“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” continues at the M.V. Film Center and virtually on Saturday, August 29. Directed by Ric Burns, brother of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, it is a praiseworthy film about this remarkable man. A virtual Q and A with the late Sacks’ partner Bill Hayes will be available.
“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” takes a traditional approach as a documentary. The title “His Own Life” comes from the essay Sacks wrote for the NY Times after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February 2015. After receiving the diagnosis, Sacks sat down in his apartment with friends and colleagues for an extensive interview on his life. Asked if he was a doctor first or writer, he answered, “I am an inveterate storyteller. I am equally both.”
In addition, the film employs the extensive Oliver Sacks archives. From them, viewers learn about his often difficult life. He was born on July 9, 1933, into a middle-class Orthodox Jewish family in London. He was closest to his mother, the foremost woman doctor in England. During World War II’s Battle of Britain, when all children were evacuated, he and his brother Michael were sent to boarding school. The experience was devastating for Michael, who became psychotic at age 15. At age 16, Sacks set up a lab as a way to fend off Michael’s madness, and studied plants and chemistry there. He attended Oxford University, and discovered that he was gay while he was there. When his mother learned of his orientation, she told him, “You are an abomination.” Her words haunted Sacks most of his life, inhibiting his sexuality so that he was celibate for 35 years.
According to the film, it was his great good fortune to come to America in 1960 on his 27th birthday. Insecure, shy and timid, he lifted weights in an attempt to gain confidence. He pursued an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. In addition to beefing up from weightlifting, he took amphetamines, and compulsively rode his motorcycle. Realizing he was on the road to killing himself, he began a course of psychoanalysis that continued for most of the rest of his life.
He spent 40 years at the Bronx’s Beth Israel Hospital studying chronic neurologic disease and severe dementia. The primary question he asked patients is “‘Who are you?’ I could learn something that way.”
Sacks was not accepted at first by members of his profession. His book “Awakenings” was published in 1973, and examined the use of the drug L-dopa on patients who were catatonic as the result of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic of 1916 to 1930. The book was followed by an Oscar-nominated film version that brought him the success that initially had eluded him. The use of L-dopa, however, was limited, as the patients reverted to their former state. Another of his books, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985), sold 1 million copies, and consisted of a series of cases about agnosia, a disability in which patients cannot recognize ordinary objects or people. This and other books, including “Uncle Tungsten” and “On the Move: A Life,” have become bestsellers. His insights in them have made him legendary.
At age 75, he fell in love with Bill Hayes, and developed a relationship that lasted the rest of his life. “He was without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known … I adored him,” said Hayes. Sacks died on August 30, 2015, at age 82.
Information and tickets for “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” are available both virtually and at the Film Center at mvfilmsociety.com.