Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE COMPLEXITIES OF ROBIN WILLIAMS

Original caricature of Robin Williams by Jeff York (copyright 2014)

Why have so many been hit so hard by the death of Robin Williams?

It’s been four days since the reports of his suicide, and many of us are still reeling. Social media is obsessing over it. There have been so many articles, tributes, lists and eulogies - it’s become overwhelming. The man clearly made an incredible impact on the world, and paying tribute to him has become manifest this week.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve waited a few days before I wrote about him. I wanted a better perspective, as well as some time to grieve. It really affected me. I was a big fan and I admired both his amazing talent and his generosity of spirit in all that he did.

I wish that more people had waited a while to opine. Those Twitter trolls who went after his daughter are despicable. And I abhor the pseudo-psychological diagnosis’ that so many online and on TV have made of this complex man and his battle with depression. Most of their cavalier take is utter rubbish.

Depression is a disease. And there are no easy explanations for the havoc it raised in Williams’ life. Only those closest to him have any real idea of what Williams was going through. And shame on those who have been so quick to judge about what drove him to suicide.



I’ve heard and read too many ‘dime store psychologists’ offer up trite phrases like “his inner demons” or “he was a clown crying on the inside”. Facebook has been especially egregious in the word vomit. The depression that Williams was fighting turned so horrifying that suicide became the only feasible way out for him. That’s not easily understood despite what Facebook followers or TV pundits would have us believe.

Nor is Williams’ career and talent easily explained either. Many have tried to distinguish what made him so special, but his work is not that easily categorized. It’s incredibly varied, with more nuances and subtlety to it than most are giving him credit for. Suffice it to say, I believe he was the most talented performer of his generation, perhaps the last three. He could do comedy, drama, sing and dance. He was amazing in character and an entrancing character as himself. He was a one of a kind that will not be matched.

As a stand-up comic, Williams was an improvisational wizard of unparalleled conjuring. His ability to make up shtick out of anything in his path was a marvel to behold. He could pick up a scarf from someone in the audience during a taping of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and do five minutes of mind-bending hilarity. He could walk out onto the stage of “The Dick Cavett Show” and pull novels out of the set’s bookcase and do routines off of each random title selected. How do you explain a mind like that? You can’t really. It’s too complex to be indisputably assessed.

Williams winning his Oscar for GOOD WILL HUNTING.
Williams, above all else, was an actor of stunning complexity. He was equally adept at playing drama as he was at comedy. How many actors excel so in both realms? He could wring laughs with stunning power, but he also could extract tears from young and old. Look at how people are talking about his teacher role in DEAD POETS SOCIETY. That role clearly packed an emotional wallop. His riffing genie in ALADDIN or extemporaneous DJ in GOOD MORNING, VIET NAM might have been characters closer to his wheelhouse, but obviously his dramatic turns were just as strong, if not more indelible in certain respects. O Captain, my Captain, indeed.

And Williams was so talented that he could turn his back on parts of his oeuvre that many would have made a living off. His amazing impressions were as good as any Vegas impressionist but he didn’t make a career out of it. Still, it’s astounding to see how he captured the complexities of celebrity in his spoofs of them. Only someone who spent time with Jack Nicholson, up close and very personal, could channel that actor’s self-satisfied tawdriness so vividly. Only someone who understood the buffoonery of machismo could render a George W. Bush as such a grinning and clueless man-child.

When talking of his standout comedic performances, most seem to be listing or writing about his ‘hurricane Robin’ roles. Those are the ones where he blows in and completely dominates the action like he did in MRS. DOUBTFIRE. But I’m surprised more aren’t talking about the complexity of his performance in THE BIRDCAGE. To me, it’s not only his best screen work, but it illustrated the complexity of an actor who didn’t always need to play the aggressor.
Robin Williams (with Dan Futterman) in THE BIRDCAGE. 
Take a look at how subtlety he played the character of Armand Goldman in that film. As the homosexual owner of a gay nightclub, his is a mostly reactive role. He responds to the more overt and larger-than-life characters around him in almost every scene; the type of larger-than-life characters that Williams usually played. But in THE BIRDCAGE, Williams doesn’t have the ‘big role’. Nathan Lane does. Albert, Armand’s male lover who is a famous drag queen, is the star part. It’s the role that wins actors Tony’s. Instead here, Williams plays the ‘straight man’ (Ironic yes, considering.) And that was quite a departure. But Williams was phenomenal in the role.

And in almost every scene in that movie, he is reacting to the chaos around him. Most deliciously, his Armand is horrified at the continuing idiocy of houseboy Agador (Hank Azaria). Agador’s broken English, infantile swagger, and astoundingly awful cooking gave Williams the opportunity to do a slow boil like he’d never done before.

Watch the embedded scene where his Armand tries to prevent the conservative Senator Keely and his wife (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) from realizing the dinnerware has a gay theme of playfully illustrated Greeks in flagrante delicto. Armand goes into a suppressed rage as he frenetically attempts to ladle soup into the bowls before the prudes catch on.

Williams may have been pitted against big scene-stealers like Lane and Azaria, but he's the one who really gives the standout performance in the film. He didn’t need to bounce off the walls to be the funniest man in the room this time. And it is a testament to his incredible talent that he did so much with less.

It’s that sort of surprise and variety that made Williams even more special. He couldn’t be easily pegged. His talent allowed him to play as dark as coal and as light as a feather, and everything in between. It’s not Daniel Day-Lewis playing everything from MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON to THE FISHER KING to ONE-HOUR PHOTO. It’s Williams. The Julliard graduate was one of the best actors we’ve ever seen, on TV, film, stage, and in comedy clubs. Williams had more range than any actor working, didn’t he? He could convince us he was a hero (HOOK), a villain (INSOMNIA), a teen (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP), and even an old man (JACK).

On the theatrical stage he did everything from Shakespeare to Beckett. He played tigers and fools equally well. On a talk show, he allowed the host to take a break and just be an audience member, laughing as hard at his antics and anecdotes as everyone else. And in charitable events, he could be a serious emcee as well as the headliner everyone wanted to see perform.

Williams’ tragic end should beseech us to work harder to understand the complexities of mental illness. And the complexities of his talent should compel us to study him and his work for decades. He was as singular a sensation as there has ever been in the world of entertainment. His joy of performing, in all capacities, touched everyone immeasurably who watched him.


And he left us far, far too soon. There has never been anyone like him before, and we will never see anyone like Robin Williams again. He’s an icon. And that’s why Time magazine put him on their cover this week to honor his passing, just as they did when Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra died. That’s why we’re so distraught. He was truly an original. The very definition of talent, range, and a shining star.


And he burned out too quickly. It’s devastating.

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