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Our Robin Williams



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It’s very moving to see the outpouring of appreciation for the late Robin Williams. Williams, who died last night in an apparent suicide in his Marin County home, had a particular connection to National Review, having done a crackerjack impression of founder William F. Buckley that ended up with Buckley’s signature manner being immortalized in the Disney film Aladdin.

That Aladdin bit was an outgrowth of a more extensive WFB Williams did in a Saturday Night Live parody of Firing Line, which doesn’t seem to be available online anywhere*, though there is a transcript here. Also not online is a devastating impression of Williams himself by Martin Short on SCTV — which got to the heart of what was not only brilliant in Williams’s free-associating japery but also, it must be said, maddening. Comedians inflict themselves on people, and it’s not an accident that the definitions of success and failure in standup — either you kill or you die — presume that the audience is a mortal enemy. Williams massacred audiences by putting the comic’s neediness on non-stop display, packing the routine with a billion one-liners that left no time for punch lines to sink in, completely throwing out the advice Leo McCarey (allegedly) gave to the Marx Brothers: “Half the jokes would be twice as funny.”

I am old enough to remember when Williams hit, and the experience was pretty fantastic: He proved he was the funniest person in America, then he proved it again, then he kept on proving it. You laughed and laughed, and at some point you hoped it would stop. It was of its time, in the era of Andy Kaufman and Steven Wright and Bill Murray and even the early David Letterman: specialists in dead air, amputated punchlines, deadpan vacancy and other forms of anti-comedy. Williams hit you with so many funny lines it began to feel like assault. He made you feel personally responsible for whatever was bugging him.

The circumstances of his death certainly indicate he never worked that out. Killing yourself is at the same time the most powerful statement you can make and a total silence. A lot of commentary today focuses on how he never quite translated his genius into a palatable form — the presumption being that his manic inspiration couldn’t be contained in an entertainment for regular people. My friend David Edelstein writes at Vulture.com:

What hurts most about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams is that as much as he achieved, he died in his own mind unfulfilled. And to an extent, he was unfulfilled — he never found a form that would capture the genius of his stand-up act or his early appearances on The Tonight Show, when his mind worked faster than anyone alive and very possibly dead, when he seemed to be channeling a fleet of circling UFOs containing the galaxy’s best comedy writers.

I don’t know about that. You could say anybody had unfulfilled potential, that Haydn might have written 208 symphonies instead of only 104. But Williams had a bazillion-dollar movie career, and it’s packed with fantastic performances. Most people in Hollywood would kill for a career that only included, say, his tic-filled title role in Popeye (which by the way captures the Max Fleischer cartoon Popeye in a way no actual human should have been able to do), the fully dramatized display of his standup mania in Good Morning, Vietnam, an iconic voice role like Aladdin, and a massive (and for my money, too Robin Williams-y) money-printing machine like Mrs. Doubtfire. But he had at least a dozen other great lead performances, most of them pointing up something that even the enthusiasts may be missing:

Williams was in some respects the reverse of the old show-business cliché of the clown who wants to play Hamlet (and by the way, his walk-on as Osric in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is fantastically funny). According to this tradition, comedians are always trying, and usually failing, to inflate themselves into careers as serious actors. I’m not sure the idea is ever true, given the widely acknowledged reality that comedy is harder to do than drama. But Williams’s movie career is a stunning refutation of the clown/Hamlet dichotomy. His comedies contain some  great moments of uncut Robin Williamsism (I’d recommend his King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and I know National Review Online movie critic Armond White is a lonely supporter of Steven Spielberg’s Hook), but it’s also got some movies where his manic improvisational energy is a chore to suffer through (I won’t name names, but the initials are Patch Adams).

But if you look at Williams’s dramatic roles there’s one great performance after another: The World According to Garp, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting (the Oscar-winner), Insomnia, a little-seen TV adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, One Hour Photo, and my favorite movie about the cultural Cold War, Paul Mazursky’s Moscow On the Hudson would be enough to earn anybody a ticket on the Space Ark. (Speaking of the recently deceased, I hear Paul Mazursky made some bad movies, but I have never seen one.) And there are some great comic-but-not-Robin-Williamsized roles as well. Michael Ritchie’s The Survivors, a satire on survivalists and gun enthusiasts, doesn’t have my preferred politics, but Williams and Walter Matthau are both great in it. And the totally forgotten Ron Shelton football story The Best of Times is a wonderful comic meditation on the inescapability of high school shame. It may seem I have now named all the Robin Williams performances I liked, but there are more.

