A year ago yesterday, we learned that Robin Williams was dead. I remember where I was when I heard–like I think we all remember when we learned about 9/11 or, for those of us a bit older, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I was with my son, heading off to play one of our rare rounds of golf. The poor lad had never watched a single episode of Mork and Mindy, and I tried to explain to him how significant Williams was in American entertainment–how funny, how manic, how brilliant he was.
In that moment, I forgot that Robin Williams’ best roles–the roles I loved him in, the roles I loved him for–were often terribly, wrenchingly sad. Perhaps that’s not so strange: We like to remember Williams as comic kangaroo, hopping from character and theme with inhuman, genius alacrity. But it was when he was still, his face etched with pain and loss, that Williams was at his best as an actor. And in hindsight, we can’t help but wonder whether it was strictly an act.
Esther O’Reilly, who runs her own blog at Yankee Gospel Girl and has been a good friend of this one, reminded me of Williams’ brilliance with this two-part guest post. In it, O’Reilly chronicles what she deems Williams’ five best movies (you can read the first three now, and come back next week for the top two) and what made them great.
When Robin Williams committed suicide a year ago, I was barely a casual fan. I’d seen none of his movies and maybe one skit with Carol Burnett. But after his death, I became curious. What was it about him that people were so drawn to? Why did they call him a genius? And how did he turn successfully from stand-up comedy to legitimate acting? I saw him not as a celebrity, but as a person. And I was fascinated. I was all in. With fresh eyes, I began my exploration. The end of all my exploring led me to conclude that Robin Williams was, indeed, a genius. His manic persona disguised a serious dramatic force to be reckoned with.
Herewith, the top five list I compiled after going through the best of his filmography, taking into consideration both his performances and the quality of the films as a whole. Paul chided me for not including Good Morning Vietnam, but the film qua film doesn’t make it onto my shortlist, however great Williams is in it. Indeed, there are going to be a lot of upsets here, so if you have a favorite that didn’t make it either, feel free to initiate a debate in the comments thread!
5. Dead Poets Society
Yes, we’re going backwards, and yes, we’re starting with Dead Poets Society. I know, sacrilege. Besides the fact that I’m not a Walt Whitman fan (more sacrilege!) the main thing that keeps it from ranking higher for me is its one-dimensional treatment of all authority figures besides John Keating. This is unquestionably a young man’s film, which has its pros and cons. The side of youth versus establishment is taken at nearly every turn, even excusing suicide. Meanwhile, it’s doubtful how much poetry Keating’s enraptured students are actually learning in between his rousing speeches about poetry.
But the film does get something exactly right, and that’s the fragile, transitional period between childhood and adulthood in a young man’s life. It captures that window of time in which he will most fiercely latch on to a strong male authority figure who commands love and loyalty. Any man who can remember such a strong, loving leader in his own teenage years understands the power of that bond. It’s the bond between a boy and the man for whom he would die.
Mr. Keating is a man who whole-heartedly loves his students and loves what he does. That is the heart of the film. Those like me who despise pretentious literary criticism can’t forget his introductory page-ripping-out session for one especially turgid textbook. And you really ought to check your pulse if you don’t find his “Carpe Diem” speech even a little inspiring. Or the scene where Keating pushes a terminally tongue-tied pupil until he finally sweats out an original poem. It’s jumbled, abstract, unpolished, but it has bits of memorable imagery, and it’s something. Keating looks at him with love, hugs his neck and whispers, “Don’t you forget this.”
Indeed, flawed and even manipulative at points as it is, there is still much worth remembering about this film. And the speech in which Keating answers the poet’s questions about the meaning of life now takes on a chilling added significance: “ ‘O me, O life of the questions of these recurring, of cities filled with the foolish… What good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: That you are here. That life exists.”
4. Good Will Hunting
After several nominations, this was the role that finally won the Oscar for Williams: the subtle, supporting character study of counselor Sean Maguire, who touches the soul of a lonely young genius when nobody else can. It truly was the culmination of his serious acting career, proving once and for all that he did not need to be the center of attention to command attention.
The story is so well known that I don’t feel a need to summarize it here, but I do want to particularly praise the writing. Those famous scenes that Williams delivers so wonderfully work because he has such a good script. It’s hard to believe that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote it together when they were only in their 20s. When Sean begins to expound to Will Hunting on the meaning of true love, lived out in his own wife’s last days with cancer, you’d think the words were written by a man of fifty years. Affleck and Damon also show tremendous insight in their writing of the relationship between Sean and Hunting’s professor, an old mathematical rival. Somehow, they put their fingers on all the sore points of any old, old friendship that’s fraught with equal parts respect and resentment, ego and affection.
