I had never seen Dead Poets Society before, so I figured the death of Robin Williams was as good an occasion as any to catch up. Better 25 years late than never, as they say.
As most people already know, the movie is about an English teacher at a prestigious and extremely conservative prep school who causes all hell to break loose by introducing such heretical concepts as thinking for oneself and pursuing one’s own happiness, which he does through such exercises as reciting poetry and standing on his desk.
I must say I was slightly underwhelmed by the film, owing largely to the fact that every adult character other than the teacher is a one-dimensional scoundrel, from the principal who extols “tradition” at all costs to the father who thunderously forbids his son from pursing his dream of being an actor. On the question of whether unbridled individuality is a sin or a virtue, you might say Dead Poets Society stacks the deck.
Nonetheless, it is quite easy to understand why John Keating, the teacher, is among Williams’ most beloved movie creations, and why the principles he espouses are still so widely quoted today.
In an imperfect movie, Keating is perhaps the quintessential Williams character, insomuch as he reflects the credo by which Williams himself conducted his public life. In keeping with the film’s signature proverb, he was a man who, in every conceivable manner, seized the day.
Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. He didn’t seize the day so much as grab it by the scruff of the throat and throttle it to within an inch of its life.
Robin Williams was a comedic anarchist, and oftentimes the world didn’t quite know what to do with him. That he was so widely admired all through his career is a credit first to his singular abilities as a performer, and second to the sensibilities of his audience.
The secret to Williams’ appeal is the same as that of Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, George Carlin and Zach Galifianakis. It’s the ability and the willingness to purposefully break the rules, and to not be afraid of authority figures who might stand in your way. To violate every taboo in the book, if only for its own sake, knowing that no joke is funnier than the one that is not supposed to be told.
All comedy is subversive, but Williams’ comedy had the added virtue of being utterly uninhibited. Once his mind started churning and his lips started flapping, there was no way to stop him. He was in his own world. A natural force.
He became most widely known through his movie career, but stand-up was always and forever his natural habitat. It was the place where he could let loose with absolutely no restraints. On an empty stage, a comic has no particular limits on time, subject matter or taste. As much as anyone can, he can say and do whatever the hell he wants. In Williams’ case, the results were often sublime.
In his movies, not so much.
For all the joy his best comedic film performances brought—Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage and Aladdin must be included on any such list—there was ultimately something incompatible between Williams’ act and the film medium itself.
With exceptions (I’ll come to the biggest one in a moment), Williams’ singular wit did not explode into full metal funny on screen the way it did on stage.
The most succinct explanation for this, as I suggested at the top, is that few writers and directors were able to keep up with him. He was far cleverer than they were, and in practice this meant one of two things. First, that he was saddled with mediocre scripts that he was forced to plod his way through; or second, that he was given free rein to improvise and do his own thing, often resulting in an implausible or disjointed narrative. (To wit: How terribly convenient that he always managed to play someone who had a gift for impersonation, regardless of whether it had anything to do with the plot.)
Movies are ultimately about story and character, and no-holds-barred stand-up comedy does not naturally lend itself to either. Williams was the most enjoyable when he was totally unrestrained, and yet movies, by their nature, require restraint at least some of the time. (Even a handful of Marx Brothers movies were polluted by irrelevant romantic subplots.)
The one time Williams managed to square the circle—that is to say, the one time his talents were put on full display without being compromised—was in Good Morning, Vietnam. Directed by Barry Levinson in 1987, the movie is about an American radio DJ in Saigon who dares to introduce irreverence and rock ‘n’ roll onto military airwaves. Naturally, this leads to his being regularly harangued by his superiors, who would love nothing more than to yank him off the air, except that he is just too bloody popular.
If that sounds like the perfect Robin Williams role, that’s because it was. It gave him carte blanche in his choice of stand-up material—a radio show is pretty darned close to an empty stage—and it provided the authority figures for him to push back against.
However, Good Morning, Vietnam went even deeper than that, by following Williams’ character, Adrian Cronauer, beyond the radio booth and into the war itself, suggesting in the process that, for all his confidence and bluster on the air, he is actually a far sadder and more compassionate person than he would ever wish to let on. In a key scene deep into the film, he finds himself yukking it up with a group of soldiers, addressing them one-by-one as if they’re guests on his program, and we realize that his mighty grin is a mask. That the welling in his eyes are not necessarily tears of joy.
Cronauer was, in the end, probably the closest Williams ever came to playing himself. It’s a tragedy that this should be so, but it sure was fun while it lasted.