Not long before I heard the news about Robin Williams’ sudden death, I came across a cardboard advertisement of “License to Wed”(2007), which was somehow placed at my local theater for no apparent reason(this poorly received comedy film silently went straight to DVD/Blu-ray release here, by the way). I became a little depressed to see Williams’ cheery face in the advertisement because, as we all know, Williams was capable of many different things in his long career – and I wondered for a while when he would get a nice chance for another good performance.
Sadly, that is no longer possible now due to his death, but he has been recognized as a talented actor who could easily switch between comedy and drama since the very beginning of his movie career. I came to notice him for the first time in “Dead Poet’s Society”(1989) in 1991, and then he became a big part of my early movie years through “Hook”(1991), “Aladdin”(1992), “Toys”(1992), “Mrs. Doubtfire”(1993), “Jumanji”(1995), and “Flubber”(1997). I must tell you that not all of these movies were good, but they were more than enough for a young South Korean kid to recognize Williams as a fun actor to watch. As a matter of fact, I watched “Jumanji” and “Flubber” twice in a row, respectively(Yes, I was young, and I needed to be more enlightened at that time).
And then I came to see that he was not merely a funny actor as watching more movies. While he made a literally cartoonish debut with Robert Altman’s “Popeye”(1980), it was soon followed by his more serious performances in “The World According to Garp”(1982) and “Moscow on the Hudson”(1984), and then he found a perfect balancing spot between zany comedy and understated drama in “Good Morning, Vietnam”(1987), in which he immediately grabbed an ideal stage to showcase his rambunctious side at full throttle and then gradually modulated his performance into something more touching than expected at the beginning of the film. Although I have become less enthusiastic about “Dead Poet’s Society”(1989) than before, it goes without saying that his performance is still one of its best things, and the same thing can be said about his other performances in “The Awakening”(1990), “The Fisher King”(1991), and “Good Will Hunting”(1997).
After his Oscar win for “Good Will Hunting”, William’s career became less exciting in comparison, but there were two memorable films which let Williams fully expose and utilize the darkness glimpsed behind his bouncy comic persona, and he gave two of his best performances as a result. In “One Hour Photo”(2002), he played a shy, obsessive photo lab employee growing a very unhealthy interest toward one suburban family, and Williams was alternatively sad and disturbing in his bleached appearance which further emphasizes his character’s pathetic anonymity as well as pathological obsession. In the case of Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia”(2002), Williams was its main wild card for us, and he surely frightened us through his subdued but chilling performance as a smart, twisted killer subtly pressuring Al Pacino’s detective character to compromise for each own benefit. While “Death to Smoochy”(2002) was not very good in comparison and it may be one of Williams’ worst moments, the movie provided him at least a chance to operate on a more vicious mode than usual, and his mean-spirited performance was rather darkly enjoyable to watch to some degrees until the movie became a total mess in the end.
And it was around that time that I heard about his personal problems for the first time. While he has been frank about them, a number of articles written after his death give me a more detailed picture of his long years of struggle with addiction and depression. Like many gifted comedians, he had his own personal demons to deal with, and, according to the people close to him, there were several signs of him going down with another bout of depression before his suicide. He was indeed a classic example of the clown who cannot possibly cheer himself up as much as he can make others laugh.
Nevertheless, he was a very funny and gentle guy as remembered and appreciated by others, and he was always good at bringing us smiles and laughs. I still fondly remember how he easily made the audiences laugh at one point during the Academy Awards ceremony in 1998. I recently watched again a YouTube clip of Williams parodying John Houseman, his mentor who gave young Williams an important career advice during Williams’ early years at the Juilliard School, and his droll performance was as hilarious as I remembered. When his friend Christopher Reeve became quadriplegic after that unfortunate accident in 1995, Williams made a surprise hospital visit to Reeve with a comic disguise, and Reeve later recalled in his memoir how much Williams brightened up his mood(he also took care of Reeve’s children as he promised to Reeve).
As I thought about how to write this piece, I was reminded of that amusing word “Under Toad” from “The World According to Garp”, a misheard version of undertow. Robin Williams was caught by his own Under Toad of which he had probably been well aware throughout his life, but he tried to go on, and he was still working even while he was approaching to the point of no return. It is really sad that this colorful entertainer is taken away from his life and audiences forever, but, considering how good comedians can find humor even in the most miserable human experiences, I guess he is probably making jokes about his death now, if afterlife exists as some people believe. After all, this is a man who made a joke about his GPS which tried to lead him to the Golden Gate Bridge: “I said, ‘Why? Have you seen my movies recently?'”