Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blues For Mr. Happy: Remembering Robin Williams

Robin Williams as Parry in The Fisher King.

In The Fisher King (1991), which has the distinction of being the movie that Terry Gilliam was put on Earth to direct, Jeff Bridges plays Jack, a rich, successful radio shock and aspiring sitcom actor who, with his sexual magnetism, long-haired, piratical look, and penthouse apartment, is like the Howard Stern of Howard Stern’s dreams. After goading a regular phone-in caller who proceeds to shoot up a Manhattan bar, Jack’s life and career fall apart; he’s too guilt-stricken to continue what he’s been doing but too cynical and bitter to imagine how to change. He stumbles across a chance for redemption when he meets Parry (Robin Williams), a crazy homeless man who used to a professor of classics until he lost his wife in the massacre at the bar. Parry has fallen in love with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a mousy accountant he’s never met but who he scuttles after as she slogs to and from the publishing house where she works. Jack decides that if he can get the two of them fixed up, he’ll have repented for his sins and can get back to his rightful place at the top of the fame ladder.

It’s Bridges’ job to keep the audience hooked from the first frames to the last, by being convincingly nasty and self-involved at the start so that Jack’s search for redemption seems like enough of a challenge to be dramatic, while also being sufficiently compelling (and attractive) that nobody watching him will simply say, “Fuck this guy.” But it’s the actor playing Parry who has the greatest potential to send the movie hurtling off a cliff at any minute. He has to get his laughs without making it seem as if the movie is holding someone mentally ill up to ridicule; he has to make the fact that Parry is stalking a total stranger seem moonstruck-romantic, and never creepy. Happily, the role is squarely in Williams’ wheelhouse. He’s able to use the fast-talking, free-associational style he developed doing stand-up comedy—the style that the name “Robin Williams” automatically brings to mind—and fold it into the character, using it as the high-speed ranting of a literate crazy person, whose tongue is racing to keep up with the speed of his mind.

But he also gets to use the open-hearted quality and emotional transparency that made Williams perhaps the most convincing romantic of all the actors of his generation. That romanticism had its dark side, represented here in Parry’s hallucinatory visions of a Red Knight on horseback who appears to menace himself whenever he gets too close to reconnecting with reality, and his memories tear at him like shrapnel. After Parry has somehow gotten through his first date with Lydia and romantic happiness seems within his grasp, the Knight materializes on cue, and Parry doubles over on the sidewalk as if knifed in the gut. “No!” he screams. “Please, let me have this!”

Williams as Mork.
A dozen years earlier, any sensible director would have been cautious, at best, about letting Williams within fifty miles of a character like Parry. There would have been the concern that he’d turn everything to shtick. Williams first made a splash as Mork from Ork, the lovable spritzing alien who premiered on a 1978 episode of Happy Days and was immediately launched onto his own show, Mork and Mindy. That show made Williams epically famous; he was 27, and to hear him talk in interviews, you get the impression that he felt he’d begun to wonder if he would ever make it out of the salt mines. Mork and Mindy was an inconsequential show even by the very low standards set by other shows produced by Garry Marshall for the children of the disco era, but that just made Williams’ freshness that much harder to miss. It was common knowledge that scripts for the show were designed to include a space for Williams to “do his thing,” stepping away from that week’s tissue-thin storyline so he could improvise madly, doing what amounted to a teaser for his HBO concert specials. Williams, who had clearly felt starved for fame before he was cast as Mork, was also intelligent enough to worry that he’d become yesterday’s fad, thrown away and consigned to guest appearances on The Love Boat and Hollywood Squares after the sitcom had worn out its welcome. On his brilliant 1978 HBO special and on the 1979 album Reality… What a Concept, you can hear him desperately signaling that he isn’t Mork, until at the end, he does what probably started out as his version of Richard Pryor’s Mudbone: an old man who, “forty years ago,” was famous for playing an alien on TV, adding, “Not that funny since they’ve landed, though.”

Once Williams moved from TV into acting in movies, he quickly built up a legacy that was fully the equal of his work as a stand-up comedian and talk-show guest, and may have surpassed it. That isn’t something you’d know from reading many of the instant obituary tributes that have appeared since Williams’ death was reported Monday evening. Many of those have focused single-mindedly on the man’s elfin motor-mouth persona, to the point of dismissing his work as an actor, or at least discounting it as a sideshow to the main carnival. In a posthumous appraisal at the GQ website, Tom Carson, who calls Williams “the most talented performer I’d ever disliked,” suggests that it was a waste to cast Williams in straight dramatic roles because “Other good actors could have played them just as capably, and they didn’t have much to do with why he’d gotten famous in the first place.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Carson thinks that, say, Frank Sinatra’s performance in From Here to Eternity is less impressive because it could possibly have been played by someone who could act just as well but couldn’t sing at all, or because Sinatra first got invited to appear in movies for reasons unrelated to any suspicions that he might be a hell of an actor, I think this gets it entirely wrong, because it starts with the assumption that if there was a “real” Robin Williams, it was the manic spritzer, and anything Williams did that had no element of manic spritzing was, on some level, inauthentic, untrue to his core, and better left to the honest professionals. Perhaps alone among the population of the world, I’ve come to see Williams as an actor first, and a comedian second, or even as an actor who frequently shifted into a mode where he was playing a comedian. Williams studied at Julliard for three years before leaving school to follow a girl to New York, where he decided to attend a comedy workshop only after failing to find work as an actor.

