Saturday, August 23, 2014

Remembering Robin

Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014
When people commemorate the dead, they always submit that proverbial two cents’ worth. They couch their words with adjective and adverb, with a buoyant spirit that at once conjures for their listeners an image of the person being commemorated. All too often, however, words tend to supersede, glorify, or belittle the life of that person. That is inevitable. But then, there are those lives which scattered laughter and tears, and which no words can sum up. These were lives that wandered up high in their fields, and stayed there, at one point becoming the giants we knew they always had been. Robin Williams led such a life. Words pale before him. I can only try.

The man whose silence could be as riveting and revealing as his words was born in Chicago in 1951. His father was a senior executive at Ford; his mother, a model. The young Williams did not exactly spend an impoverished childhood, though by his account it was quite a lonely one. At school, at home, and very probably elsewhere, he was a shy lad, occasionally finding recreation by imitating other people’s voices.

That all ended when he entered Juilliard in New York, into a class that had Christopher Reeve as well. That was in 1973. Three years later, he left it without graduating. By that time, he had mastered what would become one of his greatest strengths in the career to come: an ambidextrous ability at imitating other dialects.

Williams’ career began with television. A brief appearance as an alien in an episode of a N.B.C. television series got him cast in a lead role in a spinoff series, Mork & Mindy. By all accounts, it was his launch pad, one which led to his performance being lampooned, imitated and featured all across America. Stints at various comedy specials and co-hosting an Academy Award ceremony would come. A career in film was waiting just around the corner.

Although his debut in the cinema was in 1977’s Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses?, it would not be until 10 years later that his landmark would come. This was Good Morning Vietnam, a film that has since become as linked with Williams as Edward Scissorhands has with Johnny Depp. As the wisecracking radio D.J. Adrian Conauer, he plied his performance with a blend of improvisation and comedy that remained his hallmark for nearly all his major performances. Not even an Oscar nomination could overstate it. Williams, with a face as malleable as were his accents and dialects, had become as lovable in speech as Chaplin had in silence. This was just the beginning.

Actors have their crests and troughs. Williams was no exception. He reached his heights with roles in Disney’s Aladdin (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Good Will Hunting (1997, which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Happy Feet (2006), all of them catching him in a twilight world between comedy and pathos. But then there were those ambitious failures, in Popeye (1980), Toys (1992), Jack (1996), Flubber (1997), and Patch Adams (1998, which Roger Ebert called a “quackery”). They were exaggerated, affected, and unforgivably so.

But Williams wasn’t just limited to comedy. He made up for his comic malapropos with those dark, untypical roles we found hard to associate with him. This was evident in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. As Walter Finch, the incongruously named serial killer parading as a writer, Williams found himself in a role that, like that of Chaplin’s as Henri Verdoux, teetered off to gritty authenticity, high drama, with only occasional glimpses into the comic frame that had marked out his earlier performances. Nolan never took him for such a role again. Neither, for that matter, did any other director, perhaps because they believed him incapable of ever being as amoral, as vice-ridden, and as harsh, as he had been in that film. Perhaps they were right.

To all those who grew accustomed to seeing Chaplin the benevolent Tramp at the opposite pole to Chaplin the adulterous Man, Williams’ personal life was not too much of a shock to get used to. He married and he divorced. He got addicted to cocaine. He was an alcoholic, and regretted his inability to become sober. Above all, though, he was prone to depression, that malignant trope which figures in the lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ingmar Bergman, and Jim Carrey. Williams was comedy in parts: outside these parts, he was another human being battling depression and despair. Perhaps the cocaine intensified that battle. In the end, he lost.

Williams may not have been the greatest comic actor who ever lived. Comparisons with Chaplin may even seem erroneous. But one thing binds these two luminaries together. Both displayed certain idiosyncrasies which, whether in lighthearted or realistic roles, stuck to them. Chaplin could never escape that malleable face of his, as pliable as wax under fire, even in his serious performances. Williams could never escape that twinkle in his eyes. It was there everywhere, whenever and wherever his characters found a momentary pause in the story, perhaps long after the climax of it had been done and dusted. In those eyes of his, I think, were to be found the secret to his charisma, his at-times inscrutable penchant for the comic, larger-than-life finesse he displayed in role after role: a microcosm of the actor in him. It was most beautifully caught in Spielberg’s Hook, where he was a grownup Peter Pan who returns to a childhood only he could have so delightfully portrayed as an adult.

I think I have written enough. My two cents’ worth is done. But before closing this little tribute to a man I grew up and loved growing up with, I have something to say. I remember a scene from Dead Poets Society, a film I remember watching in my adolescence with enormous delight. Williams was in it, in what I consider to be his best performance, as John Keating, the defiant teacher who inculcates in his students a love of life, poetry, and spirit. Towards the end, after the school authorities dismiss him, he comes to his class one final time to pack up and leave. The class is overlooked by the stern headmaster. Slowly, but eventually, Keating reaches the door after retrieving his belongings.

Suddenly a student gets up. “Oh Captain! My Captain!” he exclaims emotionally. Keating stops. And then, one by one, the rest of the class, deaf to the headmaster’s warnings, follow suit, until all that’s left sitting are some timid boys who had never sided with him. Keating looks at them all, eyes shining with that familiar twinkle, suppressing emotion. “Thank you boys,” he quietly says, “Thank you.”

Robin Williams was John Keating. He was also those boys. He lived a life we laughed at and cried at. For all those laughs and tears, may we be ever grateful. And may words, no matter how affected they may be, neither understate nor embellish that life he led. For, truth be told, no eulogy or epitaph will ever sum him up. I certainly hope that this remains so. May we then wish that it be that way. Always.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, August 17 2014