Note: This piece was originally going to be a Kids’ Stuff about one of the author’s favorite films, Dead Poets Society. However, due to the school year beginning, Kids’ Stuff is now a bi-weekly series. The author also felt it more appropriate to regard Robin Williams’ career in full, instead of through the lens of just one film.
By Nathan Smith
It seems like whenever someone well-known and important passes on, we misremember how much they affected us. You may not have appreciated them while they were alive, we say, but I did. So let me be brutally honest for a moment. I don’t want to pretend like Robin Williams was my favorite actor while he was alive; to do so would be to unfairly lay claim to his memory and legacy. Although he was without a doubt an actor and comedian whose presence I cherished, I don’t know if I ever really thought of Robin Williams as one of my “favorites.” But let me say this: rarely have I seen an outpouring of emotion and affection over the loss of a public figure so heartfelt, so genuine, and so sincere as I saw Monday night after the death of Robin Williams. It may have had in part to do with the way he went, but I know it’s mostly because Robin changed lives, for people of all ages.
Upon hearing the news of his death, I felt sad, but not truly so until re-watching a few of his best scenes from Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, a film that helped shape me as an adolescent. From the wide-eyed goofballs of Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, and Aladdin, to more sensitive, sometimes tragic characters in Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and one of his greatest yet most forgotten performances, as a grieving father on Homicide: Life on the Street, Robin Williams offered both charming hilarity and emotional candor, and showed us that the line between may be finer than we think. I’ve seen many people talk in the wake of his death about how shocked they are that someone who brought a great deal of laughter into their lives could struggle so much emotionally. I think this is a good time to remember that our greatest comedians, the ones who bring the most joy into our lives, are also sometimes the ones who deal with the greatest pain. We expect humor to come from a place of happiness, but it often comes from a place of hurt. Comedy, like all art, is our way of coping. It is a tool for empathy and understanding. Even though he battled his own demons daily, Robin Williams gave selflessly through his work, bringing laughter, light, and reflection to millions.
Since Robin’s passing, I’ve watched three of his best movies: Dead Poets Society, World’s Greatest Dad, and The Bird Cage. It hit me that these, along with so many of his other films, deal heavily with death, depression, and suicide, even if they do so in more gentle and unknowing ways. The second picture in particular, Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad, strikes me as profoundly poignant in the wake of Robin’s death. A black comedy about a struggling father who makes his son’s accidental death by autoerotic asphyxiation look like a suicide, and finally finds success as a writer after forging his son’s suicide note, World’s Greatest Dad is often blisteringly uncomfortable, but I still found it moving. Kyle, Robin Williams’ character’s son, becomes a hero to those who ignored him while he lived. They put his picture in their lockets, write poems in his honor, and tattoo his face on their arms; they even carve his name into their flesh. A douchebag in life becomes a deity in death. As expected, Bobcat Goldthwait pushes the scenario to its most illogical extremes, but the point remains. We should be careful not to fetishize death or idolize those we didn’t care about while alive. I suspect that in the case of many celebrity’s deaths, that’s what happens. I don’t doubt that some people genuinely loved Paul Walker and I don’t want to diminish the value of his life or career, but I’m not sure many of the people who commemorated him after his passing took much notice of his work while he was alive.
I don’t suspect this was the case with Robin Williams. He may not have been the first on my list of favorites during his lifetime, but he found his way into all our lives and spun his magic, making them each a little bit more special. The old adage is terrible, but it carries truth; sometimes you really don’t know what you have until it slips from your hand. I didn’t appreciate Robin Williams enough during his lifetime, and now that he’s gone, I miss him. Although Dead Poets Society strikes me as somewhat heavy-handed now, the words of Mr. Keating and his favorite poets still ring true. Seize the day, he told us. Make your lives extraordinary. Robin Williams asked us what our verse would be, and in the process left us with one hell of a stanza.