Remembering Robin Williams, cinema's Rorschach test

Kevin McFarland on what remains.

By Kevin McFarland at 4:40 pm Tue, Aug 12, 2014

In the late 1980’s, film producer Joel Silver set his sights on developing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ massively successful graphic novel Watchmen into a feature film with director Terry Gilliam. Rumors swirled at the time, and the 2005 Entertainment Weekly oral history of the project confirmed that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in line for Dr. Manhattan, Richard Gere showed interest, and Robin Williams, fresh off his role as a delusional but sprightly vagabond in Gilliam’s The Fisher King, could be tapped as Rorschach.

During the hellish development, which would bounce between studios and producers for decades until Zach Snyder’s film hit theaters five years ago, casting attention switched from Williams to Brad Dourif, allegedly due to wariness over fan perception that Williams was unsuitable for the part. Going in a direction away from a captivating comedic performer with overtones of chained darkness looked foolish when Michael Keaton proved an excellent Batman as that comic franchise dominated the box office. And that criticism seems even more baseless decades later, after Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and many other films that proved Williams’ heft. Rorschach, a deeply haunted man with an ever-changing mask that doesn’t hide an unmistakable voice, now seems like it would have been a perfect fit.

There’s little point in rueing a missed opportunity from 25 years ago. But in the aftermath of Williams’ death at his Bay Area home yesterday, many people were quick to point to a moment in Watchmen when Rorschach sneeringly recites a grim joke about a depressed man who seeks help from a doctor, which now rings frighteningly true:

It's easy to cherry pick roles from Williams’ career that stand out as great—his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting and nominations for The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society—and perhaps even more difficult to highlight all of the supporting roles and notable guest appearances he had throughout his career. He could jump effortlessly between celebrity impressions, regional accents, and even the history of modern dance styles. When I sat down to compile a list of the Robin Williams films I could recall, I ended up with over 25. There’s a case to be made for most of his notable films as falling either under universally beloved or infinitely polarizing, which is also a reflection of his impact as an actor. What you think of nearly any of his movies can make or break a connection with another person. I still know which of my friends roll their eyes at my distaste for Hook; I share a special kinship with other Jumanji apologists; anyone else who can recite whole swaths of Good Will Hunting is an instant friend for life.

But more than his contributions as an artist, the stories that have flooded out of friends and colleagues in the past day have largely been from offscreen interactions. There’s the time he cheered up Julliard classmate Christopher Reeve after the Superman actor’s debilitating accident. Or when he called Steve Spielberg during the production of Schindler’s List to cheer the director up while working with such bleak material. Or Kumail Nanjiani’s touching remembrance on Twitter of Williams dropping into a comedy club for an impromptu 15-minute set that left Nanjiani tongue-tied an unable to express his full appreciation. Or Williams’ commitment to Comic Relief and USO tours, which harkens back to the moment in Good Morning Vietnam when Airman Adrian Cronauer delivers an impromptu edition of his radio show in the middle of a roadway to a cavalcade of young soldiers departing to fight in the jungle—realizing that his job is to entertain others and lighten their burdens, even at the expense of his best interests.

Viewers in my generation likely remember Williams first as the Genie from Aladdin, which continued his lightning-quick voice work that hit peaks in Good Morning Vietnam and in Mrs. Doubtfire. Though trained at Julliard—he and Christopher Reeve were the only two students in their class selected by John Houseman to join the Advanced Program—in roles like those his manic energy at times seemed best suited for standup performance. That distinction is the first limitation that Williams burst apart as he progressed from purely lighthearted comedy to deeper, more complex roles and inhabited them with aplomb.

But it's also important to acknowledge how publicly his boundless energy was unfortunately balanced with addiction and depression. Like Richard Pryor before him, Williams mined those difficult topics for material, especially on his A Night At The Met performance, which helped launched the actor into film roles permanently. And though he wrestled with those addictions—kicking his cocaine habit, returning to rehab in 2006 after beginning to drink again—Williams never quite fully put away the darkness that hovered in some small way over everything he did.

