A comfortable distance is needed when memorializing a fallen celebrity figure, particularly when your feelings go beyond polite spectatorship. Short enough a time to still be emotionally reeling from the event. Long enough to realize your exact place in the tragedy, which isn’t as important as that of his close family, but isn’t trivial either. Robin Williams wasn’t necessarily a performer I’d have said I felt a regularly pulsating passion for, but that has so much inherently to do with why he’s no longer with us. The past decade has been a rough road for him, and not tritely so in the slightest. This wasn’t just somebody who’d lost the fire that made them such a bright star in the first place – I’d argue nobody’s too far gone, no matter the media cynicism – and his late work shows that striving ambition.
Late films like Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad showed him seizing the darker side of his humor, and though The Butler is a garish revolving door of politician impersonating celebrity cameos, the desire for more challenging dramatic work was there. A The Big Wedding, an Old Dogs and a couple Night at the Museums were in their midst, keeping Williams planted cynically in the type of broad comic role people popularly knew him for, and given the unfortunate circumstances of his suicide, one can imagine he might’ve been acutely aware of that. One can’t know precisely what troubled him towards this end, but issues both major and minor, personal and trivial, can be morbidly magnified by a spiraling depression.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I sound cynical saying this end was foreseeable in his very public persona, as I obviously don’t mean he was constantly reeling towards the grave. I mean simply that, in spite his apparent zaniness as a performer, the kinetic tempo of which may planted him too firmly into comedic typecasting, he was always very consistently, compellingly recognizable as human. Even in escapades like Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Hook and the like, there was a humility in his performance that elicited tenderness for even the most far-fetched sketches of characters. That he can still feel humble playing the voice of a genie gabbing a mile a minute is a reward, particularly when the film overall wasn’t above run-of-the-mill.
Unlike many comic actors, he’s legacy may resonate most for his dramatic work. Good Morning, Vietnam was my first experience with him in this regard, be it sufficiently entrenched in rapid-fire comedy not dissimilar to the charisma he displayed in his stand-up routine. Following that, my next brush with Robin was a good 15 years further afield in Christopher Nolan’s drastically underrated Insomnia, playing the most fully deranged sociopath of his career (Mrs. Doubtfire notwithstanding). It was the most radical display of his dark side, as a man with a twisted fetishization and a more unsettling sense of serenity.
Still my biggest blind spot of his is Dead Poets Society, though even on the surface it’s the kind of swooning inspiration that’ll ring most romantically for many who loved his work, my parents most particularly. He’s more front-and-center in that than he is in Good Will Hunting, though he nonetheless commands the screen the way a lead would, suggesting each character’s life and potential is just as important as Will’s. It’s the kind of film that’s possibly even more profoundly affecting having seen it years back and cynically written it off as cheap sentimentality. It doesn’t play coy with its emotional beats, and that’s part of the film’s direct power, due in no small part to Robin Williams’ solemn, thankful performance.
Then the rough years came, and like many a celebrated actor, few realized how legitimate an actor he still was until his suicide last Monday. It’d be callous to say his career was his only reason, or even a reason. Depression is a merciless illness, and when you’re deeply ensconced in it, it’s difficult to know why you make any of the decisions you do. A more reasonable cause would be his recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, which his wife Susan Schneider said he wasn’t ready to reveal publicly, but Robin Williams always saw the darkness in the world. It’s a testament to his defiant optimism that he continued to perform tirelessly to alleviate us of the world’s multifaceted stresses.
If your way of remembering him is revisiting his best work, The Wire’s compiled a strong, if markedly not complete, sampling of his best work. It helped turn me on to his wonderful work helping close out The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but each of us has our own favorites to call back to. Firstly, though, our thoughts should go to his family, who are struggling more with the loss than anyone and for whom the task of living without him is impossibly harder. Speaking personally, I’m heartbroken for the loss of a major, distinct talent, and one who, despite some cynical feelings among the public prior to his death, still had so much to give us. I knew a resurgence was just over the horizon, that he had a whole new wave of energy and enthusiasm to share with us. I can’t bare to say, much less believe, that I was wrong. I doubt I’ll ever become cynical enough to believe that.
Rest peacefully, Robin.