12 August 2014

Remembering Robin Williams - 1951-2014

Children love to laugh. The act itself is an inherently innocent and joyous one; releasing copious amounts of serotonin and making us feel, if not for the briefest of moments, entirely happy. This is probably the reason that so many youngsters find their way to art through comedy. When executed well, comedy rewards the basest of our desires, offering contentment, warmth and amusement. Good comedy doesn’t have to be complex, layered or undercut by palpable darkness (although these things can help); it just has to be funny. It’s that simple. In the mid-1990s, when my appetite for film was beginning to blossom, I had a very distinct set of Hollywood heroes. There was Ace Ventura, the nutty, possibly sociopathic animal sleuth; Happy Gilmore, the skilled but resistant golfer prone to fits of psychosis; and then there was Robin Williams. Unlike the other fictional characters (portrayed by Jim Carrey & Adam Sandler respectively) I was always conscious of Williams as a person, not just as comedic caricature. Something about the performer encouraged an immediate, human rapport. Perhaps it was the fact he had already been involved with dozens of famed works (Carrey & Sandler were only beginning to take flight around 1994-1997), and thus his star presence superseded anything he brought to the screen.

Yet, from the perspective of a child aged 7, that seems unlikely.

More probable is the innate vulnerability Williams always emanated, that same sympathetic aura of a well-intentioned loser being hamstrung by a cruel world. It’s evident in a ton of his films, just look at “Jumanji”, Mrs. Doubtfire”, “One Hour Photo” and “Good Will Hunting”. I responded to Robin Williams not just because of his electric, livewire mannerisms. There was something deeper and more tragically purposed at the heart of his most memorable work. Unlike Ace’s tics or Happy’s overwrought angst, he felt real. Today, finding out that he is no longer with us as a result of probable suicide; such an undercurrent of fragility seems despairingly telling.

Williams of course came to prominence through TV work like “Happy Days” and the subsequent spin-off “Mork & Mindy”. He was also a celebrated and highly skilled stand-up comedian, capable of straddling controversial material with a deft, high-energy touch. However for me, it’s his work as an actor that speaks loudest, and which ultimately informed my own relationship with him. The key works are obvious touchstones for a 90s kid. “Mrs. Doubtfire” found him doubling as an English Nanny, using the disguise to spend time with his diegetic sprog. Directed by Chris Columbus, the film upholds a potentially creepy premise and morphs it into a sweet dramedy. A lot of that has to do with both Williams’ portrayals of Doubtfire and desperate father Daniel Hillard. Doubtfire was a Merry Poppins for the late twentieth Century - understanding and nurturing - but with absolutely no tolerance for bullshit. Williams managed to make the facade as real as any other character in the feature, overriding even the over-achieving make-up department with his distinctive vocals and audacious slapstick. By the end, his kids - and the audience - harbour as much affection for the fictional nanny as they do their own father, a testament to Williams’ character building skillset. His work as Hillard is probably even better. True, Doubtfire gets to occupy the lion’s share of screen-time, but in his few, crucial moments as a Dad castrated by arrested development, Williams is heart-breaking. One only has to look at the scene below, in which his marriage to Sally Field’s exhausted matriarch collapses. Truthfully penned, the scene evolves like an organic domestic argument, rendered deeply affecting through Williams’ desperate and vivid realisation that his children and wife may now reside beyond his emotional reach. This calibre of sequence (of which “Doubtfire” offers several) is why the film has enjoyed such longevity on cable television and DVD shelves, buoying the goofy transgender pratfalls with genuine heart and honesty. It’s no surprise that earlier this year a long-mooted sequel was tentatively pushed into pre-production. Where it stands this morning is another matter entirely.

Williams’ list of family credits made him a star (other favourites include “Jumanji”, Disney’s “Aladdin” and the underrated “Flubber”), but his mature work tickled awards’ bodies for generations. Williams was nominated for three Oscars before finally bagging one in 1998 for an unselfish and genuine portrayal of a psychologist in “Good Will Hunting”. The film, also seen as the launching pad of Messrs Affleck and Damon, was both a critical and commercial hit, and has enjoyed a favourable reputation in the 17 years since its release.  Other notable works include the oft-quoted “Dead Poets Society”, “Good Morning Vietnam” and Mark Romanek’s creepy yet intelligent thriller “One Hour Photo”. Each of these features allowed Williams to portray a very different, visibly damaged figure, but with the grace and empathetic register of a gifted performer. It’s no surprise that Williams attracted the best. In his time as an actor he worked with Spielberg, Coppola, Levinson and even in 2002, a pre-fame Christopher Nolan. Indeed, prior to Heath Ledger’s left of field casting as the Joker in 2006, Williams was the proposed favourite for the part.  It was clear that as both a comedian and thespian, Williams was regarded as a unique and luminous talent.

Williams leaves us with a few completed projects on the slate, although on the surface none of them look like definitive exhibitions for his brilliance. “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” arrives this Christmas, and will likely be a hit, but this amiably bland franchise isn’t indicative of the dynamite comedy Williams thrived on. Instead, we must remember him in greatness, which for those privy to his body of work through the 80s, 90s and even parts of the noughties, shouldn’t be too hard.  

Williams’ PR Mara Bauxbaum issued the following statement several hours ago:

“Rob passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”

The phrasing of the release strongly suggests Williams took his own life, aged only 63. The performer had endured a rocky history with substances and illness in the past. Let’s not finish on that note though. Looking at Twitter and Facebook, the outpouring of heartache and shock from a variety of faces has been uplifting. Tributes from comedians have been particularly vocal, with voices like Bill Cosby, Judd Apatow, Chris Rock, Dane Cook and Eddie Izzard all professing a deep sorrow at the loss. For many, Williams was likely an inspiration.

The horror of what has unfolded can’t be undone, but there is something we can take from the passing of Robin Williams, beyond his eclectic catalogue of work. Williams was obviously plagued by depression, and sadly now represents another soul bested by the ailment. To all those in a similar boat, suffering through the same agonising pain, be strong. In life it seems that Williams had affected a profound number of us, many of whom were possibly even his friends and peers. Maybe Williams’ symptoms were too far gone, but for others inflicted with this most nefarious of diseases, I would urge you to sidestep rash action and relay your problems; express feelings and any sense of despair to a loved one. It will help. Based on today’s outcry, it certainly seems there were many who wish they could have done the same for Robin Williams.

Kids often find their way to art through comedy. This kid owes a special debt to Robin Williams. My thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.

A article by Daniel Kelly, 2014 


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