I probably can’t add much more to what has already been said about the tragic passing of Robin Williams, and it probably would not be more eloquent than tributes that other writers have already penned. Family, friends, colleagues and fans are mourning a terrible loss. My family and I have enjoyed Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and The Birdcage (1996) in particular for these past two decades; just a few weeks ago, when I was on vacation, I came across The Birdcage playing on TV and my mother and I watched with hearty laughter.
As a little kid I quite liked Hook (1991) and Flubber (1997), the latter of which I owned on VHS. Also amongst the contents of our video collection was a VHS that my father had of Seize the Day (1986), although I never watched it. (I guess I figured it was a “grown-up” movie.) But it was later on, when I watched more of Williams’ dramatic work, that I really began to appreciate his acting talent and his ability to capture subtlety and depth as much as I already loved the limitless energy of his zanier comedic moments.
Four film performances stand out to me. Dead Poets Society (1989) contains, in many ways, an ideal Williams performance: at times silly, at times heartbreaking, but somehow always believable and real. His John Keating is the kind of teacher we all wish we had had to encourage us in youthful pursuits of love and art. Then there’s Awakenings (1990), which has probably the single finest dramatic role I have seen from Williams. There is a scene near the end of the film between Williams and Julie Kavner which is just so devastating that I cry every time, as much as Williams’ Dr. Sayer does. Both of these films are tearjerkers of the highest order, but they’re more than that. They hurt at times, an intense hurt felt by characters who cannot help other characters or themselves. The viewer feels all of that pain. Dead Poets Society is an especially important movie, one which I think ought to be considered a rite of passage for every young adult. It is exactly the sort of poetry that we ought to be passionate about, a poetry of celluloid instead of paper.
Earlier this year I saw The Fisher King (1991), a recommendation made by a professor who was amused by the fact that Williams’ character, Parry, was a former Hunter College professor – our own college. When watching the movie, I suppose I was primarily paying attention to technical aspects: screenplay structure, cinematography, use of locations in New York, etc. What impacted me the most, however, was the acting, none better than the work done by Williams. His retelling of the story of the Fisher King is but one of his many great scenes in the film. It is a scene which is powerful in its simplicity and in what it reveals about his and Jeff Bridges’ characters.
Finally there is Good Will Hunting (1997), the film for which Williams won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar. As I recall I saw it in September 2011, one of a number of Gus Van Sant movies I saw in preparation for a Van Sant Q&A I would go to at the Museum of the Moving Image. Hunting is an impressive film with much to recommend it. At the heart of it is the relationship between Williams as a therapist and Matt Damon as the title character, a gifted young man with a few chips on his shoulder. I think it’s a scene like this one that perfectly demonstrates what I will miss most about Robin Williams. Yes, he could be the grandest goofball of all, but when he dug deep for a performance like this, it was the kind of work that you feel in the pit of your stomach and somewhere behind your eyes where the tears start to form. That’s how you know you’re experiencing something better and more inspiring, a cut above the rest: it’s at once visceral and emotional, something you automatically recognize for its greatness. The entertainment industry’s glow will seem a little more dim from now on.