If it seems like I was disparaging his standup routine above (I can never quite figure out the whole not-speaking-ill-of-the-dead thing), let me say that the problem was not that he wasn’t brilliant. It was the surfeit of brilliance:

But since everybody you know will be sending around Williams standup clips for the next day or so, and since there can never be enough SCTV fans, here’s proof that he was also good at sketch comedy:

UPDATE: It turns out the Internet really does have everything. NRO reader Reilly Stephens provides the video for the Robin Williams/Eddie Murphy Firing Line parody:

Remembering Robin Williams
Actor and comedian Robin Williams was found dead at his home in Northern California on Monday, where he had apparently taken his own life after battling severe depression. He was 63. Williams went from the stand-up comedy circuit to major Hollywood stardom in both comedic turns and serious dramas. Here’s a look back at some quotes from his most famous roles.
Mork & Mindy (1978): “Punching and pushing and calling someone names means you like them? … Then the cowboys and Indians are lovers?”
Popeye (1980): “Oh, what am I? Some kind of barnicle on the dinghy of life? Oh, I ain't no doctors, but I knows that I'm losing me patience. What am I? Some kind of judge or lawyers? Maybe not, but I knows what law suitks me.”
The World According to Garp (1982): “Gradual school is where you go to school and you gradually find out you don't want to go to school anymore.”
Moscow on the Hudson (1984): “This is a free country, welcome to almost anyone. And I'm hoping someday maybe you will join me here. Of course I will continue to write to you every week. Yes, in America almost anything is possible. Goodbye for now my beloved family. I love you. Voyia”
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987): “Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the V.P. is such a V.I.P., shouldn't we keep the P.C. on the Q.T.? 'Cause if it leaks to the V.C. he could end up M.I.A., and then we'd all be put out in K.P.”
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988): “I’m sorry. You must refer to me by my complete title: King of Everything. Rei di Tutto. But you may call me Ray.”
Dead Poets Society (1989): “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Awakenings (1990): “You'd think at a certain point all these atypical somethings would amount to a typical something.”
The Fisher King (1991): “There's three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer.”
Hook (1991): “Hook, you let those kids out of that net in less than one minute or you better get an attorney and hope to God he's better than me.”
Toys (1992): “Four stores and many Christmases ago, my father brought forth a factory conceived in innocence and joy and squeezable fun for everyone.”
Aladdin (1992): “But oh, to be free. Not to have to go "Poof! What do you need, "Poof! What do you need, Poof! What do you need?". To be my own master. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world. But what am I talking about? Let's get real here, that's never gonna happen. Genie, wake up and smell the hummus.”
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993): “Sink the sub. Hide the weasel. Park the porpoise. A bit of the old Humpty Dumpty, Little Jack Horny, the Horizontal Mambo, hmm? The Bone Dancer, Rumpleforeskin, Baloney Bop, a bit of the old Cunning Linguistics?”
Jumanji (1995): “Hey, hey, I'm sorry, okay?... Twenty-six years buried in the deepest darkest jungle, and I still became my father.”
The Birdcage (1996): “Yes, I wear foundation. Yes, I live with a man. Yes, I'm a middle- aged fag. But I know who I am, Val. It took me twenty years to get here, and I'm not gonna let some idiot senator destroy that.”
Good Will Hunting (1997): “People call those imperfections, but no, that's the good stuff.”
Flubber (1997): “I love you with every cell, with every atom. I love you on a subatomic level.”
Patch Adams (1998): “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you'll win, no matter what the outcome.”
What Dreams May Come (1998): “A whole human life is just a heartbeat here in Heaven. Then we'll all be together forever.”
Bicentennial Man (1999): “To be acknowledged for who and what I am, no more, no less. Not for acclaim, not for approval, but, the simple truth of that recognition. This has been the elemental drive of my existence, and it must be achieved, if I am to live or die with dignity.”
One Hour Photo (2002) “If these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it's this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.”
Insomnia (2002): “I didn’t murder her. I killed her, but it just ended up that way.”
Night at the Museum (2006) “I’m made of wax, Larry. What are you made of?”
Updated: Aug. 12, 2014

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Tags: Death , Hollywood , National Review , William F. Buckley

Blast from the Past! A Chat with NR’s Former Publisher Ed Capano



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This was from “Throwback Thursday” at CPAC yesterday, a fun chat with Ed Capano, publisher of National Review from 1991 to 2006, on how the conservative movement has changed and grown over the years . . . and his not-quite-believable claim of what keeps him going these days.

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