Remembering Robin Williams
Aren: When I first heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide this past Monday, I didn’t really know how to handle the news. Williams had always seemed unstable, and he had discussed past addictions and depression-related issues in candid interviews, but I never thought he’d be one of those tragic performers to end his own life. But I didn’t know the man personally, and I’m not a psychiatrist, so I don’t want to fixate on reasons why he died or how depression affects the brain. He was a mentally ill man and mental illness makes people do awful things to themselves, and I’m not here to judge or diagnose. It’s enough just to feel compassion and take a step back and perceive what this says about human beings in general.
However, beyond the mere surprise of this tragic death, I was also taken aback at how much it affected me. I don’t cry for celebrities or people I don’t know, no matter how tragic their deaths. Even Roger Ebert’s death last year, which affected me far more than I had expected it to (mainly because his criticism had a direct influence on how I understand movies and why I’m so interested in them) didn’t reduce me to tears. But on Monday night I was powerless to hold back the tears. They came as I read over people’s outpouring of support on Twitter. One tweet from the Academy destroyed me, even though I understand people’s reservations towards it. Robin Williams’s death hurt. It hurt me personally, which is almost baffling, but that’s just how much his presence in movies meant to me, even if I didn’t understand this consciously until now.
I hadn’t really thought a lot about Robin Williams in the past few years. He had been doing independent features and starred on a CBS sitcom I didn’t watch. The last film of his where I sat up and took notice was Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, which now has a twisted relevance to it taking into account how Williams died. But none of that mattered once I read the news on Twitter and saw it confirmed on every major news website. At one point in my life Robin Williams had mattered more to me than any other actor. In fact, he may have been the first actor I was really aware of as a movie star. He was hilarious just being himself and whenever he showed up on a talk show or during an awards presentation, everything got a whole lot better. He was a childhood hero, and when childhood heroes die, it feels like a bit of childhood dies along with them.
Anton: Like yourself Aren, and probably like many readers out there, I grew up with Robin Williams. He was an actor I knew before I followed actors. It’s actually been a few years since I saw a new release with him in it, but I still remember so many of the details of his many popular performances from the late eighties and early nineties. Those performances remain memorable even if the movies were often of mixed quality. Dead Poets Society. Hook. Mrs. Doubtfire. Jumanji (which I revisited this past week). These aren’t great films, but his performances still stand out as something special.
His manic humour and earnest sentiment were his trademarks, and the unique downturned shape of his mouth became at turns that familiar sly smile or that wrenching pained expression. He could be irreverent and vulgar without being glib and nasty. He was able to create characters who laughed at everyone and everything around them, but not because they didn’t care—it was how they dealt with caring so much.
To his lasting testament, rarely can I imagine another actor in one of his roles. This goes for his best and most signature performances (such as in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire) as well as many of his average ones (like in Jumanji). Even in films of his I dislike, such as What Dreams May Come or Patch Adams, he took over the character and made it his own.
Perhaps this is why his death has affected the general public to such a great extent. Other celebrity actor deaths have caused sharper grief, usually because of the person’s tragically young age (such as Heath Ledger), or generated more formal commendation because of the figure’s importance (such as Marlon Brando), but I can’t remember another actor’s passing that has elicited such an outpouring of affection. People, regular people, loved him—not just fellow filmmakers and actors or critics and cinephiles. How many ordinary people have you met who describe Dead Poets Society as one of their favourite movies? How many of your friends remember Aladdin, or Hook, or Mrs. Doubtfire fondly? How many people have told you they cried so hard during What Dreams May Come or Patch Adams? How many parents have told you you need to see Good Morning, Vietnam, and how many acquaintances have nodded knowingly when you tell them about Williams’s subdued turns in One Hour Photo or Insomnia? His performances touched so many of us and he made everyone laugh, so no wonder so many of us miss him!
Anders: I echo all the sentiments that you both have shared, in praising his performances that moved us and marvelling at his ability to connect with people. This past week has been a lesson not in overblown celebrity culture as some might have us believe, but in the power of a film or an individual performance to move us as human beings.