What’s difficult to reconcile now is how much positive criticism Williams received for performances where he was deemed to have harnessed his boundless energy and inner turmoil correctly, whatever that means, and how much ire he earned when he didn’t hit that mark. The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting? Great. Jakob The Liar? Miserable. Roles like Bicentennial Man or Patch Adams have not aged particularly well—though some would single out the latter for the chemistry between Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which now seems even more tragic. Though a terrifically engaging screen presence at his most gregarious and joke-focused, he had to chops to be just as mesmerizing when muted, which would only draw out tension for the moment when he could turn on the jets and shift to full bombast.

I’m not sure I can think of another actor with Williams’ combined dominant traits: instantly recognizable for his warmth and energy, fiercely multitalented, flying between understated and exuberant emotional extremes in comedy and drama, and yet maligned whenever the unpredictable balance he struck in a given performance didn’t match the critical ideal. In that way his Academy Award for Good Will Hunting in 1997 is both the peak of his control and the most patronizing harness of his career. Here is your reward for taking the raging combustion, powerful as a radiant star, and tamping it down to understated levels while remaining perforated, so that emotional peaks still have a chance to flare out. It was an unhelpful and unjust expectation on an actor who did nothing but give of himself to his performance.

If there’s a bone to pick with the final decade of his career, with RV and Old Dogs and the Night At The Museum franchise, it’s not with the quality of the films he appeared in compared to his previous work. That has long remained the raging debate in the career of Robin Williams. People either ardently adore or mercilessly revile his movies, from Hook to What Dreams May Come to Jumanji to Bicentennial Man. Still, what separates that final decade is that all of the edges that drew out such extreme emotional responses from audiences seemed smoothed out. Hook, Jack, and Patch Adams demanded a reaction to the incendiary, divisive performer at the center. Old Dogs and the rest played 

Therein lies the problem with the however deeply concealed desire for an honest and raw performer struggling for control and stability to continue in that struggle. Is it better to suffer for the sake of memorable art, or to find some kind of peace if it means that an audience will harbor an unspoken thought that it made a performer less interesting? Slate’s Mike Pesca, host of the daily podcast The Gist, recently devoted most of an episode to the link between comedy and varying degrees of mental illness, spurred on by Amy Solomon’s senior thesis at Princeton. There is no clear explanation for what happened yesterday, even with a publicist noting Williams had sought treatment for sever depression. Yet the data suggests that comedians almost unanimously suffer from some sort of mental illness, wherever that may be on a spectrum.

But it’s too limiting right now to call Robin Williams simply a comedian, despite the tremendous outpouring from the comedy community that continues today. He was an actor, one of the most gifted and adventurous performers of his generation, and it’s a shame that it took something like his tragic death to take stock of the possibility that the outsized expectations of an audience could have prevented more people from simply enjoying the effort Williams made in so many films, no matter the critical adjudication.

During his Reddit AMA almost a year ago, Williams fielded questions about his favorite anime series, the latest video games he played, and his taste in comic books. This is a man who named his daughter Zelda after the legendary video game princess—an inspiration that he’s retold everywhere from interviews on the floor at E3 to an official Nintendo commercial. He found joy in the cultural spaces that have become goldmines for the industry long before studios wanted anything to do with what they perceived to be niche properties. In that way he earned the “One Of Us” label from many fans who felt a kinship with his interests, much in the same way that he’s rightly seen as a Bay Area icon for the way he. It's potentially harmful both to think that you know someone simply because they're famous and put a lot of themselves on display, and equally ill-advised to get attached from the "just-like-us" factor

Robin Williams left behind a myriad of ways to punctuate the philosophical impact of his career, from Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting to John Keating in Dead Poets Society to his incredible interview with Marc Maron on WTF. But it’s this simple clip of Williams on Sesame Street getting passed around that seems the most succinct and representative of his incredible ability to address big topics in a sly, unique way that always took a left-turn by the end.

Published 4:40 pm Tue, Aug 12, 2014

About the Author

Kevin McFarland is a freelance writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming at The A.V. Club, Paste Magazine, This Was TV, and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.

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