Before anything else, Robin Williams was a street and stage performer, and he undoubtedly become one of the most influential and universally admired standup comics of all time. He not only stands shoulder-to-shoulder with titans like Bruce, Carlin, Pryor, Cosby et al. as one of the iconic innovators—the true inventers—of modern standup, he also rescued for a whole new generation the endangered tradition of the Great Clowns: Jerry Lewis, Red Skelton, Sid Caesar...and of course Williams’s comic progenitor and kindred soul, Jonathan Winters. But it is, for obvious reasons, his career as a film actor that I feel compelled to talk about here.
There were always those (myself, at times, among them) who looked askance at Williams the actor. Was he really an actor, or was he just an entertaining presence being captured on film? But then there’s this: Before his death, he had won an Oscar (he was nominated for three more), five Golden Globes, two SAG awards and two Emmys. So let the high-minded doubters chew on that for a while. It is certainly true that in Williams’s filmography overall you find as many commercial failures as successes, and at least as much mediocrity as greatness. But having said that, let’s take a quick peek at the highlights:
The World According to Garp
Good Morning, Vietnam
Dead Poets Society
The Fisher King
Good Will Hunting
How many actors can you think of who wouldn’t chew off an arm to have a list of credits like that? Take that together with a handful of minor gems (Cadillac Man, Moscow on the Hudson, One Hour Photo), some audacious if not exactly successful efforts (Popeye, Hook, Bicentennial Man), a bit of critically suspect but extremely popular light fare (Patch Adams, The Birdcage, Jumanji), and a long list of quirky supporting turns in unexpected places (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Dead Again, Shakes the Clown, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar), and what you have is a rather astonishing career in film.
What you also have, I think, is at least one key to understanding how hard it’s been for us as a culture, and me as an individual, to accept that Williams is really gone. Say whatever you will about his work or his professional choices as an actor, but there can be no doubt that, just as he did in his standup, he put all he had into it. He would, and did, try everything in his power to entertain. He left everything out on the field, and I think we understood that he did it for US. The voluminous posthumous commentary of those who worked with Williams has made it very clear that behind and within his improvisational genius and irrepressible exuberance was a spirit generous beyond all measure. What at times could look like an exercise in self-promotion was actually exactly the opposite of that. It was a constant, unstoppable flood of giving. He gave us everything he had, and in the end I think there is something in us that wonders if maybe he felt it wasn’t quite enough, and if maybe that has something to do with why he decided to go. That, I think, would break all our hearts. So perhaps we can’t quite let go of Robin Williams because we want one more opportunity to assure him that, yes, what he gave us, the vastness of his talent and the joy with which he offered it, was more than enough. It was more than we could have asked for. It was everything.
© 2015 dondi demarco