I should not be writing this. Like everyone else, I did not see this coming. Like everyone else, I am saddened in ways difficult to put into words. This is a tribute that should not have been written for at least another few decades.
And yet, here we are. On August 11, 2014, Robin Williams committed suicide by hanging. That someone who seemed to be so full of joy, and energy, and laughter could do this has shocked and upset both myself and pretty much everyone else I know. In some cases, much to my disappointment, his death has brought out some of the worst bile humanity has to offer; his daughter recently announced the closure of her social media pages semi-permanently due to the level of vitriol thrown at her after the news broke. But, I think, in many more instances, as sad and tragic and horribly unnecessary as this was, there are already glimmers of light breaking through. The deluge of stories about Robin’s gentleness, his kindness, and his humanity surpass anything I personally recall seeing in reaction to a celebrity death. There are no tales being passed around about how wretched he was off-camera. No horror stories about the techies off-stage at a comedy show he hurled verbal abuse at. All I hear about is about how he seemed to almost compulsively bring smiles to the faces of others, whether or not he was being recorded. His death has led many to revisit his work in film, TV, and comedy with renewed appreciation for the wholly unique abilities he brought to bear, talents that few performers have ever been able to match. And, perhaps most importantly, more and more people are now trying to have a serious dialogue about depression and its connections to both drugs and to the overwhelming cult of celebrity we all contribute to in one way or another. People are reaching out to each other, both on- and offline, and that can only be a good thing.
I am not in a position to offer thoughts or judgments as to why he made this choice. My own thoughts concerning suicide are very conflicted, to say the least. And obviously, I never knew the man personally. I just know that I am sad. I suffer with regular (possibly manic) depression myself, and if there is one my own journey has convinced me of, it is of the necessity of always, always seeking humble compassion within ourselves for others in their own difficult situations, and if possible, understanding. We never truly know what others go through. Whether or not you agree with the decisions someone makes, or how they respond to whatever circumstances they’re in, you’ve got to have compassion. There’s just no other way to handle things like this.
The curious thing I’ve noticed, though, is how so many people writing about him now are reflecting on how it really did feel as if they knew him personally, how, in whatever their favorite film of his was, it always felt as if the genuine Robin Williams, or at least a part of him, was reaching through the screen to speak with them on an individual level. No matter what part he played, or what medium he was using at the time, regardless of the quality of movie or show he was in, he never came across as less than real. He was like an extra crazy uncle for each of us- weird, eccentric, loud, perhaps a bit overbearing at times, and never staying away for too long at a stretch. Or, as Mara Wilson phrased it (in a far more succinct form than I ever could), “We're all his goddamn kids too.”
I think there is ultimately no greater tribute to the immense talent and range of Robin as an actor, comedian, performer, and personality than to simply take note of the very, very wide range of films and roles being mentioned in the various memorials and “Best Of” lists now circulating the internet; Popeye, Good Morning Vietnam, Mork and Mindy, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, Hook, Jumanji, Dead Poet’s Society, Patch Adams. Just go over in your mind the incredibly wide range of styles, genres, topics, and characters those films cover. That was what always impressed me the most when it came to Robin Williams- even if I didn’t like the film itself, I never found his performances anything less than interesting. There are almost no performers alive today for whom an entire scene in the script could simply read, “Robin Williams does his thing.” And the above films are not just seen on lists made by dedicated cinephiles- these are films mentioned by pretty near everyone, from lifelong critics to people who couldn’t be bothered to go to the theater more than once a year.
How many other performers have succeeded, over several decades no less, in having such a broad popular reach, in touching the hearts of so many generations through so many different performances? Many, if not most, actors and actresses, regardless of how long they live or how many films they make, are only popularly remembered for one or a few key roles that “define” their careers. Robin’s death happened to coincide with the death of another Hollywood legend, Lauren Bacall. Even though she lived to be 89 and appeared in dozens of roles over the years, only a few of her movies (primarily her appearances with Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe) have seeped their way into general public consciousness. Or look at the equally tragic passing earlier this year of Philip Seymour Hoffman- even though he gave us powerhouse performances in one incredible film after another, he was never the popular, household name Robin was- mentioning his name would not cause 15 different people to quote 15 different lines from 15 different movies simultaneously. I say this not to imply that Robin was more talented or more worthy of remembrance than Hoffman or Bacall, just to point out that he had a very unique gift that most never realize, a way of affecting people on both an individual and a communal level, of making us feel collectively that he was speaking to each of us personally. And he did so repeatedly over a career spanning nearly four decades. What a wonderfully unique gift. What a great emptiness left in its wake.
In keeping with the spirit of the current times, then, and as my own small gesture, the following are the Robin Williams roles that, for various reasons, stand out the most in my mind and have the greatest meaning for me personally.
6. August Rush
This movie has a number of issues. Robin Williams is not one of them. This actually happened to be the first film of his I saw where he was playing, if not technically a villain, certainly an antagonist. Playing the huckster “Wizard” Wallace, he controls a small army of extremely gifted child street performers, who have to give him every cent they collect while out on the streets. I admire the words the character speaks about the power of music, but it’s also fascinating to see the cold manipulation simmering just beneath the surface. It’s a character who seems to have popped in from another, very different movie.
5. The Birdcage
It has been way too long since I last watched this one. Robin Williams alongside Nathan Lane as a gay couple trying to hide their real personalities from an uptight, conservative couple for the sake of their son’s engagement. Enough said, I think.
When I first saw this movie, I was as deeply impressed by Robin Williams’ underplayed, quiet-as-a-mouse Dr. Sayer as I was moved by De Niro’s powerful turn as an emotional child trapped in a paralyzed man’s body. It is one of my favorite movies for both of these greats. The scene that captured Robin Williams’ performance in it for me was when De Niro tries to force his way out of the hospital, and Sayer watches in agony as he is forced to the ground.
The lone Chris Nolan-directed work (thus far) that is a) a remake, and b) was not written by either him or his brother, Walter Finch is my absolute favorite of Robin’s villain roles. A psychotic murderer who sees himself as the real victim, Robin is perfect in how he uses his mind-games to get under the skin of Al Pacino’s Will Dormer.
2. Good Will Hunting
A bit clichéd, perhaps, since this was the one that finally brought Williams his Oscar, but there is just something about the on-screen chemistry between Williams and Damon in their scenes that I can’t get enough of. I especially like that one of the most famous scenes in the movie was an example of Robin drawing on his improvisational skills for heartfelt drama, rather than for hard laughs.
Have I mentioned on this this site yet that I am a 90’s kid? Then let the record officially show that I am a 90’s kid. Meaning that, as someone raised on the Golden Age of Disney, there will never be a role more definitive of Robin Williams for me personally than his pyrotechnical turn as the Genie in one of the top Disney films of the era. You can feel the kinetic energy of the performance emanating off the screen. This performance alone should have ended all debate about whether or not voice acting should be considered “real” acting. It is one of my favorite Disney works from those years, and it is my favorite role by Robin Williams. Rest in peace, at long last, Robin Williams. You will be sorely missed.