We lost a genius yesterday. As you're surely aware by now, comedian and actor Robin Williams took his own life in California yesterday morning, aged 63, after what only a few seemed to know was a longtime struggle with depression. Williams had been a household name for close to forty years, first as a stand-up, then as a TV star thanks to "Mork & Mindy," then as a big-screen leading man. But he wasn't just a comic. He was also a Julliard-trained actor, and as his career went on, he continued to show new strings on his bow, becoming Oscar-winning character actor.
Almost every generation got to know Williams for themselves. For some, he was the rubber-faced, dextrously-voiced comic who made Johnny Carson howl with laughter. For many others, he was Mork from Ork, the quirky alien who appeared in an unlikely episode of "Happy Days" before landing his own spin off, "Mork & Mindy," which ran from 1978 to 1982 and which made Williams a star. For others, he was the comedic movie star with a capacity for pathos from "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society," while for those of a certain age, he was the face seen in some of our first theatrical experiences: "Hook," "Aladdin" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," before we'd rediscover him as a character actor in darker fare like "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo." And for the kids of today, he was the scene-stealing penguin of "Happy Feet" or Theodore Roosevelt in the "Night Of The Museum" films.
Even his most generous fans would concede that he didn't have impeccable taste in projects, with too many of his films of the 1990s or 2000s amounting to maudlin, ill-judged shadows of his finest work. But every time you thought he was lost to projects like "Patch Adams," he'd come roaring back, and was never less than entirely, gloriously committed to his performances. Above all else, he always loved comedy: he was legendarily knowledgeable and supportive of young comics, while his last stand-up special from 2009 served as a demonstration of his endlessly inventive, breathtakingly fast improvisations.
To have a mind like that, to be a “lightning storm of comic genius,” as Steven Spielberg, can be a double-edged sword. Genius too often comes at a cost, and Williams was open about his demons: he famously talked about his one-time cocaine addiction on stage ("cocaine is God's way of saying you have too much money,"), and opened up in recent interviews about his insecurities and bouts of depression. But it seems that he was in more pain than almost anyone realized.
We loved him. If the reactions in the last twenty-four hours are anything to go by, those who worked with him or knew him loved him. Hundreds of millions worldwide loved him. Hopefully, he knew all of that. But if you suffer from depression, even colossal love like that is easy to forget at times. It's proof that even the funniest, most brilliant, most privileged individuals can suffer, and it's beyond heartbreaking that a day of reckoning came to Williams on a day that he couldn't fight it.
Depression is a disease. If anything can come out of his death, we hope it's that this renewed reminder of the life-threatening nature of that disease may give those in pain the courage to seek help, and those around them the strength, wisdom and compassion to be able to recognise the problem and reach out. That a man so beloved can have felt so alone is incomprehensible, because none of us are truly alone. If Williams has left a lifetime’s legacy of laughter, perhaps this can be the legacy of his death: we need to take better care of each other.
For now, we're left with the work, work that brought untold joy to so many of us. And so the least we could do to say thank you to Mr. Robin Williams was to pay tribute to his finest hours within a long, variegated, wonderful career.
"Good Will Hunting" (1997)
After two nominations, Williams finally won an Oscar in a competitive year for his turn in Gus Van Sant's acclaimed film of a script that made the name of writers/stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. And it's tough to think of a performance in his career more deserving of the Academy's recognition, combining all of Williams' strengths into his most humane, and human, role, one that the film would likely grind to a halt without. Williams plays Dr. Sean Maguire, the sweet-natured therapist who, on the behest of estranged pal (Stellan Skarsgard), agrees to see the brash, arrogant young boy wonder form whom the film is named (Matt Damon), and despite the brick wall he faces, gradually teases out the kid's issues. This isn't the Williams of the dark early '00s period that would come a few years later: the actor allows glimpses of his famous comic prowess, making Maguire a genuinely funny man. But crucially, it's Maguire rather than Williams making you (and Will) laugh, and this performance is undercut with a deep melancholy and quiet anger of a man robbed of the person he loved most in the world and who's ossified ever since. But recognizing a kindred spirit in his new charge brings out the open-hearted warmth of the man that was, and even when the writing brushes against being convenient and pat, Williams grounds it in a fully-realized, complex role ("You don't know about real loss, because that only occurs when you've loved something more than you love yourself," he spits at Will at one point, simultaneously both furious and generous). His back-and-forths with Damon are the heart, spine and soul of the film, and the Oscar couldn't have been more well deserved.
