Ever since Robin Williams took his own life on Monday August 11'th I've been struggling, rather vainly, to process this. Not since we lost Jim Henson have I been so completely and utterly crushed by a celebrity death.
Like so many other people my age, I first became aware of Robin Williams back in 1978 via Mork & Mindy. I was only eight years old at the time. To a kid, Robin was a hyperactive genius. Kids like THINGS THAT GO FAST and Robin was the Speedy Gonzalez of comedy. Often you'd find yourself laughing hysterically at one of his shticks, scarcely able to breathe before you realized that he'd already said three or four other impossibly funny things. Every time I sat down to watch a new episode of the show I took my young life in my hands.
My parents were immediately put off my him, probably because they thought that all of that energy couldn't possibly be generated by one human being without the aid of chemicals. But to me he was always the alpha and omega of funny.
His first lead role in a film, as the squinty, spinach-obsessed titular hero in Popeye, didn't exactly endear him to critics. As far as I was concerned it was a box office smash. I can distinctly remember going to see it at our local Harmon Theatre and being tuned away because the lineup was too long. I never did go back to the cinema, and to this day I've never seen it from start to finish. This is a personal deficit that I will endeavor to rectifying post-haste.
His next two films, specifically Moscow on the Hudson and The World According to Garp polarized fans and critics alike. As a Juilliard-trained actor, it was pretty clear that Robin was trying to make smart choices and expand his repertoire. Unfortunately, for the average slack-jawed troglodyte who just wanted to see Mork copied and pasted into everything Williams did, they didn't want to see him do anything "different" or "serious". Jim Carey would suffer from the same pall years later.
Mercifully Robin managed to strike the perfect balance in 1987 with Good Morning Vietnam.
This was the ideal cinematic venture for Williams. Bringing his own manic interpretation to his portrayal of real-life U.S Armed Forces Radio Services D.J. Adrian Cronauer, the film also mined plenty of social commentary inherent in the spate of Vietnam War movies which were in vogue at the time. All of a sudden Williams was THE HOTNESS again.
Now on the top of the world, Robin had the pick of the litter when it came to scripts. His next film, Dead Poet's Society, was undoubtedly one of the best roles:
Thanks to a brief but memorable appearance as The King of the Moon in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen just two years prior, Robin forged a timely relationship with former Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam. Partnered with the perfect straight man in the form of Jeff Bridges, the three delivered Gilliam's most even and satisfying movie to date: The Fisher King.
Williams was so popular with moviegoers his career seemed insulated against failure. Even when Steven Spielberg's Hook famously bombed in 1991 he rebounded one short year later with a characteristically improv-a-licious vocal performance as the Genie in Aladdin.
Robin was still being offered plenty of A-list material so he had no problems bouncing back from the occasional dud. For every Toys, Jack or Flubber there was an Awakenings, a Jumanji, a Mrs. Doubtfire or a Birdcage. In 1997 wunderkind screenwriters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon saw their script for Good Will Hunting get fast-tracked when Williams signed on to play Dr. Sean McGuire. This proved to be a shrewd move for Williams since his performance in that film earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
But just like everything else in Hollywood, what goes up must invariably come down. After his Oscar win, things seem to peter out a bit for Williams with a string of forgettable movies. As if sensing that he had nothing to lose, Robin took on his most daring and challenging role to date: that of the socially-crippled stalker Seymour "Sy" Parrish in the tremendously unsettling One Hour Photo.
Except for a memorable supporting role in Night at the Museum as Teddy Roosevelt, from that point on Williams was largely relegated to a string of disposable "comedies" like RV, Father's Day, License To Wed and The Big Wedding. His constant breakneck pace of making anywhere from one to six (!) movies a year seems rather telling to me. Was he a slave to public attention? Did he have addictions to feed? Was he a chronic workaholic? Did he fear obscurity if he didn't keep cranking out at least one movie a year, regardless of quality? Or he just feel as if he was running out of time?
Considering the high quality of his previous roles, I'm sure that Robin must have looked at the scripts he was being offered as a fifty / sixty year old actor as a step backwards. A recent failed trip back into the ghetto of mediocre network television must have been particularly galling.
On the surface Robin was such a happy, ebullient and positive person critics probably though that he was completely immune to their barbs. Whenever one of his films didn't live up to expectations, Robin often bore the brunt of critical wrath. Here's a particularly catty review by Peter Debruge in Variety for The Angriest Man in Brooklyn:
"It’s movie night, and you can choose between crazy-shouty Robin Williams (think The Fisher King) and blubbering feel-good Robin Williams (like the one who discovers his son, dead from autoerotic asphyxiation, in World’s Greatest Dad). Which would you prefer? Trick question! In The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, you can have it both ways, as Williams plays the human equivalent of a bulging forehead vein who learns he has 90 minutes to live and spends the rest of the movie making amends, like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol. Most auds will prefer have no Robin Williams at all."