It feels weird to be writing a eulogy for Robin Williams so soon after writing my piece on the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself. Like you, Aren, I thought of how Williams’s passing has affected me more than the loss of any other person that I knew only from their work since Roger’s passing. I think you are correct in identifying it partly in Williams’s centrality to so many of my earliest cinematic memories. His turns in Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, and Dead Poet’s Society were inescapable parts of the pop culture landscape of my youth. But perhaps the performance that meant the most to me, despite being part of a much less praised film, was his portrayal of the grown up Peter Pan, Peter Banning, in Spielberg’s Hook. Hook is a film that us three brothers watched over and over again as children. It was a rare month when a Sunday afternoon wasn’t spent watching Robin Williams embody Peter Pan as well as anyone could. It wasn’t just the twinkle in his eye or his gleeful wordplay during the food fight scene that are memorable; it was also the way that you could see the pain that is part of his Peter character as well, at remembering his abandonment as a child, and his fear. But his pure joy at realizing that his children are his happy thought is enough to bring a tear to my eye as I write this. I haven’t revisited Hook since I became a father myself, but I think I will soon.
Williams’s association with father figures was also a big part of why I think his death has affected me so much. His performances in Dead Poet’s Society and Good Will Hunting are among his most beloved, and I think it’s because his characters embody what everyone wishes they had in a mentor or teacher. He oozed compassion and made you believe that he understood your passion or your hurt. Furthermore, more personally, I think Williams will always have a special place in my heart because he was one of dad’s favourite actors when I was growing up. Awakenings and Dead Poet’s Society were films that dad always spoke fondly of, and even though dad rarely expresses much of an opinion about popular film, he always speaks well of Robin Williams. In fact, I remember that his enjoyment of Williams’s performance in Good Morning, Vietnam meant that it was one of the very first “grown-up” comedies, or films for that matter, that I ever saw, and it still remains for me one of his most iconic performances. I look forward to sharing a re-viewing of the film with dad someday soon.
But the film that I turned to on Monday night wasn’t one of the above; it was Terry Gilliam’s 1991 film, The Fisher King. I posted a link to this scene from the film on Facebook and Twitter as tribute to Robin Williams that night as well. It’s strange, since Williams isn’t really the lead of the film (that’d be an excellent Jeff Bridges). But The Fisher King perhaps better than any other managed to allow Williams to do his manic, whirlwind of improvisation and marry it to his ability to evoke pathos and pain as well. In retrospect, the homeless Parry emerged from the unconscious of the grieving medieval studies professor, the way that Williams’s most hilarious and energetic performances emerged from the body and mind of a man who was, we now realize in retrospect, carrying a great burden of pain. It’s a poignant and amazing performance, and Gilliam and Williams’s co-stars gave him a great film to showcase the depth of his ability.
Aren: I think you both get at the heart of why Williams’s brand of comedy and drama connected emotionally with so many people, including ourselves. Whether he was in frankly sentimental shlock like Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar, or doing voicework in Aladdin and Happy Feet, or doing his classic manic improvisations in Good Morning, Vietnam, or giving all-time great performances in Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King, or playing against type in Insomnia and One Hour Photo, or just showing up as himself in an episode of Louie, Robin Williams always felt recognizably human. Everything he did was full of emotion. He was a gracious performer. Even if he was going big in his performance (which was often), he directed his performance outwards, to the actors that surrounded him on screen and the viewer that watched him on the other side of the screen.
If film is just a series of images projected across a screen and there’s an inherent artificiality to it due to its disconnect from the viewer who inhabits a separate reality, Robin Williams is the kind of performer who proved there is also a magic to cinema, as his performances bridged that very real gap between the character and the viewer. It’s not just a matter of his performances making people laugh and cry. Many actors and comedians can do that. It’s that Williams made all his characters profoundly, even ecstatically, alive. When we watch his movies, we witness a true act of creation; there’s a warmth and a soul to this person we’re watching on the screen.
That’s why his death hurts so much. Now whenever we return to one of his films, we’ll be struck by the fact that this character gesturing loudly and careening across the screen with manic energy and enthusiasm seems so alive—but he’s played by someone who is dead. It will be as if our brain is screaming at us, disagreeing with reality, because yes I know this is a film from 20 years ago, and yes I’m aware that this is a fictional character and that Robin Williams is no longer with us, but no, he has to be alive because just look at how there’s a spark of genuine humanity to this character and see how a bit of Williams’s soul seems stuck there on screen. And if his soul remains and there’s life to this character, he can’t really be dead, can he?
Robin Williams could give so much life to his characters. He could give so much joy to his audience. But life itself couldn’t contain him.