Robin Williams' Brilliance Broke My Heart and Mended It, Again and Again
Celebrities are our Greek gods. We place them on their Olympus with great intention, collecting constellation stories from our stars, sometimes for a season and sometimes for decades. When life’s big events affect our players with marriages, births, deaths, addiction, tragedy, or crime, we take their stories in more deeply, and notice how their stories are woven fast against the cloth of our own lives. We look for ways to understand our own lives through theirs, because it can sometimes help us more than trying to look headlong into our own. They carry us through both our desire to know and our desire not to know too much, and they give us a common language to use to discuss these big issues with each other.
This common language is an amazing thing, the way our celebrities and their art can make it possible for us to share ourselves and create a culture with each other with clarity and meaning. Robin Williams was one of our biggest, brightest stars, holding tremendous capacity to illuminate our vulnerabilities and soothe them with both comedy and pathos, so this one really hurts. His life has been woven tightly to ours for decades, his suffering and death poignant and painful. This one really hurts.
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When our stars are gifted and prolific artists, we have even more spindles of thread to work with. When we talk about them, we are reminded of each piece of their work, and are instantly transported to who we were when we experienced it. When we talk about Robin Williams, then, we are talking about what we know of him: the proud father; the generous philanthropist. We are talking about all the issues he brings with him into the spotlight: comedy as an art form; addiction; relapse; mental illness; suicide. We talk about his art: the unique explosion of Mork; the memorable, improv-rich comedic sets; the breadth of his roles in Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, Dead Poets Society. His connection to the magic of childhood as Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, Teddy Roosevelt. And on and on.
Mostly, though, we talk about what all of that means to us. I think about who I was when Mork got me through lonely school weeks. How Mrs. Doubtfire made me believe that some men were, contrary to my personal experience, good fathers. How Ferngully, in which Robin Williams was perfectly charming as the voice of a bat, captured my then-young son’s heart so much that after many VHS viewings, one of Batty’s lines, “Gravity works!” became a lifeline catchphrase for our family.
Spill milk? Say Gravity works! in Robin Williams’ voice, and he is right there suggesting you laugh instead of crying. It works. Williams' magic, like gravity, works.
Sometimes it feels like we’ve grown up with a star because we have. I grew up with Robin Williams, and then later, so did my boys. His shows, performances, and movies mark milestones in our lives. We traveled along with him, as we do with other celebrities, as careers ebb and flow. We watch our stars, and in skillful, hard-wrought vulnerability, they let us into their light. They channel people and stories, and put handles on hard and wonderful things so that we can understand—or can bear living with that which we understand all too well. Robin Williams, exquisitely talented at dovetailing comedy and drama, major supernova star, gave us so much, for so long. Not long enough, of course, but for so very long indeed.
Last night, I re-watched Robin Williams in The Fisher King to be in touch with his art in the aftermath of his death. I also watched Hook and The Birdcage. I didn’t pick these films because I think they are his very best work. I picked them because each means something deeply personal to me. Hook reminds me of the years when I was a young mother in the early ‘90s, trying to find my way to becoming a nurturing parent while healing my own broken childhood, and while figuring out how to be an adult without losing my creative spirit. Robin’s Peter Pan helped. The Birdcage is always a needed, madcap celebration against the insanity of homophobia, and I’ve turned to it again and again.
The Fisher King, like the “it’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting, brings me back to the painstaking work I’ve done, and that I continue to do, to mend myself after life-altering traumas. I’d only seen The Fisher King twice before seeing it again last night, because it’s hard for me to watch, but I love it and it’s important to me. Robin Williams’ searing vulnerability is luminous in the role of Parry, a man who was broken by tragedy and is trying to find his way back to himself through love, connection, forgiveness, and service to the similarly broken. I remember being undone, ugly-crying in the theater, holding the story dear and letting it wash over the parts of me that were struggling at that time in my life with forgiving my mother for events in my childhood. What he did with that character was so brilliantly Williams: charm to disarm, then help break through viewers' armor to touch pain, heal, then mend it back up again. He did it to me with The Fisher King, and he did it again and again, directly or with the kind of laughter that makes you breathe a few inches more deeply.
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Watching The Fisher King again last night, I heard a line I hadn’t noticed before. Parry is tending to Jeff Bridges' character Jack, whom he saved from being beaten by men who harass the homeless. Jack is drunk and disoriented from the attack. In the morning, in Parry’s basement camp, Jack stumbles amid a flurry of activity and noise, trying to make sense of his confusion. Parry catches him—and, as he does, he says, “Whoa, gravity works!”
Hearing this made me cry, feeling the impact of his character’s care and humor, feeling the loss of Robin Williams, remembering watching Ferngully with my son, thinking of the catchphrase in my family, thinking of all of the actors and directors who have worked with Robin through the years—all of it. All of it. He was so present in his work, and his work was so present in my life. The line apparently wove its way from Robin William’s stage act, which discussed his substance abuse struggles, into The Fisher King, then later into Ferngully, and who knows where else as well. Into my home, for sure.
Robin Williams broke my heart and mended it, again and again, for decades. His death hurts. Gravity works, yes it does, hitting us like bricks, a law we should know to expect but that still catches us by surprise.
There is another scene, a beautiful scene in The Fisher King, that I’m going to carry with me in these days of hearing how Robin William’s life, work, and death is affecting others. In supreme defiance against sorrow and with tremendous hope for redemption, Parry strips in Central Park and dances, naked and joyful, while coaxing Jack to do the same. In a symbolic shedding of pain and an act of shocking and simple vulnerability, Parry talks about the magic of lying still beneath the night sky while willing the nighttime clouds to part. Robin Williams is naked in every way in that scene, full-frontal physically and emotionally, willing light to break through pain, and it is transcendent.
There are other works of Williams’ that I’ll revisit in the coming weeks, and I’ll see some of his work for the first time. It’s all precious now, in that way that death makes what is left behind shine or crumble. Some will offer great entertainment and distraction; some offer meaning and catharsis. I’ll read as people share memories, ideas, favorites from his immense body of work and as we continue to discuss all three important threads: his life and work, his death, and what it all means to each of us. All of this is good.
We’re bound to each have our our must-sees based on our our affections, timelines and connections, based on what we need to feel or what we need to talk about, and now watching again, thinking about his life, or discovering unseen works of his will give us new connection. Robin Williams gave us so much; one of the biggest, brightest stars among stars, may he rest in peace.
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