It was “Dead Poets Society” that did it. That was the movie that pushed me over the edge from casual moviegoer to full-blown film junkie, the one that sent me back to the video store night after night looking for my next fix, desperate to discover other movies that could make me feel the same way.
There, in the role that earned Robin Williams his second Oscar nomination, was the full range of the actor’s incredible talent: He could have you laughing hysterically one minute and crying the next, often within the span of a single film.
At the moment movies mattered most in my life, Robin Williams was my favorite actor. Let me assure you, Oscar nomination or not, this was not a popular position at the time — nor is it now. Here was a high-energy actor who had gotten his start playing a spastic alien on “Mork and Mindy,” a standup comic trying to be serious. Nevermind the fact that Williams had studied at Juilliard or that beneath his wild gestures and crazy impersonations was an astounding capacity for subtlety, visible as early as “The World According to Garp.”
The critics were skeptical, while the grown-ups around me were put off by his sheer intensity onscreen. (I remember that Roger Ebert gave “Dead Poets Society” a thumbs down that struck me as inconceivable at the time, inspiring me to take the advice of Williams’ character — “Consider what you think” — and try articulating my own opinion about movies.) After “Dead Poets Society,” I must have watched every movie Williams made, already a formidable c.v. by 1989, spanning from broad family comedy (Robert Altman’s “Popeye”) to incredibly nuanced dramatic performances (“Seize the Day”).
In the quarter century since, I’ve come to realize that most movie stars fall into one of two categories: Some are black holes, sucking up all the energy in the room, and some are supernovas, radiating it back outwards like a great, big atomic blast. There are those who draw you in and inspire you to empathize — guys like Marlon Brando, or Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini, to name two whom we’ve lost recently — by giving you enough to imagine what’s going through their heads as they experience the most intense human emotions. And then there are the power-balls — a la Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise — where you sit back and absorb the sheer dynamism of their performances.
Robin Williams was that rare star who could be both. Sometimes he tackled huge, larger-than-life roles (the animated genie in Disney’s “Aladdin” comes to mind) which in spite of their scale were barely able to contain all of the charisma, creativity, humor and spontaneity of which Williams was capable. There, as in “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” was the sign of a true supernova. But other times he burrowed so deep into the soul of a character, it broke your heart, so profound was the pain revealed in “Good Will Hunting,” “World’s Greatest Dad” or “One Hour Photo.” Go back through his entire filmography, and you’ll see a stunning mix of black-hole and supernova roles, along with those — like “The Fisher King” and “Jack” — that swing wildly between the two.
Williams hadn’t exactly disappeared from screens in recent years, though he’d become somewhat scarce since 2009, when he underwent heart surgery. He was only just beginning to reassert his place via CBS’ “The Crazy Ones” and a handful of earnest indie movies when news of his death broke.
In 2013, Willaims shot a film called “Boulevard” with director Dito Monteil in which he played a mild-mannered bank clerk who finally admits that he is gay after decades of marriage. The role, which premiered to not much attention at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is among Williams’ best dramatic performances, and the movie really ought to have debuted at Sundance, though rumor has it the programmers there can’t stand Williams. I don’t understand this about the actor, the way some people simply can’t abide his work.
Granted, as my moviegoing tastes evolved, I gravitated away from Williams’ shtick, which I realized was probably what those I’d labeled as cynics had objected to all along — the idea that you could start to recognize a formula in what had so long seemed like alchemy. Somewhere along the line, he became predictably unpredictable. With many of these movies, you see only Williams, pouring a great deal of incredibly earnest energy into these characters, a great many of whom are long-suffering martyrs (concentration-camp dramedy “Jakob the Liar”) or unsung saints (from “Awakenings” to “Patch Adams”), and it starts to feel exhausting.
Ebert objected to elements of Williams’ “nightclub act” that crept into “Dead Poets Society,” as when he offers impressions of John Wayne and Brando doing Shakespeare, suggesting that such comedy bits didn’t belong. But that was part of Williams’ genius: His mile-a-minute wit was constantly free-associating with the material at hand, embellishing as he went.
The directors who got the most out of working with Williams were those who were nimble enough to incorporate these improvisatory gems without losing control in the process — the difference between “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Toys,” two Barry Levinson collaborations with wildly different results. In “Vietnam,” Williams’ spontaneous outbursts suit the character and enhance the film, whereas in “Toys,” his ad libs are practically all the movie has to offer (great for the trailer, not so much for the main attraction).
