Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. We miss you already.
Robin Williams remains one of our most beloved comedians. From MRS. DOUBTFIRE to GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM to PATCH ADAMS, to ALADDIN, his comedy always brought laughter to our hearts. Even his lesser work was always so full of heartfelt comedy and attempts to make us laugh.
This is only a tiny part of what I will remember Robin Williams for. William’s talent wasn’t so much in comedy as it was in pathos via the mechanisms of comedy. Unlike a lot of comedians who come and go, Williams stuck with us in ways almost intangible, like a family member whose presence we could never really figure out why we missed. He was our crazy uncle who got along with us better than our parents, who we knew understood us even when our friends didn’t, who was probably Santa all along even after we figured it out.
Robin Williams knew the difference between making us laugh at a joke, and making us laugh instead of crying. His performances were always grounded in reality, comedy was his way of lightening the load, shining a light into the darkness. There was always something ever so slightly sad behind his smiles, like he knew how harsh the world could be and wanted to protect us from it for just a little bit longer. His dramatic performances showed this, from his psychopathic behaviour in ONE HOUR PHOTO, to his subdued craziness in INSOMNIA and beyond.
Two performances of course, stick out. His Oscar-winning role in GOOD WILL HUNTING, complete with his improvised monologue, proved he could act with the best of them, displaying more than just a fully encompassed understanding of humanity, but also a sympathy for everyone hurting with grief and needing just someone, anyone else who understood.
Watch the scene here:
In GOOD WILL HUNTING we see Williams as a therapist fighting over the soul of a boy he knows can be great but who can’t see it in himself. Williams doesn’t play his character at all as perfect, as a guardian-trope, or even as a typical mentor. Instead, he plays an equal. A friend. He completely does away with the conceited superior mentality so often associated with supporting roles and truly acts so much like a real person, you feel you’re his friend too.
My favorite role however, will always be in DEAD POETS SOCIETY. A deeply flawed movie with a heart of gold, starring Williams as a deviant professor who defies the rules and teaches his students to eschew convention and to “carpe diem: seize the day.” Endlessly parodied but never matched, Williams’ enthusiasm leaps from the screen into our own lives. Sure, at times he goes a little beyond his character when doing impressions, but behind it all lies that same empathetic understanding that allows him to transcend the limits of the screen and become a part of our daily lives. Williams’ message is so clear, so important, that he takes care to play it exactly as necessary. There is no faux acting here, no over-reaching aspirations of stealing the show, no arrogance. Just pure, simple empathy.
Williams may be gone now, but his legacy stands as one of the greatest entertainers. He could make us laugh, make us cry, make us do nearly anything he wanted, but he never lets us forget our humanity.