Rest in peace, Robin
I remember the thrill of his performance in Aladdin like few things from my childhood. I was five when that film came out, still at the age when I didn’t quite know or care about the difference between animation and live action. Animation seemed more real to me. It moved at the speed my mind did, created worlds like the ones I daydreamed about. And Aladdin’s Genie was THE unforgettable character from this world. His energy felt as alive as anything in a live-action movie. “Never Had a Friend Like Me” inspired both giddy awe and jealousy, as I wondered how I could acquire a friend like Genie in my own life. It’s easy for a film to pander to children. It’s difficult, truly difficult, to speak to them in their own language, which consists of an ever changing mix of colors and tones and feelings and, above all, heedless exuberance.
And so much of that was Robin Williams. Genie may have been visually created by animators, but the character needed Williams to provide the voice and, more importantly, the soul. When Williams put all his energy into a performance, it could sometimes come off as trying too hard. I like to think that he was simply moving too fast for any normal medium to keep up. Animation freed him from the shackles of performing in the real world. It was a perfect combination of character and performer.
Yes, Robin Williams was an essential performer to my childhood. I would grow up watching Jumanji, Hook, and Mrs. Doubtfire. I always felt a connection to his performances. Believe it or not, it was always something quiet and unspoken, an understanding of what he was trying to say as a performer. It’s too easy to say that he got typecast as playing a manchild in these films. It was the sense that was so much easier to convey through animation: that childlike sense of wonder and abandonment. I didn’t sense an adult playing dumb, but an adult trying to communicate to an audience that, for these films, was largely children. For me, he succeeded, more than any other performer.
He didn’t act in these films for lack of dramatic chops, after all. Time and time again he proved himself a stellar dramatic actor. Never more clearly than in Good Will Hunting. That is a film that has no business aging well, but it has thanks to the strength of its actors. Despite the screenplay Oscar that it won, Good Will Hunting’s script is far too full of indulgent flights of writerly fancy, verbose monologues that are exactly the sort of thing two twenty-somethings would write. The famous “baby seal” monologue exemplifies this. It’s the sort of writing that tries to convey too much on its own, as if forgetting that there will be an actor to do much of the heavy lifting.
But Williams nailed his monologue. Yes, the dialogue on its own is just all too neat a cutesy for me to buy being spoken by a no-nonsense Vietnam vet from Southie. It plays its hand- giving us a scene where Will is taken down a peg- too obviously. But Williams sells it. He takes a functional biographical laundry list and uses it to tell his character’s life story. Lines that would be awkward on paper are heartbreaking in his hands. It’s a deft and deeply human piece of acting.
The gulf between his chaotic comedic personas and his gentle dramatic ones was not as vast as it might seem. Either way, he trying to let the audience in to the world he was playing in, to let us share some of the fun. Sometimes that meant pouring all his energy into a performance, to try to make us happy. Sometimes that meant finding a person for us to latch onto in four minutes of dialogue, to reassure us that he would be there for us in this story. Yes, sometimes his performances could careen off the rails into a chaotic mess. But this is not judgment of an actor’s filmography. It is my attempt to come to terms with the immense sadness I feel at the death of a man I never met.
And I’m running out of things to say. Robin Williams is dead, apparently after committing suicide. It’s heartbreaking. I didn’t know him any more than any other celebrity who has passed away. But for an actor who made as many headlines for his failures as his successes, I feel a greater sense of loss right now than with any other celebrity’s passing in recent memory. I feel like I lost someone I knew. That, I think, was his gift as a performer, and perhaps why we who watched his films as children will remember him so fondly. At his best, he always made us feel included.
Edit: I accidentally cut out a line that left one of the paragraphs awkwardly phrased. This has been fixed.