“To die would be a great adventure.”
— Peter Pan, Hook
A man trying to save his children in Mrs. Doubtfire, a man trying to save his childhood in Hook, a man trying to save himself in The Fisher King. Robin Williams was the least likely hero who could make you laugh in one second and bring a tear to your eye within the same breath. There was no other performer I can recall who brought me more comfort while watching a film than Robin Williams. For someone who could be so manic, so expressive, so explosive, he instilled a placid serenity in every frame. It was like watching someone too clever to get in trouble, but too mischievous to stay out of it. He walked that fine line with a brilliance unmatched.
Williams’ humour in cinema was so potent because you could tell he was always there, in that single moment, unbroken by any externalities. And that ability was so contagious. There’s a marvellous moment in Good Will Hunting where Williams’ character, Sean Maguire, tells Will (Matt Damon) about his past wife’s flatulence problem and Matt Damon bursts out in unhinged laughter. His face turns tomato-red and there’s something remarkable about the scene: the frame is shaking with Damon’s laughter, up and down, up and down. It was the cameraman. Even the cameraman couldn’t stop laughing and he shook the camera. Technically, you may say it was a flawed shot. But it didn’t matter. Because it was genuine.
Leave it to Robin Williams to get a real laugh from his fellow actor. Maybe it was a challenge. It strikes me that Williams preferred a challenge over anything. It explains his varied filmography, from playing a playful doctor in Patch Adams to a harrowing photo clerk in One Hour Photo. He constantly transformed himself (Mrs. Doubtfire anyone?) and was fearless in every performance.
His sense of comedy was parallel with his sense of drama. I don’t think any other single living actor had the scope that he did. His dramatic roles, in many forms, supersede those of his comedic roles. That was his brilliance. Many directors saw this immense pallet of emotion that he brought to the screen. His performance in The Fisher King is perhaps my personal favourite and one that shatters any notions of him as just the “funny guy”. That isn’t to say he isn’t funny in it. He’s fucking hysterical. But it’s his less funny material in that film that took me aback.
Watch the scene in The Fisher King when Parry, played by Williams, takes Lydia home after their first date. Firstly, it’s a silent performance. You can watch it without any sound and every inflection and emotion hits your directly from both players.
Parry gently ping-pongs between loving sincerity and gentle humour. In the close-up, he confesses he’s been following her, that he’s in love with her and that he doesn’t want to hurt her.
It’s the best confession of love ever put to screen. I don’t know if it was Gilliam’s cinematography that lit up his eyes or if Williams was simply born with that twinkle. But it’s always there and his performance is so damn real and so damn tragic because his character is ultimately alone:
“I love you…and I think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and I would be knocked out several times if I could just have that first kiss. And I won’t, I won’t be distant. I’ll come back in the morning and I’ll call ya if you let me…”
Gilliam cuts to the 2-shot, there’s a beat and Parry ends it with:
“But I still don’t drink coffee.”
And Lydia, and the rest of us, can breathe again.
That was his genius. He brought us face to face to the naked soul of his character and then winked before we got lost in his reality. Parry withholds his darkness, his eccentricities for a brief moment to make a connection. Unfortunately, this seems all too much like art mirroring reality.
It makes his loss evermore tragic. To think that he was so troubled, so alone and yet so adept at bringing everyone together to share that one moment.