Robin Williams: We laugh that we may not cry
I loved Robin Williams. I know, welcome to the club, right? Even if all he had done was Mork & Mindy, he would still be beloved by generation upon generation of TV viewers, whether they saw the show in its original run or on syndication. But I loved him despite of the choices he made in his life, not least of which the decision to take his own life, if he did indeed do so. Besides his personal life, he had a long career that is best described as hit-and-miss. How much so? Let’s just say that they should have shortened the title of Mrs. Doubtfire to simply Misfire.
It is a huge testament to Williams’ boundless charisma and screen presence that he retained the good will of fans all around the world even after starring in some of the arguably worst motion pictures ever made. I like to think he had what the late, great film critic Roger Ebert called “The Walken Factor.” This virtue manifested in the way us viewers would automatically smile whenever Williams would appear onscreen, sensing that something amusing, mischievous, or downright hilarious was just about to take place. Seldom did he let us down, and more often than not, he was the only redeeming quality to be found in a given film.
What was it that led Robin Williams to choose his roles -and I say roles and not characters, because in a way he always played himself- sometimes so carefully and other times so carelessly? I can understand Popeye (1980). Back then he was a Johnny-come-lately with a wife to support and an addiction to fuel. The latter may not be as good a justification as the former, but it is nonetheless a hell of a motivation. What I really wonder about are the movies that he made after he had paid his dues and could have had his pick of screenplays, or simply made a great living as a stand-up comedian. I’m talking about Toys, Flubber, Bicentennial Man, Man of the Year, Night(s) at the Museum, RV, License to Wed, Old Dogs, The Big Wedding -not to mention that ill-conceived return to TV The Crazy Ones. That’s more than enough to be depressed about the state of your career.
As we mourn, citing the above titles is not how I want to remember Robin Williams. Moreover, I’m positive that’s not how he’s going to be remembered. In fact, most of the aforementioned movies were forgotten themselves as soon as they opened, while his public persona remained impervious to the damage he seemed to have inflicted upon himself. But as I think of those horrible movies I wish he had never made, I realize that my fondest memories of him come from other risky choices where he went out on a limb and came out with flying colors. There’s Awakenings, Dead Again, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come, and more notably, Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and The Night Listener.
To a lesser or greater extent, all those films broke the unwritten rule that Robin Williams had to play variations of himself by moving him from the manic performances that drove most of his career. The latter three especially dealt with very dark subject matter, and to say that they were light in chuckles is putting it mildly. Still, it was a joy to discover that he was capable of nuance, understatement, and depth. He was a late bloomer if there ever was any, but he proved fans, critics and colleagues that he was less of a genie and more of a genius, and not just in comedy but in acting in general.
Of course, there are also the Robin Williams roles that fall right in between. The ones I remember either with a smile on my lips or a tear in my eyes -or both- even though I should know better. The ones that my former self enjoyed in spite of my present self. The ones like Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Hook, Jumanji, Jack, Father’s Day, Jakob the Liar, and Death to Smoochy. Ludicrous, preposterous, ridiculous, saccharine stuff that is a blemish in the records of many talented people including Francis Ford Coppola, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, and Billy Crystal. And yet, I religiously watched each one just because they were Robin Williams movies, and while I’m not proud of that fact, I will never be ashamed of it either. (Just for the sake of thoroughness let’s mention a couple of cameos that some people may not know about, in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet).
So that explains many things. Without the bad and the ugly there may be no good. But there’s more. I have the theory that Robin Williams subscribed to Donald O’Connor’s philosophy in Singin’ in the Rain, which consisted of three simple words: Make’em Laugh. He personally cheered up his longtime friend Christopher Reeve after Reeve became a quadriplegic. Reeve said that Williams made him laugh and he knew that it was going to be okay. The truth is that many of us can say the exact same thing. It’s a shame that we had no way to return the favor and help him overcome his sadness and depression. It may not be much and it may be too late and make no difference anyway, but Robin, I finally forgive you for Patch Adams.