"The Fisher King" (1991)
Up until "The Fisher King," the moviegoing public was mostly aware of two types of Robin Williams roles in film: the motormouth comedian of 'Good Morning Vietnam,' characterized by intense, seemingly boundless energy and inventiveness, and the budding serious actor of 'Dead Poets Society,' employed via characters trying sincerely help others to fix their broken parts, often while masking their own inner pain. It’s one of the many strokes of brilliance in Terry Gilliam’s often-overlooked masterwork that Williams’ role in 'The Fisher King' combines both those disparate personas into one. First we get the goofy Williams, as the garrulous, oddball homeless Parry, seeing visions of fat fairies and believing himself a knight. But then the layers peel away from Parry’s lovable scamp visage, and we get a glimpse of the profound suffering beneath, which connects him in a devastating way to Jeff Bridges’ washed-up shock-jock radio DJ. It’s difficult to write about many of these roles in light of the circumstances of Williams’ death and what we now know of his battles with depression, but his Parry might be the tenderest character of all: in Gilliam’s film we can see a clear analogy for a man on the heartbreakingly noble quest to bring joy and healing to others, while struggling with inner demons and nightmares that constantly threaten to overcome him. It’s a beautiful, evocative and ultimately uplifting film though, in which the dragon, unlike in life, is eventually slain.
Certainly one of the best films of Disney’s early ‘90s output, “Aladdin” also has a shot at being considered one of the studio’s greatest animated films ever is largely down to the genius decision to hire to Williams as the motormouthed Genie. Seriously, can you really remember much else about the movie? (OK, it has a nifty song). But rightly regarded as one of the actor’s finest, most hilarious and inspired pieces of work, 'Aladdin' caused a falling out with Disney when against Williams’ wishes, the studio used his Genie character to sell merchandise, yut nothing can detract from the performance. Ferociously funny, tender and totally lunatic, Williams found the rare sweet spot of managing to entertain kids and adults all at once, with jokes that hit often hit both demographics simultaneously. Given a helping hand from animators whose wrists must have got awfully sore to capture his energy, Williams made the Genie a scene-stealing hall-of-famer. And Disney knew it: they gifted Williams a Picasso for his efforts on a film where he was paid scale, and when it came time to the sequel, bridges were mended and the actor reprised his role. But it was the first incarnation of the Genie that found Williams catching lightning in a bottle. Or maybe a lamp.
Before 1990's 'Awakenings,' Williams' more dramatic roles had often had ostensibly comic underpinnings, harnessing his manic energy and improvisational skills. 'Awakenings' was something different, though. It's not that there isn't humor in Penny Marshall's fictionalized retelling of Oliver Sacks' memoir: there is, though the film is inherently a dramatic one. It's that surprisingly little of it comes from Williams, who plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, a painfully shy, dedicated surrogate for the real-life Sacks, who makes a major breakthrough with patients who've been catatonic for decades, most notably Leonard Lowe. The latter's played by Robert De Niro, who had the showier part (for which he was Oscar-nominated), but Williams is just as impressive; his trademark motormouth is nowhere to be found, and there's no desire to please in his portrayal. It's subtly technical work, Williams virtually receding into himself when he has to interact with people, just as locked-in as the patients he treats, afraid of even touching others. But through his palpable joy at the work he does, and the life-embracing example set by Leonard, he gradually opens up enough to ask nurse Julie Kavner for coffee (an admirably un-Hollywood romance, closer to "Marty" than a more standard romantic sub-plot). Performances aside, it's not a great film: too neat, too saccharine, flatly directed. But it's a key one in Williams' career: the point where he realized he could be just as effective by ceding the limelight as he could be storming it.
“The Birdcage” (1996)
The tributes and reminiscences that have flooded the airwaves and the internet since word of Williams’ death spread all tend to mention one thing: his kindness. It’s a generosity of spirit that those who knew him felt personally, but those of us not so lucky can see it in many of his performances, like this one in Mike Nichols’ daffy, silly, fond-despite-its-stereotypes 'The Birdcage.' In a film not exactly noted for its subtlety (Elaine May’s script was based on a 1978 Franco-Italian film, and while contemporized, certainly feels pinpoint-dated to its mid-nineties period now) Williams, who could be as outrageous and OTT as any actor working back then, underplays gently and graciously cedes the more outre gags and moments to the rest of the cast. He has to negotiate the “straight man” (irony of phrase not lost on us) role as the loving gay father, in a committed long-term relationship with the star of the drag show he produces (Nathan Lane), whose son announces that he wants to marry the daughter of an arch-conservative (Gene Hackman). Mostly holding down some surprisingly tender middle ground between Lane’s flamboyant drama queen carrying-on and Hackman and Dianne Wiest’s hilariously uptight vehement Tea Partiers, Williams nonetheless has moments where he manages to mine laughs seemingly from nothing (a scene finding him dropping an ice bucket immediately after exclaiming “How 'bout those Dolphins, eh?” has no right to be as funny as it is). As contrived as “The Birdcage” now might seem, and as rushed and pat its denouement, Williams’ performance, a deceptively difficult one, remains note-perfect.