For Williams’ fans, it was always a pleasure when a really great bit of unplanned comedy might sneak its way into one of his dramatic films. But I also credit him with insisting that even the broadest of comedies contain moments of sincere human sentiment, like the quiet scene in “The Birdcage” where he gives Nathan Lane the palimony agreement and we realize just how strong the bond between this couple is, or the short speech earlier where he tells his son, “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I’m a middle-aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me 20 years to get here. I won’t let some idiot senator destroy that. Fuck the senator. I don’t give a damn what he thinks.” Moments like these are as vital to the success of that film as the show-stopper where he manages to parody the work of dance legends Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Twyla Tharp, Michael Kidd and Madonna within the span of 30 seconds.
Williams didn’t invent the idea of going wildly off-script for a laugh (Peter Sellers, Chicago’s Second City and the first wave of “Saturday Night Live” talent were all improv innovators in their own right), though he did it so well that his approach changed America’s sense of humor. Once we’d sampled Williams’ sense of anarchy, it became harder to laugh at old-fashioned jokes, the kind that some screenwriter had thought up while sitting at a typewriter six months before cameras were rolling. Williams demonstrated the appeal of being blindsided by a flash of spontaneity, paving the way for actors such as Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy, not to mention director Judd Apatow, who made this freeform style the template for contemporary comedy.
I can only imagine how demanding this approach must have been for Williams, who seemed to possess double the energy of your typical performer. Back in the days of his kinetic standup comedy, you could watch sweat pouring off his body as he rattled through impressions of everything from Richard Nixon to a human penis. On “The Crazy Ones,” he seemed to be making up half of his dialogue on the fly, frequently leaving his co-stars in the dust. It’s still a marvel to me that anyone thought to cast Sarah Michelle Gellar as his daughter, but I suppose that the short, furry and big-nosed Williams had nearly always been improbable casting for any role he played.
How perfect, therefore, to cast him as a rowdy voice actor who disguises himself as a homely British nanny in “Mrs. Doubtfire” — quite possibly the best studio comedy made in the ’90s. (Only “Sister Act” comes close, starring Williams’ longtime “Comic Relief” ally Whoopi Goldberg.) As usual, Williams is hilarious here, slipping in and out of costume as the newly single dad finds a way to spend more time with his kids after losing custody. And as usual, Williams insists on aligning himself with movies that seem to have their priorities straight. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” his character learns to be a better dad, but faces the consequences for his deception and doesn’t end up back together with his ex-wife, offering valuable lessons for audiences whose movies seldom offered honest depictions of divorce.
Part of what made “Dead Poets Society” so powerful was that combination of Williams’ charisma and a screenplay that encouraged independent thinking. As the nonconformist teacher at a straight-laced boarding school, Williams spoke not only to his class, but to an entire generation of moviegoers when he urged his students to seize the day. “Because we are food for worms, lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day gonna stop breathing, turn cold and die,” he says, paraphrasing Whitman as he urges them to recognize “that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”
Williams didn’t merely play inspirational; he was inspirational. These days, Hollywood subscribes to the Samuel Goldwyn: Messages are for Western Union. But Williams went out of his way to support projects that couldn’t have gotten made without him — like “Good Will Hunting” — because he believed in what they stood for. Although many critics resist films that have a clear agenda to impart, I find that audiences tend to appreciate when movies make us feel something. Though Williams was as irreverent as they come, he was also a proponent for sincere sentiment, holding the line as indie cinema and the internet have poisoned comedy with the twin toxins of ironic detachment and snark.
Williams seemed to believe that movies could change the world, that by revealing his own flaws and those of the characters he played, we might learn to be better people. I happen to agree. He changed mine, even if I could barely find the words to convey that when I finally got the chance to meet him, briefly, at the press junkets for “Insomnia” and “Death to Smoochy.” Half the titles I’ve mentioned here turned out to be stinkers, but I sincerely believe Williams made them with the right intentions. His most recent role (but not his last) was among the worst, playing the eponymous “Angriest Man in Brooklyn.” After realizing he has just hours to live, Williams’ character turns his life around. At one point, he ponders how ridiculous it is that tombstones focus on the year you’re born and the year you die, noting, “It’s not the dates that matter, it’s the dash (between them).”
From here on, the tragedy of Williams’ death will always loom when we think of him, but there’s no question that what truly matters was how he filled his life, the verses he contributed along the way. Of course actors do not write their own lines, though Williams supplied more than his share of original ones, and after earning his first Oscar nomination with “Good Morning Vietnam,” he had the clout to pick his projects and to shape how they turned out. And you don’t have to look hard to find the common philosophy between them — the one that compelled Will Hunting to put down his janitor’s mop and live, that inspired a class of prep-school kids to stop walking in lock-step and live, that urged his sixtysomething “Boulevard” banker to abandon the lie and live.
Message received. Carpe diem, my captain.