World’s Greatest Fad?

In recent weeks, like many others I suspect, I have revisited the creative output of Robin Williams. I wonder what makes us do this, to re-experience a man’s life work following a sudden and untimely death? I did the same thing when Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away earlier in the year. I guess this is a way of paying respect to the great work that each man did…two people that put everything they had into their work, and ultimately the price they paid for being so open and daring and brave was their life.

So I planned on watching Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo and Insomnia again. Strange choices I admit, as I’m sure they weren’t his most commercially successful films, but I remember enjoying them when I saw them in the cinema all those years ago. I will admit, I was never a huge Williams fan. I remember watching his Live at the Met tape on VHS over and over as a child and being impressed by his manic delivery. I was too young to appreciate that his ridiculous energy was coke-fueled. I was more of an Eddie Murphy fan back then. Delirious and Raw were – still are – hugely influential to me. But I found Williams’ wind-up and let-rip style a little too much for me. It was good in small doses but it got old quick. So I was always more drawn to his dramatic roles. He was a fantastic dramatic actor, and I wish he took more roles that showcased this side of him.

Good Will Hunting highlighted a perfect mix of pathos and humor on Williams’ part. His portrayal of the sad psychiatrist was brilliant, and he earned a well deserved Oscar for his trouble. The film itself is kind of ridiculous in hindsight, and the notion of the boy-genius slumming it as a college janitor is comically bad to me. But Williams really brought it in his performance, and in many ways the film tends to flounder when he is not on the screen.

I haven’t gotten to the other two films yet, but I did watch one that was recommended to me by my brother: World’s Greatest Dad. I really enjoyed it. I thought the basic plot: a man covers up his son’s death by making it look like a tragic suicide rather than the reality (accidental death during masturbation), and then ends up becoming famous as a result. I loved the concept, and I agree with the film’s premise. I think that people don’t know how to react to death – particularly when the deceased is so young – and over-compensate by heaping praise upon someone that they had no time for when alive. I find this hypocrisy unfortunately all too common.

Add to the fact that Williams’ character – a failed writer cum high school poetry teacher – suddenly found acclaim through publishing a diary of his dead son that he himself penned was just brilliant and well handled by director Bobcat Goldthwait. When Williams’ character admits that his son died whilst wanking and that it was he that wrote the book and not his child, and then strips naked and dives into the school pool, I teared up. It was a genuinely touching moment. He was free. Unburdened.

It made me think about Robin Williams, the man. Here was a guy with problems. He experienced depression. He was unhappy. He seemingly had it all, whatever that means: money, loving family, successful career, respect of peers. But it wasn’t enough. I feel for him. Mansions don’t hug back.

What I noticed when the Williams’ death was announced was an outpouring of respect and sadness. People declaring that they “grew up” with him. They talked of roles that meant so much to them at particular points in their lives. And I get it. His performances touched a lot of lives. Someone on radio said that he never made a bad film, which was a silly thing to say. He made plenty of them, even he would admit that. To be honest, he made plenty more bad films than good ones. But that’s Hollywood. When someone dies, we heap praise on them because we don’t know what else to do.