doctor and a writer of books with whimsical titles like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. He was the kind of person whose life story is, I’d say, best told in the documentary film genre.

His lust for life, restless curiosity and pioneering spirit built many dimensions into the man. Dr Oliver Wolf Sacks was bundle of contradictions. Too many, it seemed, for a single individual. Who would believe this life story in any other form but documentary?

If truth is indeed stranger than fiction idea, it has made this film from distinguished New York- based documentarian Ric Burns so much more successful than the fiction feature Awakenings of 1990. That film was loosely based on Sacks’ first book and starred the late Robin Williams as the mercurial medical doctor and writer of renown and Robert De Niro.

Shortly after Sacks announced in 2015 that he had terminal cancer and six months to live, he agreed to become the subject of this new doco. A portrait while dying was another bold move from an unorthodox individual.

a doco in which a gay man gets the straight treatment

Sacks grew up in London during WWII, the youngest child in an Orthodox Jewish family who eventually became a doctor like his parents. After receiving his medical degree from Queens College, Oxford, he left home and Britain for good, and sought freedom in America after his parents cruelly rejected him when he revealed he was gay.

Arriving in California as a 27 year old, he interned at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Outside of work hours, he threw himself into what 1960s California had to offer. He became a biker who loved to drive his BMW into the desert at night, he got into amphetamines in a big way and naturally he fell in with the gay scene.

Then it suddenly all stopped. Sacks became celibate, and remained that way until he met Bill Hayes, a writer, who was his partner during the last six years of his life.

Crucially, Sacks had moved to New York in the mid-1960s and started work at the Beth Abraham Hospital for chronic disease. Some of his patients there had been in a catatonic state since they contracted lethargic encephalitis in an epidemic during the 1920s-30s. It was a turning point in his medical career.

In his best-selling novels and essays, Dr Sacks devoted himself to documenting the strange ways and byways of the human mind. His work was based on his clinical experiences treating patients with chronic conditions like Tourette’s, dementia and Asperger’s.

He became a pioneer in helping patients long deemed brain dead to respond to music by singing or dancing, thereby shedding their frozen states and demonstrating that their minds were still responsive.

It is hard to square the interview scenes in this doco of the frail and elderly Sacks chatting with close associates with the famous images of him as a leather clad biker. Or even the muscled man emerging more recently from the river in the Bronx after a long distance swim. He was a lifelong distance swimmer who took to the water every day.

That familiar shot astride his BMW motorbike, looking quite the stud, was published on the cover of his book On the Move: A Life. The doctor also wrote of his own issues.

There seem to be many reasons why this British-educated, US-based neurologist became famous. There’s his clinical, ground-breaking work with his patients with chronic conditions, then there is the man himself. All good reasons for seeing this documentary on one of life’s true eccentrics who believed that it was the fate of every human being to be singular and unique.

The man was many things, all bundled together in the one burly body. Doctor and patient, all in one. And yet, despite his many sides, he says he feels he is ‘a single person’.

Oliver Sacks, neurologist and prolific author, is a gay man who gets the straight treatment here in this doco directed by Ric Burns. Hopefully Sacks’ life story won’t be made into a fiction feature, though it seems inevitable it one day will. Hard to imagine it could be more revelatory than this excellent documentary about one of life’s true individuals.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 December 2020