I didn’t even think about the moments I’m about to describe until I read the numerous articles surrounding Robin Williams’ tragic suicide. Everyone has been talking about their favorite Robin Williams’ movies, especially people my age who grew up with him and never realized just how important he really was to our formative years.
Williams’ filmography is like any other actor’s resume. He has some great films (Awakenings, The Fisher King, Insomnia, Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society – which I’ve actually never seen but I’ve been assured it belongs here) and some terrible dreck (The Final Cut, Bicentennial Man, Patch Adams, RV, Popeye - which I’ve actually never seen but I’ve been assured it belongs here). But Williams was always an exciting performer who was more versatile than people give him credit for. He deserved his Oscar and his death represents a loss of great talent.
But there’s more to it. The outpouring of grief I’ve seen is not the norm, even for a famed performer. He’s still dominating every conversation and every headline around the world – and there’s no sign that’s going to change. Compare the response to Lauren Bacall’s death. She’s had tributes, she’s had her fans talk about what she meant to them, and her death is also a sad loss of another great talent. But her death didn’t spark a national debate. Her death didn’t result in touching memories from performers across so many different mediums. Sad as it is, Bacall’s death will probably not lead to any great re-examination of her work. Her legacy was secured long ago. Everyone is taking a second look at Williams and his filmography.
I can’t speak for everyone. I can only speak for myself. And I think it has something to do with the fact that Williams was an important part of my childhood and what I saw in movies.
People often ask me what the first movie I can remember seeing was. I have brief flashes of seeing Beauty and the Beast in theaters, but I can’t remember anything about the experience. I do remember watching two films in particular and falling in love with the adventure. I could follow the plot and get the sense of excitement when the bad guy was defeated and the good guy found happiness.
Those two films were Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Disney’s Aladdin. And the thing that linked them together was Williams. I didn’t think about that at the time – obviously his Genie and Peter Pan were not the same to me. But I can still remember scenes from them even though I have seen the films in many, many years. I can remember the scene in which Williams’ Pan shot down a rival by screaming, “don’t mess with me kid! I’M A LAWYER!” And when he realized that he could still fly – what a moment! Still clutching his childhood teddy bear, he levitates at first, and then takes off through the clouds. Thinking about it now brings a smile to my face.
But I think the Genie is who really stuck with me as a kid. He was such a bizarre force – always talking and never repeating himself. I didn’t get all the jokes -how could a child know who Groucho Marx or Ed Sullivan were? How could they get the tributes he played to Rodney Dangerfield and Jack Nicholson? I didn’t laugh at those jokes. Mostly I remember laughing at that scene where the Genie blew a raspberry through his lamp and when he turned into a sheep to make a “baaaaahd boy” pun. I still don’t know everything that I’ve missed in his dialogue. But I could respond to it even at a young age. Williams was such a smart force that he could connect with everyone in his audience. There are not many performers who can say that.
Williams, of course, was the man who popularized celebrity voice overs in animated films. But there are no other performances I can think of that accomplishes quite what Williams did. Most famous actors are phoning it in when they take a voice over role. Williams didn’t. He used the opportunity as a canvas to do things that he would never be able to do in any other film. It’s taken me a while to realize just how brave and unique that film is for Williams.
And that’s the moments that make me realize there is something special about those giant moving pictures in those dark rooms. They can capture something about artists and performers that no other medium can capture. They can take risks and reveal the truth about our emotions in a way that affects the entire population.
Aladdin and Robin Williams was those things for a four year old boy sitting in that theater. Williams was a huge force that made me fall in love with movies as a kid. It’s something that’s continued for a long time. I guess I ultimately have Robin Williams to blame for where I am now. I can think of worse fates.
I close with this song that I had previously posted on my Facebook page. I didn’t say anything at first, but now I feel it reads as rather prophetic. Williams inadvertently stated exactly what his legacy would be. He’s right – we never had a friend quite like him. And I don’t think I realized it until now.