Reviewing the 1998 film Good Will Hunting, in which Robin Williams plays Sean Maguire, a psychologist and therapist every bit as damaged as the patient he’s treating, one US critic concluded that the film fell back on an “old cinematic panacea: get in touch with your inner Robin Williams”.
Over nearly four decades, we’ve gotten used to catching up with our inner Williams.
Williams made us laugh. That laughter made us all feel good. He became one of his movie characters, a global Dr Patch Adams, healing many with his comedy.
One notable example was Christopher Reeve, who Williams visited after his friend from acting school was paralysed. In his autobiography Reeve recounts how “unable to avoid thinking the darkest thoughts” Williams arrived dressed as a Russian-accented proctologist, declaring he had to examine the patient immediately.
“My first reaction was that either I was on way too many drugs or that I was in fact brain damaged,” Reeve wrote. But he laughed for the first time since the accident when he realised it was Williams.
“My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay,” Reeve said.
Williams’ acting career was far more diverse and challenging than the comedic roles that have made him beloved by three generations, beginning with the late 70s TV sitcom Mork and Mindy. He was astonishingly prolific, being involved in nearly 80 films in a 37-year career, from the hilarious joy of his Happy Feet voice overs to the manic bravura of Good Morning Vietnam.
Now, many who’ve long loved Dead Poets Society will watch it once again feeling a more profound resonance.
He managed all that while battling several demons, including depression, drug addiction and alcoholism.
While many will cite lines from his films, they are, with the exception of Good Morning Vietnam’s improvisational tour de force, the words of others.
As a comedian, Williams saw the inextricable link between tragedy and comedy, choosing to harness the former in pursuit of his brilliantly wry observations on life. And he wasn’t afraid to mine his own frailties to make others feel better about themselves.
Discussing his own alcoholism in the 2009 monologue Weapons of Self Destruction, Williams riffed:
We’re moody little motherf#*kers, too. We’ll be like “Goddamn it, man. I love you. I’ll fucking kill you! Step outside, I’ll kick my ass. Goddamn it, let’s do this! Poor me. Goddamn poor me. Poor me… another drink.”
Even his own depression wasn’t off limits:
I have a GPS in my car. I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, I was halfway across, and all of a sudden the car went “take a right turn.”
“What? No can do, HAL. Not that depressed, really.” And the car went “Really, Robin? I saw Bicentennial Man.”
There was an exquisite agony in his comedy – he took his audiences to the edge and allowed us to peer into the abyss before bringing us back with a laugh, to let us to know that somehow, everything was going to be OK.
Williams was also fearlessly funny, appearing before the Prince of Wales for We Are Most Amused, he began “Chuck, Cam, great to see you. Yo, yo wassup Wales? House of Windsor, keeping it real” as the Royals laughed along and Williams then began ripping into the incoming President, Barack Obama. Nowadays, few comics can get away with impersonating and mocking other races and cultures without facing charges of racism. Williams escaped opprobrium because he was digging for deeper humanity.
Interestingly, while humour is an effective weapon and defence in difficult situations, Williams understood its limits, as he explained during a 2010 interview for World’s Greatest Dad, revealing what happened during his stints in rehab.
“You start off initially riffing, and kind of being real funny. But the weird thing is, how can you do a comic turn without betraying the precepts of group therapy? Eventually you shed it.”
The greatness of Williams’ acting was not his ability to crack a joke, but the fact that, along with the syrupy melodramas he did to pay the bills (and were loveable nonetheless), he also tackled film roles churning with mental torment, isolation and sadness, from lesser-known films such as the psychological thrillers Insomnia and One Hour Photo to the sci-fi fantasy Being Human, and coming-of-age drama House of D.
Williams understood pain and conveyed it eloquently, with a straight face on film, showing that it’s not always a laughing matter. And as much as he made us smile, it was his vulnerability that drew us all towards Robin Williams.
As much as he’ll be remembered for his wildly comedic masterpieces, Williams’ quieter moments, such as The Fisher King, What Dreams May Come, and even as Osric, in Branagh’s version of Hamlet are quintessential parts of his greatness as an actor. We were in awe of his funny, but in those moments, he was one of us.
His most recent film, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, is the story of a man seeking amends and redemption in the final moments of his life.
You just hope, despite the pain of his depression, that Robin Williams knew both how widely and how much he was loved, because his true genius was humour that put us in touch with our inner selves.
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