Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) had a highly unusual career. The titles of some of the neurologist’s books tell you how unusual. “Awakenings” (1973), “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985), “An Anthropologist on Mars” (1995), “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood” (2001), “Hallucinations” (2012). “Awakenings” was later made into a movie (1990), with Robin Williams playing Sacks.
Those titles combine the personal and scientific, the humanistic and clinical, and that combination made Sacks famous. Or as he says in Ric Burns’s “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” “I’m asked are you a doctor first and then a writer? The answer is I think I’m equally both; and in important ways they blend together.” The documentary’s chief virtue, after the very considerable pleasure of getting to spend time in Sacks’s company, is learning how much his personal life rivaled his career in remarkableness.
Starting Sept. 25, it’s available for streaming via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room, at coolidge.org/films/oliver-sacks-his-own-life. In addition, the Coolidge will present a virtual Q&A with Burns and Atul Gawande, an author-physician very much in the Sacks tradition, on Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. Gawande is among the film’s interviewees.
The documentary was shot in 2015, shortly after Sacks learned he had terminal cancer. The diagnosis has done nothing to affect his gusto. The Falstaffian beard that readers know from Sacks’s author photos is matched by an equally outsize personality. “He was immoderate in all possible directions,” his friend the Italian writer Roberto Calasso says in the film. Nothing we see suggests otherwise.
The son of doctors, he grew up in a cultivated Jewish household in London. The most shocking moment in the documentary comes when Sacks describes his much-beloved mother’s response to learning her 18-year-old son was gay. “You are an abomination,” she told him. The shock worsens when Sacks later says she remained the person he was closest to.
Early on, Sacks acquired passions for swimming, the periodic table of elements, mineralogy, motorcycles, and weightlifting. He came to the United States to do his medical internship in San Francisco, then residency in Los Angeles. Possessed of a serious amphetamine habit, he thought nothing of going on 36-hour rides on his bike, stopping only for gas.
In New York, Sacks began the work that would make him famous, treating patients who’d been severely debilitated by encephalitis for more than four decades. Giving them the amino acid L-DOPA, Sacks helped them “awaken” from their near-vegetative state. We see before-and-after footage of the patients from 1969. It’s both wondrous, the transformations wrought, and disturbing, the severity of the patients’ previous condition and seeing how some returned to it.
The documentary also includes talking-head interviews — intense shyness did not keep Sacks from having many devoted friends — as well as period photographs and archival films from throughout his life. These are welcome and offer a nice counterpoint to the 2015 footage. Sacks’s marvelous speaking voice provides a kind of voice-over throughout. It’s a tribute to how articulate he was that it’s hard to tell when he’s speaking extemporaneously and when he’s reading from his just-completed memoir, “On the Move.”
What isn’t welcome is an intrusive score and recurring bits of quite-unnecessary filmmaking flashiness: reenactments and weird, semi-abstract shots meant to represent . . . the nervous system? Sacks’s descriptions of neurological disorders are so compelling that trying to offer visual equivalents is superfluous as well as distracting. The movie opens with Sacks saying, “Could you repeat your question more shortly? I only have an attention span of about 12 seconds.” Clearly, that’s not true. The filmmakers seem to think it’s true of the audience, though.
OLIVER SACKS: HIS OWN LIFE
Directed by Ric Burns. Available via Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room. 114 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: the occasional cheerful obscenity; disturbing archival footage of neurological patients)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.