I’d say there are perhaps three or four scenes in this movie that are Great with a capital “G,” which is a lot for any movie, and most of them involve Williams. There’s also the scene where he tells Will that he gave up his ticket to Game 6 of the World Series: October 21st, 1975, the biggest game in Red Sox history. But he doesn’t reveal this at first. Instead, he leaps to life, recreating the iconic moment when Carlton Fisk hit a homer and waved the ball fair as he charged around the bases. Will is right there with him. “I can’t believe you had tickets to that game!” Then… the moment when Sean drops the fact that he missed the game live to have a drink with his future wife. All Will can think about is the game, but Sean knows that true regret would be the regret that you saw that one girl at a bar, but you never talked to her, you never got to know her. “I don’t regret the 18 years I was married to Nancy. I don’t regret the six years I had to give up counseling when she got sick. And I don’t regret the last years when she got really sick. And I sure as hell don’t regret missin’ the d–n game.”
I wish I could recommend this film to everyone who hasn’t already seen it. Unfortunately, this is set in Boston, and the script is relentlessly peppered with very harsh language, especially among Will and his friends. It can be a real chore to sit through. I also admit that I found it difficult to like Will as a protagonist. But because Sean cared for him, I began to care for him too. It’s one of the best depictions of clear-eyed love that you’ll see in a film, reminding us that we, too, were loved while we were yet sinners.
3. The Fisher King
This is one of those hidden gems, so I’ll sum up the premise in one sentence: Loud-mouthed disc jockey named Jack (Jeff Bridges) loses his job, hits rock bottom and meets a homeless guy named Parry (Williams) who thinks he’s a knight of the Holy Grail but turns out to be a half-mad ex-medieval history professor. Yes, it’s weird, but in the world of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python), it actually works. It’s been billed as a comedy, which I suppose it is, in the classic sense that the story begins with a problem and gradually gets better. Lest we forget, a fellow named Dante once wrote a Comedy that took you through Hell to get to the ending. Gilliam himself sums up the film like this: “It’s all based on pain. Everything in this film is based on pain, no matter how funny or silly. The pain is what it’s about.”
In hindsight, Parry’s demons provide an eerie reflection of Williams’s own inner turmoil, causing Gilliam and others to reflect that it was this role which truly captured his essence. “The madness, the damage, the pain, the sweetness, the outrageousness. That was the role I think that stretched him to the limits.” Williams always demanded re-takes on the most heartbreaking scenes, insisting he could find yet more anguish in the character of Parry. Gilliam was often forced to stop Robin, assuring him that he had already delivered beyond expectations.
Certainly, the film is far from perfect. It’s messy, in more ways than one. It’s overly long and doesn’t always hang together well. Certain scenes are gratuitous or random. Characters display loose morals. A different homeless man shows up who’s both insane and flamboyantly gay. Et cetera.
But if The Fisher King is a mess, at times it’s a brilliant mess. Through the disjointedness shine moments of delicious humor, wrenching sadness, and stark honesty. And it’s not just Williams who delivers. Mercedes Ruehl won an Oscar for her feisty, poignant performance as Jack’s spit-fire girlfriend. Her character is amazingly written, and while the film hardly promotes a Christian sexual ethic, it does honestly explore the pain that can result from co-habitation. In an especially well-shot scene, she appears to be arguing with him over a candlelit dinner, but the camera pulls back to show that she is alone, upbraiding an empty chair through tears.
Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that Jack realizes he has an indirect connection to Parry and develops a feeling of responsibility for him. In one scene, Parry begins to praise Jack, telling him what a good man he is. “You’re a friend! A true friend!” “I’m not,” says Jack, “I’m scum.” “Come on, I’m not gonna listen,” babbles Parry. “You’re an honest-to-goodness good guy…” “I’m self-centered. I’m weak.” Indeed, a fair description.
Through a strange series of events, Jack and his girlfriend arrange a double date with Parry and his secret crush, a lonely wallflower named Lydia (Amanda Plummer). Lydia has no coordination and no table manners, but she’s no fool. She has disarming flashes of wry wit and childlike forthrightness. She and Parry are two damaged souls meant for each other, but she doesn’t dare hope for true love, not even after a delightfully awkward night of bonding over books, Ethel Merman and Chinese food. As Parry walks her home, he’s terribly hurt to learn that she assumes he will seduce her. She walks away, but he catches up and begins to pour out his soul. Finally he says, “I know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated, and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else, and feeling as alone and separate as you feel you are and… I love you. I love you. And I think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks.” Oh, just watch the whole scene already.
I will stop myself here, but let me encourage curious Robin fans to pick up this forgotten flick. As hard to watch as it is at points, I promise you that there is light at the end of the tunnel.