Robin Williams doing stand-up.

He soon plugged himself into the comedy scene and worked hard at developing his act and honing his improvisational chops, which is what someone with a talent and an obsessional need for attention does when one plan for achieving success isn’t working out and another avenue opens itself up. Maybe his stand-up muse had reared its head late and was calling out to him—or maybe he transformed himself into a stand-up the way Steve Martin, at 35, worked his ass off learning to dance well enough to bring off the numbers in Pennies from Heaven, so much so that you could believe he’d been a song and dance man from his childhood on. Martin and Williams scored with the mass audience around the same time, and both came from similarly secure upper-middle-class backgrounds and had deep veins of silliness in their comedy. Interestingly, it was Martin, who had come up through the scene, who abandoned stand-up when he was ready to move into movies full time; he felt that he’d taken his act as far as he could and was ready for new challenges. Williams kept returning to it, but that might just mean that when it came to audience approval, he never met an itch that he wouldn’t want scratched again.

As a comedian, Williams had substantial rivals—not Martin, so much, but Jonathan Winters, who was the clearest (and openly acknowledged) influence on his style, and Richard Pryor, who, as the greatest stand-up artist of his time, was the de facto rival of anyone who dared to wield a mike. Brilliant as he was, Williams suffered in comparison with both of them. He wasn’t as probing and substantial as Pryor, and his staccato flow of pop culture references and funny voice wasn’t as deeply, personally unearthly as Winters’. But neither of them could touch him as a movie actor. Winters was never a draw and didn’t get enough real chances to prove himself, and Pryor, who made movie after movie in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, blew his big chance; only a few times, early in his film career, did he even try to incorporate his approach as a stand-up into a movie role. Williams picked better material for himself and pushed himself harder.

Williams as Vlad in Moscow on the Hudson.
Sometimes he succeeded in playing a character while doing a version of a Robin Williams routine, as in the 1983 Michael Ritchie comedy The Survivors. There, as in The Fisher King, he plays a man who goes crazy, but it’s not the kind of madness that lands you out on the street and in danger of institutionalization: it’s that of a man pushed too far out of his safety zone who tries to compensate for his fear and paranoid by becoming the scariest lion in the forest, the kind of craziness that passes for normalcy. His feature-length spritzing in Aladdin (1992) set the standard for every name actor who signed on to do a cartoon voice, hoping to impress their kids and wow the public and critics at the same time. On other occasions, in different kinds of roles, Williams was able to transform himself into characters without a hint of “Robin Williams” to them. He melted into the role of a Russian musician who defects to the West in Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson (1984); he did a fine job as Saul Bellow’s archetypal American failure Tommy Wilhelm in a 1986 TV film of Bellow’s Seize the Day; he was strikingly acrid in the small role of a disgraced therapist working in a grocery store in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991). In his review of that movie, Stanley Kauffmann wrote that he wished that Williams was in about every third film he saw, and that sometimes seemed to be the workload that Williams was shooting for.

But no matter how fully transformed he was in Moscow on the Hudson, a lot of people would always see Williams as the once and future Mork. Williams was at his worst when he pulled in and played to his endearing, elfin side, turning himself into a Disney hero—the new Dean Jones. He got his first Oscar nomination and a tsunami of critical praise for playing a wild man DJ bucking the military establishment in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987); critics fell over themselves to proclaim that, at last, the mighty mouth had found a role that put his spritzing to a respectable purpose. In the words of Tennessee Williams, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so: Williams worked hard and probably delivered just what was wanted of him, but his monologues and Gomer Pyle imitations, like the movie itself, were too tame by half. Giving just what was wanted of him could be Williams’ fatal flaw. In his first dramatic movie role, in 1982’s The World According to Garp, he was very sweet and likable, but he was also achingly true to the script’s conception of the hero as a shmuck who seemed embarrassingly content to be everyone’s victim. He was probably also giving just what he thought was wanted of him when, in 1988, he appeared with Steve Martin, Bill Irwin, and F. Murray Abraham in a production of Waiting for Godot, directed by Mike Nichols, and spiced up the text with John Wayne impressions, renditions of the Twilight Zone theme, and references to that year’s presidential election.

Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

In Hook (1991) and Toys (1992), to say nothing of the infamous Patch Adams (1988), he showed entirely too much faith in the power of childlike whimsy to restore one’s youth and change the world for the better—the same kind of faith that sometimes popped up in interviews where he’d talk about the magic of the comedic imagination, instead of just whipping up a character on the spot and demonstrate it, the way his idol Jonathan Winters might. He and the Spielberg of Hook were a real match made in Hell, because they suffered from the same condition: both were trying to create, from a carefully thought-out plan, something that had come naturally to them when they were younger. Say what you like about Jonathan Winters’ slower nights, but he never tried to substitute a thesis paper on his own art for the art itself.

It’s impossible to talk about Williams’ achievement without taking his failures into account, because, as that Tom Carson piece shows, there are so many people who just got fed up with him and joined the permanent backlash. (James Wolcott, an early supporter, announced that he was close to jumping ship in 1982, after a concert special in which Williams went on too long, for too little reason, about having nicknamed his penis “Mr. Happy.”) He faced the strongest backlash of his career at the end of the ‘90s, when he’d begun to overindulge his taste for maudlin sentimentality through the likes of Patch Adams, Jack, What Dreams May Come, Bicentennial Man, and Jakob the Liar, a Holocaust film that, at the time, was impossible not to see as his attempt to mint his own Life Is Beautiful.

When Williams did an about-face and signed to play a whole raft of villains—in Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo—it wasn’t always easy to separate the quality of his performances from one’s sure knowledge that this was a man who was careful about monitoring how he was going on, who was now embarked on a campaign of spin control. (A few years later, he starred in perhaps the blackest comedy of his career, World’s Greatest Dad, giving an admirable performance in a movie that, like other comedies directed by the talented stand-up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, didn’t seem to have any idea how to handle its own edgy premise.) It’s important to remember that this wasn’t the desperation move of a man who’d burned his bridge to the mass audience and was scrambling to stay unemployable. Patch Adams may have become a punch line to the audience that turns out for John Waters movies—in Cecil B. Demented, Melanie Griffith defaces a poster advertising an extended “director’s cut” of the movie, wailing that the original version “was long enough!”—but the movie did over $200 million at the box office, and not everyone who bought a ticket tried to punch the theater manager in the nuts on the way out. Some performers are content to make do with a small cult audience, and some move into the big leagues and sniff at the haters among their former fans who don’t get the appeal of their big mass success and apparently want them to work in unheated basements their entire lives. Williams wanted the biggest success possible while hanging onto what, back in the ‘90s, we used to call “indie cred.”

Williams in One Hour Photo.
The personal dislike of Williams that Tom Carson readily admits to was widespread among hip consumers of pop culture, and I don’t think it’s really related to the occasions when he misused his talents, or the sense that he didn’t always push the envelope the way he might have. It’s the smiley, non-hostile innocence that he clung to, which was a key ingredient of what, if my feeling that he was an actor first is right, might be called his mask. In a remarkable interview for Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2010, Williams talked about being a “non-angry” stand-up, incapable even of hostility towards his audience. “You can’t get mad at them,” he said of the crowds at his shows, to which Maron replied, “You can’t!” What made it all the more remarkable was that in the same conversation, Williams talked about a night when the audience kept passing him drinks, until he realized that they wanted to see him “crash and burn” onstage, the way performers Pryor or Sam Kinison sometimes did. 

In addition to being a true comic genius, Pryor was a violent gun fetishist and abuser of women who was impossible to do business with or even be around much of the time. For some reason, those qualities are easier to forgive than being a sunbeam who spends a lot of time in Disney movies and is openly, nakedly in need of attention and approval. Maybe it all comes down to our eternal need to scorn what is freely offered to us, as opposed to what we can never get enough of: Richard Pryor was one of those rare individuals who are more than capable of walking away, while Williams made it clear that he would always come back, always need the audience’s love.

It was a crime against hipness that some people will never be able to forgive, but I wonder if the tremendous amount of pleasure that Robin Williams dispensed over the course of 35 years in the public eye really counts for so much less just because he wasn’t an asshole—or, if you prefer, because he was the wrong kind of asshole, more needy than abusive? He isn’t “on” for most of that WTF interview; he’s thoughtful and open and sometimes very funny, but only occasionally shticky. And he’s funniest when he’s riffing on the idea that, at his lowest ebb, he once considered suicide. I’d rather not join the conga line of people sharing the theories they’ve developed about Robin Williams and his inner demons since Monday night, but one thing we've surely learned is that, his own protestations to the contrary, there was anger in Williams. He just directed it at the wrong person.

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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