Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.
—Robin Williams as John Keating
In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) a prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams crouches like a quarterback in a huddle with his students, only John Keating’s not calling plays, he’s quoting Walt Whitman after telling the boys, “We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And business, law, medicine, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he brings in “Uncle Walt,” whose portrait hangs above his desk: “‘… of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’” After repeating the last line with quiet passion, Mr. Keating looks around at the faces of his students and asks, “What will your verse be?”
Of all the parts Williams played, John Keating may be the most purely inspirational, and, in the aftermath of his death on August 11, one of the most poignant. In Dead Poets Society the plot turns on the suicide of a student whose “verse” had been his dream of becoming an actor. As the reaction to Williams’s death last week makes clear, he had already contributed more than his share of passion and poetry to “the powerful play” when he decided that he could give no more.
Over the Top
The death of Robin Williams at 63 was a media event of remarkable magnitude. According to several reports in the New York Times, the news led to a 370 percent spike in mobile traffic, and hit website readership harder than any breaking story anywhere last week. In the immediate aftermath, the number of tweets about Williams spiked to about 63,000 a minute, and Steve Carrel’s 10-word tweet “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP” had been “retweeted” 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.
With numbers like that, there’s no doubt that the online hits on Williams highlights reached or exceeded the same level, from live full-length performances in theaters or night clubs, to appearances on Johnny Carson, to excerpts from his film career. All this instant fragmented access is in keeping with the nature of things in a brave new world where services like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube favor the parts over the whole. I’ve adjusted to the Age of Moments, which comes with the territory when putting together a weekly column with all the resources of the Net at hand. If you don’t own or can’t find DVDs of favorites like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, you can still zero in on special moments.
Watching Robin Williams’s stand-up routine can be exhausting. There’s a life-or-death desperation in the way he goes at it, as though laughter were oxygen and if he doesn’t breathe in enough of it, he’ll be in need of immediate medical attention. You can almost hear the adrenaline. Charlie Rose or Johnny Carson are lucky to get a word in with Williams firing off one-liners like a man possessed. When the venue is live, in theaters and clubs, all bets are off. The drunken Scotsman-inventing-golf routine bellowed with obscene in-your-face gusto in live performance gets toned down for Parkinson, England’s most popular talk show, where all is civil and conversational and guests are expected to go through the usual motions (say your piece, get some laughs, be charming, plug your latest). Unfortunately, you can’t mention “Parkinson” now without reference to the part the disease with that name may have played in Williams’s suicide. The fact that he’s already been posthumously linked to Parkinson’s indicates the scope of what he’d have been up against; in addition to the patronizing display of sympathetic head-shakings, knowing glances, and sad smiles, there would be wisecracks, sick jokes, and worse, notably in the blogsophere where the venom already being spewed on his daughter Zelda’s Facebook page was so vile that she had to shut it down.
The Poetry of Improvisation
Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) is the Robin Williams film I remember particularly enjoying, the one where his comic spirit could soar within the confines of a plot. It’s also a reminder of his USO visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he’d performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.
Williams talks frankly about keeping his improvisational genie at bay in a 1982 interview with Dallas talk show host Bobbie Wygant about his first film role as the title character in The World According to Garp. Asked if it’s true that director George Roy Hill discouraged him from improvising on the set, he admits as much, saying that it was good for him: “you settle into yourself and find things you wouldn’t have found when you’re going out.” One day Hill allowed him to let go, to make the point, “and then we had to get down to some serious work.”
Norman Lloyd, who plays the headmaster in Dead Poets Society, observed that Williams wasn’t his usual “manic” self during the filming: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Even so, the subtext of the lesson John Keating is so passionately teaching celebrates the spirit of improvisation that’s at the heart of Williams’s comic genius, which is put into instructive action in the scene when Todd Anderson, the painfully shy student played by Ethan Hawke, is forced to free-associate a poem in front of the class, with Keating circling him, coaxing him, making him close his eyes, giving him no room to escape from a plunge deep into his subconscious for something spontaneous and striking (it’s free verse in action). The sequence is launched by a rapidfire interrogation about the picture of Walt Whitman above his desk. “What does he look like?” “A madman.” “What kind of madman? Don’t think about it.” “A crazy madman.” “You can do better than that. Free up your mind.” “A sweaty-toothed madman.” “Good God, boy, there’s a poet in you, after all.” And on it goes, teacher and student moving in a kind of dance with elements of incantation and hide and seek, until finally the overwhelmed student is improvising on a madman mumbling about truth and “a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Keating persists, “what about the blanket?” until actor and poet come to life in Todd (and, you would think, in Ethan Hawke): “you push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it will just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.”
At this, the class that had been laughing at Todd’s discomfort cheers and applauds him. What you’ve witnessed isn’t just the frenzied creation of a free-form poem but an exercise in acting, with Weir as teacher behind the scenes, Williams as coach, and Hawke as student.
The Princeton Connection
Dead Poets Society was a memorable debut for Ethan Hawke, who graduated from the Hun School in 1988, the year before the film was released. And Hawke isn’t the only Princeton connection in Robin Williams’s life; one of his closest friends was PDS graduate (class of 1970) and fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. According to last week’s memorial statement from Reeve’s children, “He and Dad made each other laugh, and they stood by each other to the end. The world knew Robin as a comedic titan, but to our family, he was simply one of our Dad’s dearest friends. From the moment they were classmates at Juilliard, their friendship transformed into a brotherhood that was built on a mutual admiration for the theater, the arts and, most importantly, laughter. After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed.”
In Reeve’s memoir, Still Me, he recalls, “I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”
At Heaven’s Gate
When James Lipton, host of the interview series, Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked the ritual question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates,” Robin Williams’s answer was, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and someone of your choosing …. Or just to know there was laughter. That would be a great thing.”
After Williams’s death, Lipton said, “Great comedians have to be great actors. And what does an actor do? He reaches deep inside his soul … and brings out something deeply mysterious, a total surprise …. One of the greatest gifts he gave us was to spare us his suffering and to give us his joy …. In the end the one person he would not spare was himself.”