The Dichotomy of Robin Williams: Remembering a Dead Poet

Robert Tiemstra ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
It takes eight years for the light from a single star to reach earth. Any child who looks up in awe at the stars will find this out from a cynical adult one day. “You are not looking at living stars,” they will say, “You are looking on the light from a star long gone.” Our beloved idols, while they live, occupy a safe space in the back of our minds, safe from fear, doubt, or harm. Safe until they die. Only a few days ago, we felt Robin Williams an immortal, supplying the world with joy until he bursts free of his lamp and vanishes into the sunset. But now he is mundanely, frustratingly, tragically dead, food for worms.
When we think of “the career of Robin Williams”, odds are you have one of two people in mind: A giggling maniac, or a charming, soulful, father-figure. His career had the sort of dichotomy that few comedians have ever achieved: Both an Oscar-bait dramatic actor and a manic goofball who co-starred with a blob of green goo at one point.
Both sides of his career have equal merit – his cartoonishly comedic side at its best could produce comedy gems like Mrs. Doubtfire, and his more somber side lead to his Academy Award winning turn in Good Will Hunting. In the life of a comedian with such a diverse career, what performances are the ones worth celebrating? His career soared when he brought the two halves of his persona together, creating characters that are uniquely his own. Three key performances that define this unique character are in The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam, and The Dead Poets Society.
His earliest dramatic performance is something of a timid step, in the 1987 War-Comedy Good Morning, Vietnam. The film unleashes him in comedic overdrive, playing a comedian who comes to Vietnam to lighten the mood about that whole pesky war thing. He isn’t hit by the dramatic weight of the role until the third act, where the war finally intrudes into his personal life. It’s a loss of innocence of sorts, and it marks a brilliant turning point in Williams career.
Probably the most famous of these performances is in Dead Poets Society, where he uses his comedic improvisation most sparingly. In his characterization of John Keating, he channels what defines the most memorable teachers: a childish sense of fun. The most memorable teachers are ones who appeal to the fundamental urge to learn and become your own person – and that works best through humor. The power of this films most heart wrenching scenes are supported by the levity & outright fun Williams brings to the early scenes. It could not work without both sides of him.
However, the performance that epitomizes Robin Williams as an actor more than any other in his career is his turn as Henry “Parry” Sagan in The Fisher King. His character is a mad homeless man who genuinely believes himself to be a knight on a quest to find the holy grail (yes, in a film directed by a former Monty Python member). This starts off as a routine riff on Williams’ normal shtick – he monologues, makes silly voices, strips naked in central park – but there is something deeper (and in hindisght utterly tragic) about this performance.
In this film, Parry’s manic behavior is more than just comic relief. It is a coping mechanism; a way he deals with a tragic loss he suffered off-camera during the first act (the murder of his wife). Traumatized and alone, Parry would rather believe himself a silly knight than a victim of horrific violence. This is symbolized through his terrifying hallucinations – the most frequent being a Red Knight, a symbol of the horror he is trying to forget by being a fool. Uncomfortable parallels to Williams’ real-life struggle with depression aside, this is the performance that showcases the best of Robin Williams – both sides. A childlike madman with a soul.
2014 has been a tragic year for Hollywood talent – Philip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis made big waves when they moved on to the red carpet in the sky, but Robin Williams may be the most tragic loss of all because of how unique his talent was. He was a man of extremes. When he wanted to be funny, he broke our ribcages, and when he wanted to be dramatic, he broke our hearts. But, unlike the metaphor in this article’s opening paragraph, his light will be shining on us for much more than eight years.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying. And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.” – Dead Poets Society

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