Carpe Diem: The Genius of Robin Williams
by Chad Jewett
There is a scene in the 1991 film The Fisher King in which a crowded Grand Central Station is set into whirling, musical motion by the imagination of Robin Williams. That seems about right. Later in that film, half a psychiatric ward assembles to sing “How About You” to Williams as he breaks free of a catatonic grief. That seems right too. In this great, swirling century-plus of American popular art, Robin Williams was one of those creators who seemed blessed with the alchemic magic to turn loss and sadness – so many of his films are about the deepest sadness – into fireworks. Which of course is how The Fisher King ends — with Williams lying in the grass in Central Park, watching fireworks of his own creation. Which seems so right as to be perfect. What is wrong — achingly, painfully, crushingly wrong — is that Robin Williams is gone.
Again and again we asked Williams to feel gutting woe, and then to teach us how to push our way through it like a dense wall of jungle flora. Watching the sudden, shocked eulogies that poured into news channels last night, one saw different generations marvel at different strata of Robin Williams’ wholly kinetic humanism. Some remembered him as Mork, as Mrs. Doubtfire, as John Keating. The eldest mourners seemed to want to talk most about his incredible gifts for heat-lightning comedy – the Big Bang moment of his first appearance on Happy Days or The Tonight Show. But you watch those clips and you see how physical one of our most cerebral comedians actually was. Robin Williams’ comedy was 99 percent brain, yet each and everyone one of us could imitate the subtle lurch he would do into each bit – which was him throwing himself into the human condition. He would joke about sobriety or mental illness or death and convince us not to be afraid of any of them. Chevy Chase and Jerry Lewis ruined their bodies doing pratfalls. What is there to say about what Robin Williams did to himself plumbing that profoundly into man’s tidal churning?
I’ve seen Good Will Hunting perhaps ten times and I’ve never not wanted the version that follows Williams’ character, a damaged psychiatrist named Sean Maguire who aids Matt Damon’s titular wunderkind, through the four-centuries-old streets of Boston. By the time Williams made the film we had already heaped about as much weight on him as we have any artist in the modern era. I imagine the film that lets him wade through the deep history of America’s oldest city and I then savor each second of the film he did star in, the film where he offers the same majestic, wounded relief to Will Hunting that he does to us. And I’m deeply troubled to think about the next time I’ll see that film, the next time I’ll see Robin Williams mourning a beloved wife, looking on with that wry, electric alive-ness as Matt Damon sees only turbulent grief in his painting. I wonder if I’ll laugh when Williams says it was paint by numbers. If it is, Williams chose the numbers. He invented that painting.
Others simply called him “The Genie” – a nickname that, as far as I know, only arrived after news of his passing, and which, in retrospect, could not have been more perfect. We rubbed that lamp and Robin Williams created something for us. He granted wishes. The legend goes that Aladdin couldn’t be nominated for best writing because so much of Williams’ Genie material was ad-libbed – that the director and editors had to carve through it like an enormous, wildly faceted diamond. Twenty years later his work in the film is still hilarious, an absolute comic tour-de-force. Yet we care about it because Williams made us care about the Genie, because we hoped for his freedom at least twice as much as we cared about Aladdin’s love story (I also found myself caring more about Maguire finding peace than I did about anything having to do with Damon or Affleck’s characters). You can listen to some of Williams’ line readings and hear so much weariness and weight and arduous humanity that, in some ways, Genie might be his greatest creation – the most chemically rich distillation of his ability to wrap comedy around our collective rawest nerves and heaviest albatrosses.
Williams spent the late 80s and 1990s heaving himself at that which scared us and hurt us and made us see the world with more wonderment. Still reeling from Vietnam, Williams played a DJ whose heart cascaded through airwaves, signaling the difference between good people and bad wars. In The Birdcage Williams underscored the ugly emptiness of Culture War reaction and prejudice against our gay brothers and sisters. In What Dreams May Come, we selected Williams to suffer the cosmic sadness of searching for his wife, who has killed herself, in a Dali-esque afterlife, because we trusted him to do so. Louis CK casted him in an episode of Louie wherein the comedian attends a funeral for a disliked club owner for fear that no one would attend his own. Williams, playing himself, is the only other one in attendance, likely because he fears the same lonely death. Williams’ performance is magnificent – understated and funny and lovable – his last masterpiece. CK seems to have tapped into the sub-consciousness of American culture in the decision to cast Williams. Somehow we just always turned to Robin Williams to do these things for us, to laugh in the cemetery. It’s hard to imagine him believing we wouldn’t miss him. It’s utterly devastating to wonder that he just might have.
