Robin Williams, who passed away on Monday, was agile, versatile, quick-witted and almost overwhelmingly boisterous. Energy seemed to flow from everywhere else into him and then back out again in a million tiny, disparate fragments. Even at his most serious, he seemed incapable of turning off the parts of himself that might come across as obnoxious or excessive in the wrong directorial hands. As a performer, he was like a rubber band perpetually on the brink of snapping. Last night, we learned what we already knew but couldn’t bring ourselves to talk about: that metaphor applied to his life as well as his art.
There was a time when I associated Robin Williams with the lowest common denominator of comedy movies. His most fallow creative period coincided with my early teenage years, when I was paying close attention to every week’s new movie releases without always interrogating the context of those releases. I read reviews of movies like RV and License to Wed, and I came to associate Williams with movies that seemed to come from a place of shallow crudeness.
I don’t think I was wrong about those movies, but I was certainly wrong about the man, as I now know and will continue to learn. I had actually encountered Williams years earlier as the voice of the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. Williams essentially invented the superstar animated performance with those dizzying volleys of improvisational mayhem. I remember that when I first found out Williams voiced the Genie, I refused to believe it until I went back and listened intently.
That’s the reality of growing up years after a man like Robin Williams becomes famous and earns the adoration of the American public. As with so many actors who have recently passed away, and so many more who will at some point in the near future, I’m playing catch up. I’ve seen Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, August Rush, Hook, Night at the Museum, Jumanji, Dead Poets Society, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the “Barney/Never” episode of Louie. I’ve heard him in Happy Feet, Robots and, of course, Aladdin. That list represents only a fraction of the actor’s impressive output. My ability to sum up Williams’ career is necessarily limited by my own failings as an entertainment critic who strives to be comprehensive but rarely succeeds.
It’s not my job to write as if I know all the answers, but I can relate my own experience. I was struck last night by the volcanic outpouring of affection and celebration of Williams’ work, and by the subsequent discussion of mental health issues that surrounded Williams for much of his career. Even as his manic performances distracted from the darkness lurking within, Robin Williams’ persona hinged upon the possibility that at any moment he might cease to be the barely contained spark plug of a comedian that he seemed so comfortable being. There’s a sadness to even his most sincerely joy-inducing performances, as when he stands on the table in Dead Poets Society or sits on the bench in Good Will Hunting. Happiness comes at a price.
Something about that juxtaposition of light and dark, which has been the origin of so many artistic achievements and personal tragedies, tapped into American culture in a way that few singular performers have managed to do. I tweeted last night that Robin Williams was a comedy brand unto himself. I meant that he was a true original, and an inimitable one at that. The unfortunate factors that led to his death are a reminder that every human being should strive to understand why other human beings might feel sad or lonely even when there doesn’t seem to be anything to be sad or lonely about. His performances are a reminder that for many people, “suffering for your art” is not just a cliche but a fact of life. That sacrifice animated Robin Williams’ career, and the promise of catharsis in even the most dispiriting circumstances will keep people coming back to him. He granted far more than three wishes in his 63-year lifetime and for that, we are grateful.