Thursday, August 21, 2014

Robin Williams: What He Meant To Us


By now, you probably feel like you have seen it all. Since Robin Williams died on August 11th, thousands, if not millions of tributes have spread across the airways, the web, and everywhere in between. Heck, my Cinema Freaks colleague Lawrence Griffin already posted one here on this site (I encourage you to read it here if you have not already). So the question is, why do I bother? Why should a guy like me, who has seen only a fair portion of the man's full body of work, and is already far behind schedule on his other projects for the site (despite being in supposed semi-retirement) bother writing a post that has probably already been repeated too many times over the past week? Then again, why are any of us bothering when most of us did not even know him personally? What is it about Robin Williams and his untimely passing that has so affected us? I do not claim to completely know the answer, but if you are willing to indulge, I have some thoughts to share:

Of course, one part of it is the initial sock value of his death. Whenever someone even vaguely familiar to you departs this world, for whatever reason, there is this feeling of a void that can never quite be refilled. Few things, if any, are more permanent than death. When it comes in the way that it did for Williams - committing suicide at the relatively young age of 63 - the effect is multiplied tremendously. Still, many people sadly do this to themselves everyday - it has even been noted that Williams, as a middle-aged white male, was in a demographic known for committing suicide at high rates. Why does he get special attention?

One obvious answer is that Williams was famous. And not just somewhat famous - I mean iconic. He worked his way from stand-up to TV shows in the late 1970s (eventually landing his own series, "Mork and Mindy") before then going on to movies. And he never left. It has been pointed out that everyone has a different perception of Williams based on their generation. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers knew him from his stand-up, "Mork" and a handful of movies he did in the 1980s, while Millennials knew him for family-oriented movies he did in the 1990s and 2000s, like "Hook," "Jumanji," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Aladdin" and the "Night at the Museum" films. Some of his more dramatic roles in things like "Good Will Hunting," "The Fisher King" and "One Hour Photo" have also managed to bridge the generation gap. Some spots of his career where brighter than others and not everything he did was golden, but I do not honestly remember a time where people asked "Whatever happened to that Robin Williams guy?" That is because while some celebrities have their moment in the sun and then fade off into the sunset (i.e. join a reality TV show) it seemed like Williams was always up to something. Even at the time of his death, he had completed scenes for four movies that have yet to be released. No matter what, he was always there.

This leads to a follow-up question: why was Williams so famous for so long? His great range certainly helped. He will ultimately be known as a brilliant comedian. I regrettably have not seen any of his stand-up routines all the way through, but even from just seeing him in interviews, you are able to get a glance at this talent: his superhuman abilities to come up with jokes and imitations on the fly and with machine-gun delivery. The fact that he could do all this and make it the majority of it funny is even more of an accomplishment. But in addition, he was also able to actually act. It is very difficult for comedians to break into dramas, as well as for dramatic actors to break into comedies. At least later on in his career, Williams would decide to do either and no one would bat an eye; they knew that whatever goofiness he may display off-screen can immediately give way to sadness or even grittiness once the cameras rolled. I think he was able to pull off this transition because even in his comedies, he knew when to stop and savor the serious moments. I admit to being annoyed by this when I was a kid: "Why is he so sad? This is suppose to be a happy movie!" But as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate this more; life is not all together happy or sad, and it was great to have someone like Williams to show us both sides of the coin (in fact, my personal favorite movie of his is "Good Morning, Vietnam, " which I think does the best balancing act in this regard).

Life imitates art, and vice versa, and that seemed to be the case for Williams. Behind the cheerful demeanor was a man who dealt with alcohol and drug problems, was divorced twice, and suffered a longtime battle with depression. But as people have pointed out, he never let any of that define him the way it did with other celebrities. He would acknowledge it, joke about it, and then move on to something else. A great example of this took place less than a year ago, when he made what would be his last appearance on The Daily Show. He talked about how he started drinking again in 2006 after being sober for 20 years, while making one joke after another. That says a lot about someone who is able to make light of something that surely must have been a great personal tragedy. It may have worked too well - there is no indication that this was a man who would be dead a year from now. It just seemed like the same old Robin Williams that we have all knew and loved.

And that was the thing about Williams: no matter what, he always seemed to stay the same. Yes, he physically aged and he played different characters as his career progressed, but he never seemed to lose that child-like zeal, that burst of energy that would electrify the room wherever he went. On top of that, he remained a good guy. As I said, I did not know Williams personally, but I have yet to find someone who has said that he was a jerk or full of himself. The time and money he spent helping kids with cancer, entertaining troops overseas, or simply making Superman laugh again, seem to illustrate this point. There are many comedians, and celebrities in general, who have made a career out of playing jackasses. Williams would push people's buttons and lightly mock them, but he was rarely, if ever, mean about it. He only wanted to have a little fun, just like everybody else.

This last part might be the key to why we have felt so bad about William's death. Everything else I have mentioned before is valid, but one part seems to stand out the most: he was nice guy who would be fun to hang out with. No matter how miserable he might have been in real life, he never came off as removed or cold; if he did, it was because he was playing a character that felt lonely and desired a human connection. He certainly felt that way at times, but so do we all do at some point or another. More often than not, he was someone who wanted to be your friend, make you laugh, and have you feel good about yourself at the end of the day. So when we learn that someone like this was himself so unhappy that he chose to end it all, it just does not feel right. We think that he would be immune to something like this, that he can have stumbles in life but will always bounce back in the end. Life often does not have a Hollywood ending, yet no matter how many times we say tell ourselves this, we tend not to believe it. Williams proved otherwise, and it is not only sad, but almost heartbreaking.

So where does that leave us? Is there anything positive to get from this glum outlook? There is, and it is rather cliched but nonetheless true: our lives are better because of Robin Williams. He gave the world his unique talent and kindness, and inspired a number of people to follow in his footsteps. As sad as his death is, it does not take away from the great legacy he left behind. That message goes for both his close friends and family who really knew him, and those who just write a blog post about him to simply say "Thank you."

The pictures and links in this post do not belong to me and are not being used for monetary gain.