In the flood of commentary and sorrow surrounding the death of Robin Williams, apparently by suicide, so many are struggling over what to say about a man who seemed never to be at a loss for words.
Not many people who have ever worked in Hollywood were as starkly in a class by themselves as Williams. You can compare what Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis do to the work of other actors; you can’t really compare Williams to anyone. Not when he was doing what he did best. Steven Spielberg’s phrase “a lightning storm of comic genius” captures that sense of Williams as a force of nature, explosive, unpredictable, one flash of inspiration followed by another seemingly without interruption. If he was ever truly at a loss while he was “on,” I never saw it.
Looking back, there is no reason why “Nanu nanu” should ever have become such a ubiquitous catchphrase, let alone something we remember decades later. There is no reason a novelty character trotted out in the declining seasons of Happy Days as a foil for one of 1970s TV’s most iconic characters, the Fonz, after he had literally jumped the shark, should have clicked so strongly with audiences as to lead to a spin-off series. No reason, except that you couldn’t look away from Williams. Whatever he was going to say next, you wanted to hear it.
His big-screen breakthrough was as a live-action cartoon character in Robert Altman’s Popeye, a film I’ve wanted to revisit for some time now. But it was as a literally animated character, the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, that his talent found its ideal screen form. Only animation could truly do justice to Williams’ mercurial talent; that towering blue figure manifested the comic giant bottled in Williams’ compact frame, and the Disney animators strove to interpret his laser-lightshow delivery visually the way Fantasia strove to respond to the music of Bach and Stravinsky.
Of course, he was also good in dramatic roles. Sometimes he found ways to fuse drama, comedy and tragedy, in films from Good Morning, Vietnam to Mrs. Doubtfire and The Fisher King. Other times, he played it straight and quiet, as in Good Will Hunting and Awakenings.
He could be sentimental, and some of his films were perhaps excessively so (Patch Adams, Dead Poets Society, What Dreams May Come — one of the few films to attempt to visualize a paradisiacal afterlife). He could also be convincingly dark and creepy (Dead Again, Insomnia, One Hour Photo). In the pain and anger in these performances were no doubt something of the demons he struggled with. From Matt Zoller Seitz’s in memoriam I learn that Williams broke a 20-year sobriety while playing a suspected psychotic killer in Insomnia.
For obvious reasons, many people are quoting Garry Marshall’s observation that Williams “could make everybody happy but himself.” I think of the anecdote about a man in 1808 who went to the Manchester, England, office of a Dr. James Hamilton seeking relief from crushing depression. Hamilton prescribed the liveliest medicine he could think of: the comedy of the clown Grimaldi at the circus. But of course this was no good: The man suffering from depression was Grimaldi himself.
A lifelong Episcopalian, Williams once cracked that, compared to Catholicism, Episcopalianism was the “same religion, half the guilt.” Here is a Catholic prayer for an Episcopalian: Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetuae luceat eis.