By the end of the 1990s, we had elected him to do any kind of feeling we could possibly imagine. In The Fisher King Williams turned the tormented, mentally ailing Parry, who mourned a wife killed in a mass shooting, into a triumphant beacon of humanism. It was the film in which Williams’ sense of whimsy caught dazzling fire, in which we ultimately saw, in stark relief, the magic that the actor was able to make from the painful realism of trauma and guilt and sorrow. New York City became a swirling nebula around his damaged professor, a fantasia of his own making, vividly colored and set to motion by Terry Gilliam. I’ve only seen The Fisher King once: On August 10th 2014 – roughly twenty hours before I would discover that Robin Williams had died. Which means that the last new thing I saw Williams do before I learned of his passing was create a one-man symphony of empathy. Which means that the last new thing I saw Williams do is that which he was very best at – the thing for which we should forever thank him.
Indeed, that’s what makes this hurt so much. Either that somehow Williams didn’t know how deeply we loved him, how thankful we were for Genie, for John Keating and Sean Maguire and Parry and Mork and Armand Goldman, or that it didn’t change anything for him.
I can still recall seeing Dead Poets Society for the first time, and feeling as though an entirely new world was suddenly being illuminated. I saw those campus lawns, I saw those ivied buildings, and I saw Robin Williams make shapes with the possibilities of the human soul and I fell madly, deeply, hopelessly in love. What Williams was always able to do with comedy – to swiftly, in the blink of an eye, arrange a mile of dominoes then gracefully tap the first block – he now did with poetry, with art, with all the things that made my world go, and still do. Like LeBron James or Jeff Buckley or Aretha Franklin, Williams was born with physical gifts for this stuff. I can picture, as vividly as my childhood home, the way Robin Williams could smile and his sparkling Technicolor blue eyes would well up with stark humanity like a piece of turquoise in dew, as if he were about to cry from the all the heft of life that surrounded these moments of joy. So often Williams could grin with feeling that looked like it hurt. There was passion in his depiction of John Keating, the kinetic, brilliant, deeply creative prep school teacher Williams played in Dead Poets Society that could make you breath quicker.
There is a scene in the film that I’ll quote at length, because it is one of the more beautiful monologues set to film, because I’m trying to convince myself it makes me feel better about the passing of this member of our family, because hopefully Williams himself believed it. Lecturing to a motley class of prep school youths, Williams exclaims:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ The answer: That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” (via IMDB)
Today I am completing a doctorate in English. This would likely not be the case if not for that scene, that film, that performance, the sweeping, tangible, mythic humanism of Williams in that role, the ways in which he seemed to point out the golden beauty of the human spirit, as if nothing was so deserving of our energy than devotion to understanding it. That I’ll never get to tell him so – as selfish and myopic and even foolish as that sounds – is almost inexplicably hard to understand. And it hurts. The point is you probably feel the same – about Mrs. Doubtfire or Genie or Parry. It’s how we always feel about artists who give so freely, so dangerously open. Later, after one of Keating’s best students kills himself in hopeless desperation and Williams’ character is fired in the aftermath, his students assemble, standing atop their desks (as Williams commands they do at the start of the semester) to pledge their allegiance to him, declaring “O Captain, my captain!” Yesterday evening, the world seemed to do the same. What that film captured was that by then we already trusted Williams to see us through all of those different kinds of rending, withering pain. He smiled that tearful, physical, poignant smile and music swelled as if his expressive face was a maestro’s baton. Last night James Lipton, the revered acting teacher, appeared on several different news shows, only to repeat the same simple phrase. “We’ve lost a member of our family.” That is exactly what we’ve lost. How do we reconcile the fact that Williams made those words spark and blossom with the fact that he seems to have ultimately lost his way from them? The human race is filled with passion, and Williams seemed powered by it like a neon sign, even able to change shape. “Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Perhaps Williams was so often asked to mourn and work through death in his films (in The Fisher King, and Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting and World’s Greatest Dad and Patch Adams and Good Morning Vietnam and Jumanji and What Dreams My Come) because we trusted him so deeply, because we could sense that he felt so deeply, as if his sense of balanced was centered in a current deeper and more swift than our own. Ideas came to him faster. Jokes came to him faster. And, miracle of miracles, what it meant to be a human being in pain was of one Williams’ truest art forms. Emotions seemed to play across his face like light across glass. Feelings came to him faster. And finding the music and kinetic wonder of moving through that pain was his single greatest gift. God help us to do it now without him.