The great Robin Williams died yesterday, an apparent suicide. And the rest of the day, FB was a place of mourning. “Captain, my captain.” The Dead Poet’s Society was a movie my wife and I both loved, and that iconic line seemed a fitting epitaph.
What’s remarkable to me about Williams’ death was this: he was one celebrity you never read about being a jerk. With most celebrities, you read about them and you say ‘well, sure, s/he was a good actor, but there was that time. . . ‘ Not Williams. Instead we heard literally hundreds of stories about his patience and kindness with fans. When we heard negative stories about him, they were almost entirely self-inflicted–he had a substance abuse problem; he suffered from depression. But he did not seem infected by self-importance; quite the contrary. I think he loved performing, but I always sensed some insecurity there too; he also wanted us to love him.
We need to recognize that depression is a real illness. My oldest daughter is a remarkably bright and funny and delightful young woman who I love with all my heart. She also suffers from depression, has for years. Her comment on Williams’ death: ‘there but for the grace of God. . . .’ Let’s reach out to those in our own lives who suffer from this debilitating and life-threatening disease. My parents are a good example of this. When they learned of my daughter’s illness, they both made a point of articulating to her their unconditional love and support and prayers.
Depression is poorly understood by many in our culture, and from time to time we hear people say ‘they should just snap out of it,’ or ‘cheer up, life is good!’ or similar inanities. Or they judge. One so-called Christian blogger, who shall forever remain nameless here, demonstrated his own lack of charity with a blog post that disgraced the entire internet. (I’m sure some of you know who I’m talking about; if not, he’s not worth your attention). But on the same day that I learned of Williams’ death, I also learned that a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer. I consider both diseases, cancer and depression, equally dangerous. Blessedly, both can be treated more effectively today than in the past. Neither should be taken lightly.
But, Robin Williams! Oh my goodness, what a loss. People forget that Williams was trained as a classical actor at Juilliard, that he turned to stand-up as an alternative to acting, to pay some bills. His stand-up routine was hyper-kinetic, full of impressions and voices and accents and riffs of popular culture, a rush of mayhem, with only the loosest transitions between subjects and topics. We talk about how comedy is timing, and Williams had exquisite comic timing, but at a rapid-fire pace. Compare him to someone like Stephen Wright, or Jim Gaffigan, two comedians with, again, extraordinary timing, but who work at a much slower pace, sometimes getting huge laughs from pauses. Comic timing simply means this: telling the joke so that the punchline registers without distraction. Comic timing really means comic clarity. And I think there was probably never a better talk show host than Robin Williams, probably ever. He was just so astonishingly on.
Of course, he was also a fine dramatic actor; a three-time Oscar nominee. The roles he’s best known for are the inspirational ones: Good Will Hunting, The Dead Poets’ Society, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam, where he played unconventional-but-heroic men who transform stodgy institutions through the power of irreverence. But we shouldn’t forget that he and Steve Martin did Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot, on Broadway.
Here are five movie roles where Robin Williams really stretched himself, five unconventional movies in which all his gifts were on display.
Williams’ first feature film was Robert Altman’s Popeye. It received brutal reviews when it came out in 1980, but I loved the stylization of both Williams’ performance and Altman’s approach to the material. It was a live-action cartoon, brought to cheerful life by Williams, by Shelley Duval as Olive Oyl, and by Paul Dooley’s Wimpy. Note Williams extraordinary physicality in the role; the walk, the quickness on his feet.
In 1982, he played the title character, in the film adaptation of John Irving’s acclaimed novel, The World According to Garp. George Roy Hill directed, and found a way to navigate the novel’s blend of magical realism and genuine melancholy. The film is mostly remembered now for John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon, a trans-gender former football star, who becomes Garp’s closest friend, but Williams holds the film together, gives it heart and passion.
I was never a huge fan of What Dreams May Come, a film that a lot of my friends and former students loved. It’s about a man who searches the afterlife for his dead wife, intent on saving her. Compelling story, but I was troubled by the theological implications of the film, the notion that people who commit suicide are forever damned. Especially ironic, of course, given Williams’ own death. But this scene got to me when I first saw it, and it still has the power to move.
Then, in 2002, after a series of critical and box office bombs, Williams had an amazing year creatively, refashioning himself as an actor, with three films: Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo. Those films gave him the opportunity to explore the darker contours of his talent. In One Hour Photo, he plays the employee of a photo lab who becomes obsessed with a family who frequents his store. The Williams who always seemed, perhaps, a bit anxious to please disappears; he gives a creepily unforgettable performance. In Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy about a TV children’s show host who loses his job, Williams captures a Mafiosa vibe, while retaining a child-like vulnerability. This scene, with Jon Stewart, is brilliantly funny, in context. Finally, in Insomnia, an early Christopher Nolan film adapted from a Norwegian original, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play detectives tracking a serial killer, in a northern location where the sun never sets, driving the detectives insane. Williams is terrifying as the killer. So check ’em out. I think you’ll be astounded by his range.
I feel fortunate to have lived during the Robin Williams era in American entertainment. I am so grateful for the years he gave us, and so sorrowful for his passing. Goodnight, Mork. And thanks for all the years.