by Sam Bluefarb (September 2014)
[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…
—John Donne, from the Meditation XVII, (1623)
When the death of Robin Williams was announced last month, it came not just as a shock—which it certainly was—but something that had the force of a blow. Not only was the suddenness of it all so devastating, but the manner, a suicide by hanging, was almost impossible to accept.
Somewhere in the late John Horne Burns’ novel, The Gallery (1947), set in Italy during the Second World War, one of the characters asks: which is truer, a face that smiles or a face that cries? The question was put as a rhetorical exercise, for the “tragic sense of life,” (pacé Miguel de Unamuno) eventually outlasts the less profound and lighter moments, even though the two-faced icon, or masks, often displayed in theaters, gives equal billing to both the smiles and the tears. But incomparable comic that he was, Williams, even when his face expressed the insanity and the absurdity of the comic, underneath the wild and rollicking comedy, lurked a hint of something deeper.
In that sense, a fair number of his films have an underlying dark and depressed thread running through them. In Awakenings (1990) there is a melancholy rendering of the death-in-life existence of patients incarcerated in a mental hospital; they eventually die there. In The World According to Garp (1982), Garp’s domineering mother is assassinated, followed by the inevitable lugubrious funeral. In What Dreams May Come (1986) a couple lose their kids. But in time, the father (Robin Williams) is killed in an automobile accident. In The World’s Greatest Dad, (2009) the bizarre death of an only son propels the plot into a zany and grotesque resolution. Jack (1996) depicts a character (Williams) whose growth is accelerated at birth; and by age ten, the boy has the body of a grown man; its corollary: he will age fast and die early. It might not be entirely speculative, given Williams’ chronic depression, that he may have consciously or subconsciously chosen such scripts for those dark, funereal motifs: they may well have appealed to the actor’s depressed side—and even exacerbated it.
When the second shock came on the heels of the first—news of the diagnosis of early Parkinson’s Disease– it was even more devastating for me. I had never met the death of a “celeb”—that special label we reserve mostly for the Hollywood elite—with such overwhelming emotion: At that moment, tears flooded vision. Williams was no saint, any more than any of us is– something he would have been the first to acknowledge; but his generous bequests and charitable activities on behalf of the less fortunate, his USO tours; his identification with Jews and his support of a beleaguered Israel–all were legendary. Not for nothing did he dub himself an “honorary Jew”—a label that, in Robin Williams, fit so well.
Underneath the laughing, joking appearance was the reality of black despair, which testifies to his power not only as a comic, but as a consummate actor. In him we had the iconic Pagliaci—the clown who made us all laugh even as his own heart was breaking. There was always the hint of something deeper at work when he participated as an invited guest on late night TV talk shows—the hyper-activity, the clowning, the gags—perhaps meant to hide something more troubling.
I have seen only a few of his films. The one I liked best was Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). It is a tour de force of pure comedy flecked by moments of sadness; I liked it not so much because of the zany implausible nanny, played by Williams, but for the sheer virtuosity of contrast between the impish Nanny and himself as father and husband who could be both funny and serious at varying times. He played the part of Nanny so brilliantly, that neither his estranged wife nor the kids could recognize the father through the nanny.
At the other end of the repertoire was Williams’ performance as the desperate husband in the divorce court scene. It was a prime example of pathos about to touch the tragic as Williams, the father, begs the judge to allow him more liberal visiting privileges than the Draconian strictures the court is about to decree. The desperation with which he pleads his case seemed to go beyond “mere acting.” He becomes the loving father who would miss his kids so terribly that he’d do anything—even take the incredibly risky gamble of getting up in such a preposterous outfit. And all for the heartfelt need to be close to his kids. It is in that scene that I now believe Williams was not acting; he was living the part.
(Once in Doubtfire, when trying out various nanny parts, Williams acts out the persona of a Yiddish-speaking grandmother–her mannerisms, the accent, is so convincing that I stifled the need to suspend the need to “suspend disbelief” and began to suspect that Williams might indeed be Jewish, blessed—or cursed—with a Yiddish speaking grandmother in his pre-natal past.)
In all of the eulogies (good words) that came on the heels of Williams’ death, there was no mention of his politics (none that I was aware of). Not that there was any need for it. But even had there been, that would have beggared good taste. It would be safe to assume that Robin Williams, like much of Hollywood, was a liberal; but that never entered my mind; for unlike some Hollywood personalities who wear their ideologies on their sleeves, Robin Williams was no flaming standard bearer with a compulsive-obsessive Cause. And there hung his goodness; for whatever his politics, he kept them discretely apart from the truly good things he did for others. In that—not so much for his films alone, lies the truer, deeper legacy of his life.
Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.
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