Robin Williams was one of our most gifted character actors. His best roles revealed a nervous sadness that was too close, maybe, to the truth.
The best of Williams’ characters were broken people, trying to find ways to heal themselves. In Awakenings, Dr. Sayer is a loner and a timid man who seems to have no life outside his work. The next year he played another doctor, in Dead Again, who lost his license and went adrift: “OK, I slept with a patient or two. It’s not like I didn’t care about them. I loved being a doctor.” Late in his career, Williams specialized in overt melancholics, like the mourning professor in Good Will Hunting, the stalking, creepy Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo, or a father wracked with grief in World’s Greatest Dad. Even when he was funny, Williams suggested something darker underneath. His performance in The Birdcage is notable for the way it’s so out-of-place. Everyone else in the film is outrageous, over-the-top, absurd, cheeky: Williams, known as the most over-the-top comedian of his era, barely cracks a smile.
Of course, Williams was known for being funny. He was manic, a comedian, a clown, who started in the world of stand-up and made a cocaine-fueled transition to showbiz with the nutty sitcom Mork and Mindy. When I look around the internet, most of the obituaries I see refer to the hits, movies like Patch Adams, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I loved those as a kid, but not as an adult. His worst comedies always revealed a desperate need to entertain, to be liked, to draw laughs. When you watch the parade of impersonations in Doubtfire, Williams seems like the class clown in school, who just craves popularity.
That’s close to true. Williams craved something deeper. His best comic roles acknowledge this: they show the loneliness, the need to connect. Can there be any doubt that Good Morning Vietnam stars Robin Williams playing a depressive? Adrian Cronauer, radio personality: a manic improviser, spinning joke after joke without even pausing to breathe, entertaining everybody he comes across. I’ve known people who hate the movie because they think that’s all there is to it; they think it’s a crass Vietnam comedy. They couldn’t be more wrong. There are also people who believe that, because Louis Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World” over a montage of destruction, Good Morning Vietnam is a straightforward anti-war movie. That’s closer to the truth.
Adrian Cronauer (in Williams’ portrayal) is another lonely man, trying to escape a shell he built around himself. He desperately, even creepily, pursues a love affair. He befriends a local boy and is betrayed when the boy turns out to be Viet Cong: but the betrayal he feels is not patriotic. It’s personal. You can see it at the end of the film, when he seems to have lost something dear.
The movie reveals its hero’s manic comedy as a cover, a facade, for deeper needs. It’s a deconstruction of Robin Williams’ entire career.
Initial word is that Williams committed suicide, at the end of a life troubled by depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. It’s deeply sad–and it’s even sadder because we can see so much of his struggle on-screen. Williams’ career was defined by the weird split between performances that buried his pain in silliness and spastic joking, and performances which were as emotionally naked as anything by De Niro. They shared a screen in Awakenings, when De Niro played a medical patient revived from a vegetative state by Williams. It’s an underrated movie: both actors are at their most intimate and truthful.
At the end of World’s Greatest Dad, Williams strips literally naked. That’s something we don’t really need to see. But so many of his performances are things we need to see: they speak to human insecurities about belonging, about loneliness, about connecting with other people. The performances speak for that kind of person who finds seemingly simple things like love and trust more difficult than the rest of us do. They remind us of the way we too often let our public persona drift away from our true selves.
Robin Williams was an essential artist. He was a study in defense mechanisms–and in removing them to face the truth.
P.S. In 2013, Robin Williams did an “Ask Me Anything” interview on Reddit. One user asked: “i’m going through a bad time at the moment. Any advice for people out there like me who may be going through bad times themselves, for whatever reason?”
Williams answered: “Reach out to friends. They’re out there. And know that you are loved.”
Please remember that.