Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams

Before last night, I hadn't thought about Robin Williams - really thought about him, for more than a passing moment - in years. I certainly hadn't seen him in a movie in over a decade, and I hadn't bothered to check out his recently-cancelled TV show.

Yet the news of his death carried all the impact of a personal loss. And judging from the reactions of my friends and peers, I'm far from alone. For my generation, Robin Williams was like that uncle who you thought was the coolest, funniest man in the world when you were little, who might have begun to seem less cool and a bit corny as you grew older, but for whom you always had a solid core of residual affection and who you assumed would be around forever. Until he wasn't.

I knew him better as an actor than as a comedian. I was a little too young to have watched him as Mork, and I didn't see any of his stand-up routines. Still, it didn't take much exposure to his comic personality to get a good sense of its feverish exuberance - the almost manic energy that sometimes came off as too much of a good thing. Sometimes he managed to channel it into his movie roles ("Good Morning, Vietnam" being maybe the best example, and of course "Aladdin"; unlike many, I never did care much for "Mrs. Doubtfire"). But what struck me early on was his ability to dial back and play it completely straight, whether as a dryly sardonic ex-shrink ("Dead Again") or a shy, earnest doctor learning what it really means to be alive ("Awakenings"). [Note: I have not seen "The Fisher King," though I just bumped it up on my Netflix queue.]

For me, though, and undoubtedly for many others my age, his signature role will always be Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society." I haven't watched that film since VHS tapes were still widely available, and I suspect I would find many more faults with it now than I did as an adolescent or a twentysomething. But I have no doubt that Robin Williams' performance still holds up. What remains with me most clearly and poignantly isn't so much Keating's classroom lessons in yawping and seizing the day as a quieter scene in his office, when he tries to persuade Robert Sean Leonard's budding young actor to be honest with himself and with his father. Gone is any hint of playful posturing or pontificating to make a point; this Keating isn't there to inspire but to inquire, and to draw out his student's innermost fears. In this respect, it was a dry run for the movie that finally won Williams the Oscar, "Good Will Hunting." He was great in that. But Dead Poets came first, and will always have pride of place in my heart.

"Good Will Hunting" arguably marked the apex of a career that ranged wildly in quality; even after becoming a huge star, Williams made a good deal of dreck that hardly matched his talent or his Juilliard training. While he continued to be effective in roles that tapped into his dark side ("Insomnia," "One Hour Photo"), he was also drawn to movies that seemed to wallow in the most cloying kind of sentimentality ("Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come," "Bicentennial Man," admittedly none of which I've actually seen). Looking back, I can't help seeing this dichotomy as a manifestation of the tension within Williams himself, even though I ordinarily resist inflicting dime-store psychoanalysis on people I've never met. It's something of a truism, after all, that comedians struggle with deeper depression and darker demons than most people; comedy is their defense against the darkness. In Williams' case, though, the truism seems especially true: even the bathos, as well as the madcap comedy, embodied a palpable desire to connect, to love and be loved.

Which brings me back to why so many of us felt so hard hit after the initial shock of his death. Whatever you thought of his comic persona(s) or his movies, it was almost impossible to feel anything but good will towards him. The man exuded benevolence - a rare quality in most comedians, who tend to have at least something of the asshole about them - and was by all accounts a mensch in real life as well. I don't pretend to know whether or why he took his own life, and I don't presume to know. All I know is that whatever misery he may have endured, he contributed great joy to the world, and I hope he took some comfort in that.


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