Most everyone has his or her own version of Robin Williams. It’s a testament to late actor’s body of work that when news of his death at the age of 63 quickly spread across social media, the outpouring of tributes, quotes, photos and clips didn’t focus on one movie, one performance, or one stand-up routine. His body of work varied so greatly that at any given moment, he was likely creating something special for someone somewhere.
No doubt in the coming days, retrospectives will attempt to encapsulate the breadth of Williams’ talent and seemingly inexhaustible energy, which covered the spectrum from sitcoms to an Academy Award, but in these sad, confusing hours when the hurt is fresh, I find myself, like many others, thinking about one performance in particular and the personal story that comes with it.
A child of the early ’90s, my first encounter with Williams was “Hook,” a movie that has never been seen as one of the bright spots of the actor’s career, but it opened my eyes to something essential about him from an early age. In junior high, when my uncle decided that I was ready to see “real movies,” he showed up one night unannounced with a box of DVDs. Inside were films that would play for an eighth grader moving onto more serious stuff: “The Godfather,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Do the Right Thing,” and a movie with Robin Williams that had something to do with poets.
“Dead Poets Society” wasn’t the performance that earned him his Oscar, but it has become another one of Williams’ movies that burrowed deep into the minds of people who saw it at the right age or point in their life.
For as much poetry is read by the class in the film and their teacher and their captain, John Keating, “Dead Poets Society” isn’t as much about written verse as it is about life, and like any honest work about life, it’s also very much about death, which might explain why I’m sitting here watching YouTube clips.
It’s certainly not for the laughs. Even though it was nearly impossible for Williams to deliver a humorless performance, John Keating wasn’t one of his iconic comedic roles. Instead, it highlighted another one of his gifts, something that was even apparent in “Hook.” Williams had a way of imbuing characters with life that poetically captured the extremes of its highs and lows. When Keating told his students to seize the day and gather their rosebuds while they may, Williams’ performance embodied the hope and inevitable doom in those words with warmth and honesty.
Those looking for some meaning in all of this might point to some similarities between the plot of “Dead Poets Society” and the end of Williams life, but the parallel is cheap and misses the point of Keating’s words and the enormity of the performer’s legacy. If there is any wisdom to be drawn from the film and applied to the life of Robin Williams, let it be this.
The powerful play goes on, and we have heard Robin Williams’ verse.