The Last Jedi is a Messy Masterpiece
Robin Williams was found dead in his home monday, at age 63. The cause of death, which has been declared to be asphyxiation, has led the media and public officials to speculate, but not declare, the nature of the death as a suicide. He is survived by his wife, Susan Schreider, and his children Zachary, Cody, and Zelda, the last of whom is, in fact, named after the video game character.
Williams’ death has been especially difficult on individuals from my generation; many of whom grew up with the man during the peak of his film career in the early nineties, which reached it’s largest success with the Disney movie Aladdin. William’s involvement with that film isn’t exactly a secret; his voice-performance as the pop-culture-spouting, often imitative (but never duplicated, he’s quick to point out), Genie stole the film, and helped launch it to worldwide success. This was, of course, hardly an introduction for the comedian, who had a television and stand-up comedy career reaching back to the late seventies; when he achieved international fame for his role as the lost extraterrestrial Mork on the Happy Days spinoff, Mork and Mindy.
William’s rise to fame culminated in his Oscar-nominated role in Good Morning Vietnam in the late eighties, which helped him transition into a lucrative and loved film career spanning multiple genres. In fact, so expansive was William’s career in entertainment that it’s hard to nail down exactly what he was; a stand-up comedian who enjoyed success in film, or an Oscar-nominated actor who occasionally did stand-up comedy. The simplest answer is that he was both, and more. He was an entertainer, in the fashion that very few are in modern Hollywood. A man whose presence, which could incite as much laughter as it could tears, could only be accurately described as Chaplin-esque.
On the one hand, his versatility as a comic star is borderline legendary, especially to audiences who were young during his most famous years. His work on Aladdin is the stuff of Hollywood myth. Originally, Williams was uninterested in the role, but eventually agreed after seeing test footage of the character mixed with some audio of his standup. In the end, he agreed to do the film for SAG minimum, but on the pretense that his name not be used in marketing, as he was trying to promote the Barry Levinson movie Toys at the time. Obviously, Disney reneged on this promise, much to William’s ire, but the marketing decision helped skyrocket the film’s success, and is credited not only for the man’s increasing film success, but the current popularity of celebrity actors and comedians in voice roles in film.
As for the performance itself, allegedly Williams improvised so much of his performance as the genie that the film was denied a Best Screenplay nomination. His slapstick and pop-culture humor would later also turn Jumanji and Flubber into successes, and Mrs. Doubtfire into a runaway classic.
But what caught the attention of many of his older fans was the surprising, sometimes shocking, depth of his dramatic roles. Indeed, Williams, in many ways, set a precedent for dramatic talent that has yet to be equaled in the rest of the comic community; although greats like Louis C.K. and Patton Oswalt have certainly tried. Just as easily as he could be funny, Williams could invoke sadness, anger, and even genuine malice, as he did in both One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s often overlooked Insomnia. In both these roles he did what very few comics, especially those with as much cross-generational appeal as Williams, have managed to pull off; genuinely frighten the audience.
But more than the anger, fear, and, perhaps, even humor; what Williams will most be remembered for were his more honest and dramatic roles, although with a man like him even the word “dramatic” deserves to be taken with a grain of salt. With his role in films like Dead Poet’s Society, Hook, and even the critically-maligned Patch Adams, Williams played characters whose purpose seemed to be to find the wisdom and necessity, and perhaps even pain, inherent to the comic relief character. It’s somewhat fitting that the role that earned him an Oscar was an entirely dramatic one. Indeed, the role of Dr. Sean Maquire, the hapless and pained, but patient and wise, therapist in Good Will Hunting, seems to come from a more genuine and honest note than nearly any other role he’s ever had. It’s no wonder that so many have turned to the lessons imparted by the character as an inspiration these past two days.
Much has been made about the demons and disorders fought by this genuinely touching and emphatically humorous man, and this is not unfair. His death is a sobering and humbling reminder about the realities of depression, and it’s effect on even the most seemingly blessed of people. However, in the end, most of what Williams went through in his final days is speculation; what can only be completely quantified is the effect he had on the world around him.
Speaking as a man who grew up hearing the comic’s voice give more animated life to a blue genie than any stencil or color ever could, and deciding nearly on the spot what he wanted more than almost anything was to capture that same magical humor, all I can say is that Williams was an icon that goes beyond simple comedy. His work captured so much more than humor, but genuine, living joy; he was a man who seemed more definitely alive than anyone else in the world, and determined to extend the same sense of childlike glee to anyone lucky enough to watch. He was an entertainment artist in the fullest sense of both words.
It’s sensible to speculate on what exactly was closer to his true soul; the tortured dramatic artist or the gleeful comedian, but the very nature of the question is missing the point of what he was.
He was Robin Williams, and there won’t be another one like him.