Many significant film personalities have passed away since I started this website. I have only written about two of them: Roger Ebert and Peter O’Toole. I forewent a post about Philip Seymour Hoffman (perhaps the best actor of the last decade), as well as Joan Fontaine (whose roles in Letter from an Unknown Woman and Rebecca have lasted with me as few roles ever have). I also didn’t write about the great Shirley Temple Black, which was perhaps my biggest mistake, because her service not only to cinema but to the United States of America and its citizens was invaluable. I also didn’t write about the master-critic Andrew Sarris, the father of auteur theory.
All of these deserved a tribute on this site, but I never felt compelled to sit down and write about my feelings after having heard of their passing. I think that the reason why I did write about O’Toole and Ebert was because they meant so much to me personally. Ebert—in a very literal way—introduced me to movies. O’Toole pushed me to newfound appreciation of the dramatic arts and literature. Really, my love of Shakespeare has much to do with him. While I mourn the passing of people like Hoffman, Fontaine, Temple Black, and Sarris—people whom I deeply respect and admire and whose talents have influenced me greatly—their passing didn’t compel me to the solace of writing. I didn’t really need catharsis. However, I think I need it now.
I don’t think that the passing of any secular celebrity (I stress the word secular) has had such an impact on me as has the death of Robin Williams. I have been, over the course of the last twenty hours, legitimately sad. I feel like a friend has left me; I think a lot of us do. Robin Williams has been a part of my life since I was a little boy. When I was two years old, my father held me in the side hallway of a movie theater while I cried during Aladdin. When I was a child, my cousins and I would sit in the cabin-themed upper room of my grandparent’s house in southern Idaho and watch Hook. It was a movie that never got old to me; I remember watching it with my friends in an unfinished basement in Minnesota. To this day, it remains one of my guilty pleasures. I watched Patch Adams in my high school anatomy class, Dead Poets’ Society in my psychology class. I remember seeing him as an alien named Mork watching Happy Days one day with my mother. I remember watching Mrs. Doubtfire with my dad; now, watching it as a father, I can see just how much that role means to dads everywhere. Even watching FRIENDS with my wife-to-be while in college, and seeing him and his long-time friend Billy Crystal cameo in what might be the funniest sequence in the show’s history, Mr. Williams was always there. He has been in my life since I was a child. He connected with me as a kid. As I got older, he stuck with me. I recently watched him perform his famous 1986 act at the Met. Even now, as I’m getting older, he still had it.
Was Williams as good an actor as men like Peter O’Toole and Philip Seymour Hoffman? No. He wasn’t even as good an actor as some people will likely claim in the next twenty-four hours. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t great. He had a special way of performance, an almost neurotic approach to his dramatic roles, and an incomparable mastery of comedy. We all know what I am talking about. He had a pace so intense we would be lucky to keep up. Directors would often let him go, film him for a couple hours, and then splice comedic montage footage later. He was a master of the quick word and the quick mind; whether written beforehand or made up on-the-spot, he was as good as any of the virtuosos of the 30s and 40s. As much as people will laud his method acting in dramatic roles like Dead Poets’ Society and Good Will Hunting, his best roles always were and always will be those comedic masterworks. Even in the aforementioned dramas, those comedic moments were what defined the depth and personality of his characters.
I was looking around today at old reviews of some of his best works, and the first one I looked up was Roger Ebert’s review of my personal favorite Williams film, Good Morning Vietnam. Considering the fact that Ebert is another of whom I have written a sad tribute, I feel that is only fitting that I give him the floor. I know it’s strange to give such a large chunk of my tribute to the words of a movie review, but this is a movie blog. And movies, as an art form, let us in to the hearts and minds of their makers. And I think that Williams’ best movie does the best job of showing us his best self.
From the Roger Ebert website, review dated 1988:
“Like most of the great stand-up comedians, Robin Williams has always kept a certain wall between himself and his audience. In concert, he tries on a bewildering series of accents and characters; he’s a gifted chameleon who turns into whatever makes the audience laugh. But who is inside? With George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, we have an idea – or think we do. A lot of their humor depends on confessional autobiography. With Williams, the wall remains impenetrable. Like Groucho Marx, he uses comedy as a strategy for personal concealment.
Williams’ best movies (“Popeye,” “The World According to Garp,” “Moscow on the Hudson”) are the ones where he is given a well-written character to play and held to the character by a strong director. In his other movies, you can see him trying to do his stand-up act on the screen, trying to use comedy to conceal not only himself from the audience – but even his character. The one-liners and ad-libs distance him from the material and from his fellow actors. Hey, he’s only a visitor here.
What is inspired about “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which contains far and away the best work Williams has ever done in a movie, is that his own tactics are turned against him. The director, Barry Levinson, has created a character who is a stand-up comic – he’s a fast-talking disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio during the Vietnam War, directing a nonstop monologue at the microphone. There is absolutely no biographical information about this character. We don’t know where he comes from, what he did before the war, whether he has ever been married, what his dreams are, what he’s afraid of. Everything in his world is reduced to material for his program.
Levinson used Mitch Markowitz’s script as a starting point for a lot of Williams’ monologues, and then let the comedian improvise. Then he put together the best parts of many different takes to create sequences that are undeniably dazzling and funny. Williams is a virtuoso.
But while he’s assaulting the microphone, Levinson is doing something fairly subtle in the movie around him. He has populated “Good Morning, Vietnam” with a lot of character actors who are fairly complicated types, recognizably human, and with the aid of the script they set a trap for Williams. His character is edged into a corner where he must have human emotions, or die….
…I know there are other ways to read this material. “Good Morning, Vietnam” works as straight comedy and as a Vietnam-era “MASH,” and even the movie’s love story has its own bittersweet integrity. But they used to tell us in writing class that if we wanted to know what a story was really about, we should look for what changed between the beginning and the end. In this movie, Cronauer changes. War wipes the grin off of his face. His humor becomes a humanitarian tool, not simply a way to keep him talking and us listening.
In a strange, subtle way, “Good Morning, Vietnam” is not so much about war as it is about stand-up comedy, about the need that compels people to get up in front of the room and try to make us laugh – to control us.
Why do comics do that? Because they need to have their power proven and vindicated. Why do they need that? Because they are the most insecure of Earth’s people (just listen to their language – they’re gonna kill us, unless they die out there). How do you treat low self-esteem? By doing esteemable things and then saying, “Hey, I did that!” What happens to Williams in this movie? Exactly that. By the end of the film, he doesn’t wisecrack all the time because he doesn’t need to. He no longer thinks he’s the worthless (although bright, fast and funny) sack of crap that got off the plane. In the early scenes, the character’s eyes are opaque. By the end, you can see what he’s thinking.”
Robin Williams was insecure. His depression, ultimately, killed him. But through his comedy and his acting, Williams tore through that wall and reached our hearts. I hope that, in the course of his mental struggles, he occasionally saw the light that he brought to people. He did plenty of “esteemable” things. He realized in many of his roles, that he didn’t have to wisecrack all the time. I really hope that, at least some of the time, he didn’t think he was worthless. It is a great tragedy what depression can do to people. It can blind them to the worth that they have to the people close to them. Robin Williams, ultimately, was not able to see just how much we loved him. But that doesn’t change the fact that we did.
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