But it wasn't just a career dip that killed the comedy genius. He'd been down many times before and stormed back from darker places. No, I think that the reason he's no longer with us is a lot more clinical and chronic then that.
As a kid the very concept of suicide never once crossed my mind. Even during my loneliest, most awkward times I could derive a tremendous amount of happiness from the simplest things in life. Plus, I always felt surrounded by people who loved and supported me, people who would be gutted if I were suddenly gone. But the older I get the more the concept of voluntarily opting out starts to make the tiniest smidgen of sense.
In the movie The Weatherman (not starring Robin Williams, co-incidentally, but Nick Cage back when he obviously had more discriminating taste in scripts) the main character of David (!) Spritz (!!!) is a frustrated writer who falls back into a lingering, unwanted career as a locally-derided weatherman. At one point he observes:
"I remember once imagining what my life would be like, what I'd be like. I pictured having all these qualities, strong positive qualities that people could pick up on from across the room. But as time passed, few ever became any qualities that I actually had. And all the possibilities I faced and the sorts of people I could be, all of them got reduced every year to fewer and fewer. Until finally they got reduced to one, to who I am. And that's who I am, the weather man."
Now, depending on your outlook on life this is either very life-affirming or one of the most depressing things you'll ever read. I tend to subscribe to the later interpretation, especially in light of this particular quote by Tyler Durden in Fight Club:
"We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."
This life-long process of disappointment begins as soon as we hit adulthood and the realistic options of what we can be and do immediately starts to shrink. Then, as soon as we hit age thirty, the options get pared down again. Then, with each and every passing decade, our modern society tells us that the seemingly infinite number of choices we had as kids has now been whittled down to just a few. Or worse: only one.
I've written before about how society is less then kind to people of seniority. We live in a culture that worships youth and age discrimination is the last bastion of socially acceptable discrimination. On his current press junket for The Expendables 3, Sylvester Stallone seems to be getting an inordinate amount of "Hey, aren't you too old for this?" or "Why the fuck haven't you retired already?" questions. Who gives a shit, I say? If you don't want to watch a film starring a bunch of older actors then don't go see it. Why question his right to keep doing what he wants to do?
Robin endured a birthday recently just one day after my own and I can tell you right now: nothing makes a person more depressed than society as a whole trying to convince you that your best days are behind you. The really scary thing is that, in my estimation, Robin is one of the lucky few who "made it". He appeared to be financially solvent and he'd obviously made a slew of memorable movies that made him universally adored and effectively immortal.
Which inspires the scariest question of them all: if someone like Robin Williams can't survive seniority then what hope do any of us have?
Which is why I want to ensure that everyone who reads this doesn't harbor such thoughts for even so much as a second.
The bottom line is that Robin was struggling with illness, both mental and (as we just learned a few days ago) physical as well. Clearly he wasn't healthy and all of his high-profile connections and financial resources couldn't help him. If you've ever been unfortunate enough to lose someone to suicide you know how inevitable it can feel sometimes. A constant battery of support and treatment is needed just to keep these people alive, let alone permanently banish thoughts of self-harm from their heads. Which inspires another question: did Robin's chemical dependency deepen because of depression or was it just an effort to self medicate the chemical imbalance out of his own brain?
But here's the real truth: most of us arrive at age sixty-three or some other major milestone feeling challenged and sanguine but otherwise fairly upbeat. If you, Gentle Reader, like Robin, find yourself constantly wrestling with inescapable thoughts of downward spirals or a sense of inevitable finality that you can't overcome, then seek help now.
Remember: as dark as things look right right now the paradigm can shift and with it comes new and exciting possibilities.
Because even one new option is better then none.
EPIC HELP There are a lot of great organizations out there to help people in crisis. S.A.V.E. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) is looking for a silver lining in this tragedy by trying to increase awareness about this very serious mental health epidemic.
EPIC DOC If you don't believe that suicidal folks feel crushed by constant feelings of inevitability then you need to watch this amazing documentary. Then again, you may not if only because it's incredibly heart-breaking.
FAIL-URE OF WORDS This short poem I wrote a few years ago seems to apply. But only just so...
It is a wise invention
that we leave in generations.
Heroes and icons we come to regard as immortal
age and blaze a trail for us.
And make the inevitable passing
a little more tolerable.