Last week, while I was seeking Lauren Bacall tributes online, I avoided my TV because I didn’t want to see any Robin Williams ones. The loss was simply too raw, too big for me to watch some summary of a man who slipped through any easy definitions. After all, it was this breathtaking versatility; best demonstrated in Good Morning, Vietnam; that I couldn’t face losing.
While I’m usually quick to attack the Academy for their humorlessness, I agreed with them that dramas displayed Williams’s most remarkable work. Who else could be so manic in humor, and then so quiet in pathos? So riveting in his energy, and even more so (perhaps because of it) in his stillness?
The actor’s sad scenes were the more so because you could feel the good humor bubbling beneath, the fact that this man was capable of very great joy. The first word that comes to mind with Williams is not funny, but empathetic. This man understood human nature like no comic I’ve ever witnessed, and any humor writer will tell you that truth is at the root of all good comedy.
The surprise of finally seeing the actor win an Oscar for Good Will Hunting was not at the Academy having snored through Good Morning, Vietnam (how else to explain Michael Douglas winning instead for his one-dimensional performance in Wall Street?). The shock was in recognizing that this guy should have been playing therapists all along.
My favorite Williams performance was probably in Awakenings. But I fell for him much, much earlier. It wasn’t in Mork & Mindy, in which his fevered acting was exhausting to watch, even for a little kid. I couldn’t take the show very often, even though I always did laugh. No. I fell for Williams in Popeye, the first film he starred in.
Williams is not very good in it either. But I fell hard for him for agreeing to take the role at all, and for having so much fun with it once he did. This spinach-eating cartoon character was always my favorite, and though I’ll admit to a vague horror on first hearing a human would be playing it, and in a musical, I was impressed with how completely Williams embraced the role. Such an unsuccessful campy movie I could easily dismiss, but for Williams as Popeye, even in a shaky performance, I felt a kind of awe.
One could argue that the actor was just beginning, that this was a role he could get. But that wouldn’t explain all of Williams’s baffling choices over the years, that sense that he sometimes took parts simply to avoid taking his career, or himself, too seriously. How else can anyone explain Hook? And as I mourn Williams, I don’t want to see his best work; it’s too easy to imagine in his depiction of every emotion the darkness that would take him from us. So instead, I’m gonna stick with his silliness for a while. I’ll rewatch The World according to Garp, perhaps The Birdcage, maybe even the batshit-crazy Shakes the Clown. And yes, I’m going to spend some time with the ever-mumbling, ever-smiling, greens-loving sailor man.