Robin Williams’ film legacy touched us all

It’s no hyperbole to suggest the world will never be the same without Robin Williams, the eccentric actor and comedian who was found dead yesterday at his home in Tiburon at the age of 63.

The New York Times reports that Williams’ departure is likely a result of suicide after years of bravely battling drug addiction, heart problems, and depression.

While that may be true, it matters little. Williams is gone, and now, we’re without a man who meant so much to so many.

In a statement, Williams’ wife, Susan Schneider noted that:

“As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

To pay respect to Schneider’s wish, we will not dwell on his death, but remember his work.

Born in Chicago and raised in Michigan, Williams’ stage career began with stand-up comedy around the country in the early 70s. Eventually his success as a comedian landed him on network television, and before long, dovetailed into the movies, starting with the 1977 trifle, Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glass?

While the role in I. Robert Levy’s unremarkable sophomore feature was nothing special, it put Williams on the map. Soon he would be the lead star in major motion pictures like Popeye (1980), The World According to Garp (1982), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), and Dead Poets Society (1989).

According to IMDB, Williams has over 100 credits to his name, with three more films to be posthumously released in 2014. For a more thorough analysis of his work, I implore you to read this piece by Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. What he does in his article is something I’m unable to do.

However, I will take a moment to reflect on what is arguably the most impressive performance of Williams’ career as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.

The role garnered Williams a Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars in 1998, and more importantly, rebuffed the notion that the comic genius could only thrive in comedy.

In Gus Van Sant’s magnum opus, Williams plays a widower psychiatrist who has taken on wunderkind Will Hunting (Matt Damon) as a patient.

Although there are subplots with Minnie Driver as Will’s lover and Affleck as his best friend, the relationship between Hunting and Maguire is ultimately the heart of the film.

When analyzing Williams’s performance, most seem to point to the moment in which Will and Sean, after weeks of muted sessions, finally have a breakthrough. “It’s not your fault,” Sean explains to the despondent genius. It’s a powerful scene that continues to pull at the heart strings no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

But for my money, the apex of William’s performance comes before that iconic sequence.

After a session in which Will presumes to understand every facet of Sean’s life just by dissecting one of his paintings, the two find themselves on a park bench.

On this particular afternoon a slight overcast resides, trees blowing in the mild wind, swans traversing the serene pond in front of them. This prompts Will to make a smartass joke about Sean’s ostensible “swan fetish.”

The idle chatter comes to a close though as Sean tells Will:

“Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about.”

What follows those opening lines is a monologue of ineffable depth, insight, and emotion. When I think of Robin Williams — the actor, comic, the man — these are the five minutes I’ll forever return to.

In this moment he is completely vulnerable. Yes, he’s playing a character, but dig beneath the surface and you’ll find a man who is bravely putting himself into this role.

Look no further than when he utters the words:

“You don’t know about real loss, ‘cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself.”

All of us have experienced loss. Now we must exist in a world without this enormously gifted artist, a man we often looked to for laughter just to ease the pain, and wisdom when we didn’t know how to carry onward.

Unfortunately, there is no remedy to abate this sadness. Williams absence is yet another gloomy reminder of our impermanence.

But I’d like to believe that so long as there’s a civilization interested in understanding the human condition — through both pain and comedy — Williams’ work will live on with it.