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: