His characters gave affection and joy, but Williams struggled to find his own
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the world has reacted to the death of Robin Williams as if we all lost a playful, dear uncle. This sudden, untimely departure was of a global celebrity familiar to several generations of our collective childhood. His self-inflicted death was at the opposite pole to the good feeling he seemed so eager to fill his audience with.
When tears and disbelief subside, the first act of mourning is praise. How we choose to eulogise the deceased helps work out what that person meant to us in life, and when the departed is a famous person, this meaning assumes a shared character. In the case of Robin Williams, grief gave an occasion both to debate the blight of mental illness (including an insightful article in these very pages), and moreover to express an instant and sincere affection. What I want to delve into here was what it was in the roles he played that encouraged such affection, and at the same time, invoked concerns of a beleaguered attempt at healing.
Amidst a versatile career, what jumps out from Robin Williams is his excellence at playing the clown. Perhaps everything looks bigger when you’re a child, but I remember just how huge Good Morning Vietnam appeared on its release, Williams’s elongated vowels booming out the title catchphrase from his serviceman’s radio booth in every trailer. From the classroom in Dead Poet’s Society, the kids’ front room in Mrs. Doubtfire, or as a genie looming from Aladdin’s magic lamp, his films gave space to a larger-than-life, bravura spontaneity tumbling forth like a force of nature.
This built on Williams’s apprenticeship as a New York stand-up before landing a part as Mork first in the TV sitcom Happy Days and then the spin-off Mork and Mindy, where each episode gave him time simply to improvise to camera in extended comic monologues. Whether on chat shows or caught by a journalist’s mic, his wise-cracking had a relentlessness that would make Groucho Marx blush. And so his film roles had the odd status of seeming more rounded than the man did in real life. On film he embraced emotional vulnerability, even sentimentality. In his equal comfort with both comedy and sentiment, if not in personal style, he was matched only by his comic contemporary Tom Hanks.
This meant that though playing the clown, Williams also played teacher, guide, and mentor to people adrift in a broken or frightening world – that is, to us, his audience members, as much as to the characters he met onscreen. Patch Adams is emblematic of this, the doctor who heals breakage and trauma with humour. It is to be regretted then that this ability to heal through comedy was not something that, in his darkest hour, extended to Robin Williams himself.
But his roles provide an insight into this final tragic lack of healing also. He repeatedly played characters unable to partake of the restorative sense of belonging they brought to others. The unorthodox teacher he plays in Dead Poets Society is cast out by the stern public school hierarchy; Aladdin’s genie is a guide, but still a slave; the android he plays in Bicentennial Man sorrowfully comes to realise the emotional fullness that constitutes what it means to be human.
More than any actual place, the men he played were most often shut out of the family: the divorced man in Mrs. Doubtfire, the devoted husband who after a car crash descends to Hades to search for his wife in What Dreams May Come, the grieving father in Homicide: Life on the Streets (one of his acclaimed TV roles, scripted by David Simon prior to writing The Wire). Even in a comic fantasy like Jumanji, he leaps out after 26 years imprisoned in the titular board game and into the suburban American street to run off looking for his lost mother and father.
While Patch Adams is then emblematic, the template is set by Mork, the childlike alien sent to observe the quirks of human behaviour that he can never fit into. This desire, pushed to desperation, informs the outright creeps that he played: think of the sad loner in One Hour Photo, who in his fantasy life participates in the happy home of a family whose intimate moments he develops in his isolated photo booth.
The desire for affection his many characters displayed did not make Robin Williams a freakish exhibit. Williams’s fame coincided with the era of Oprah’s couch, ushering in the modern way in which we think of ourselves, of our heroes, even of our society: that is of individuals in need of healing after suffering the traumas of a broken environment. Williams’s performances participated in the changing way of understanding American manhood as the once old-style masculine heroism became outdated. Films like Good Morning Vietnam and The World According to Garp refer directly to the predicament of how to think of manliness after Vietnam and feminism. This ambiguity is however no less present (and not necessarily any more progressive) by underlying a film like Mrs. Doubtfire, where a divorced father must work out what place a man may have when he is declared unwanted.
It is a cultural commonplace to remark on the tears of a clown, and to draw attention to the tragedy that lurks behind its mask. What is special about Robin Williams is that those tears were placed upon the mask itself. Williams may well have been the object of his audience’s affection, for no other actor’s roles are so marked by their consistent desire to win affection, in its comic and its emotional aspects. It is here that we can understand the reaction to Williams’s death by what he meant to us in life.
Image from: http://movies.mxdwn.com/feature/remembering-robin-williams-philip-seymour-hoffman-and-patch-adams/
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