Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014

Most of us will never have any idea what kind of pain Robin Williams was in. We look at a suicide like that and many of us have the instinct to ask, "What did he have to be so unhappy about?" He had an incredibly successful TV, movie, and stand-up comedy career and could have had many more year to add to it. But to think that way is to miss entirely what depression is. Depression is not about what's going on in your life, although there can certainly be triggers. It's an inner turmoil and a lack of a coping mechanism. Williams also suffered from addiction, at various times to cocaine and alcohol, which is either a symptom of or a contributing factor to his depression.

Because we watched him being hilarious on TV doesn't mean he wasn't burning up and unsettled to his core. Maybe he used comedy to mask his sadness. We can try to wax poetic about the sad clown, about how he was laughing and jovial on the outside while he was dying inside. Maybe he was just a really funny guy who also felt incredibly lonely and finally it got to be too much. We will never know just from having encountered him through his work or even having met him once or twice. Only those people who were his friends and family could have any idea just how awful he felt and how often.

What we can be sure of is that he was a masterful entertainer and a brilliant comic. I'm not sure there's ever been another like him with that unfettered and ferocious energy and an ability to ad lib and riff off given material in a split second that was just mesmerizing. Granted, there were times I was critical of him, especially on talk shows, because the riffing and the gags just never stopped. It was like he didn't know another way to exist. We rarely got to see him without the jokes and maybe that's because Robin Williams without the funny was unbearable to him. Maybe that's why his dramatic roles always took him to some deep dark recesses of humanity. When he was at his best, he was unparalleled. When he and Billy Crystal worked together on HBO's Comic Relief specials it was marvelous to behold the way they could riff off each other. I remember seeing Whoopi Goldberg (who co-hosted the events with them) talk about that experience and just having to stay out of their way.

Williams demonstrated his dramatic acting talent early on with a starring role in The World According to Garp, which gave him very little opportunity to cut it up in only his second feature film. Most comedians take several films before they spread their wings and try drama, but Williams, a Juilliard trained actor, jumped right in. It was a big move to go to that after the very successful TV series "Mork and Mindy" in which he played an extra-terrestrial studying humans. Good Morning, Vietnam gave him a chance to combine hilarity and raucous ad libbing with drama by having him cast as an Armed Forces Radio DJ in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Later Dead Poets Society gave him a more dramatic role as an English teacher in a 1950s prep school, but he still got to do plenty of mugging. He eventually won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor playing psychologist to Matt Damon's title character in Good Will Hunting. Throughout his career he made plenty of movies that I really couldnt' stand. But his performances were never the main culprits for any of his movies' critical failures.

But I don't want to focus on the negative. It was shocking and sad to learn of his death. I will try over the next week or so to celebrate some of his work by revisiting some of his best roles and movies and posting fresh reviews in the coming days.

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