My family was a family that always went to the movies. Once I was old enough to keep an eye on my two younger sisters, my parents’ movie strategy was to put us in a kiddie movie while they would go and see something more adult oriented (ah the innocence of the 80’s when you didn’t necessarily worry about someone snatching your kids). The only problem with that strategy was that kids movies were normally much shorter, so we would often end up waiting for them in the lobby, and I would usually go into their movie to let them know we were waiting. One afternoon when I was ten years old, I did that very thing. I walked into a movie theatre and saw a bare-chested teenage boy standing at an open window, lifting a crown of brambles onto his head as the snow fell. He looked incredibly sad and hopeless. Strangely haunting music echoed through the theatre creating a sense of dread. I found the images beautiful, and even though I had no idea what was going on, I was transfixed as I searched for my parents in the movie theatre. I eventually found my parents as the boy’s father screamed “MY SON! OH MY GOD!” and the mother wailed “He’s all right, he’s all right, he’s all right!”. My mother quickly told me I needed to leave the movie theatre because this was too grown-up for me. I acted like I was going to but instead stood in the back of the theatre for the rest of the movie. I didn’t know why it was significant that these boys stood on their desks saying “O Captain, my Captain”, but it didn’t matter. I was moved even without knowing the story and the images were forever burned into my brain. A few years later, my parents decided I was old enough to watch Dead Poets Society, so we got the VHS and had a movie night. Seeing the images I had seen that afternoon in the movie theatre in the correct context blew my mind and changed me forever.
I recently had a conversation with my Dad about my favorite movies of all time, and when I named Dead Poets Society, he was surprised. Then I told him this story and he had NO idea I had done that. It’s incredibly strange what has an impact on you, but that is what makes the movies so magical to me.
I had always intended to do a post on Dead Poets Society this year, as 2014 marks its 25th Anniversary…but instead I find myself writing about it on the incredibly tragic passing of the Captain himself, Robin Williams. I have so many feelings and I’m not sure how to express them…but I’m going to try.
I was always a bookish kid who loved writing so Dead Poets Society‘s message about the importance of literature and art really resonated with me. So THIS was why I was always writing short stories, why I made a monthly trip to the bookstore to buy books, why I devoured movies with an insatiable appetite…I was a member of the human race and art sustains us. Now I watch DPS as an adult and find that its message of seizing the day and finding your passion and finding your voice and making your life extraordinary sustains me. It’s a philosophy I feel like I’ve truly embraced in the past few years (The Head Over Feels motto is essentially Carpe Diem, only with profanity) and my life has been better for it. Robin Williams had an incredibly deep and vast filmography and many performances that had an impact on me (I’ll get to some of those later) but John Keating forever remains my personal favorite. The WORDS in DPS are impactful no matter what, but it is in Robin’s delivery and performance that it truly comes to life. He brings both an impish irreverence and gravitas to Keating…how can you not be inspired by him when he delivers lines like this:
“Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
I’ll always remember Robin as an actor that gave everything to the role he was playing whether it was Jumanji or The Fisher King. He is a study in dedication to his craft and just being ALIVE on-screen. I have so many specific memories of Robin Williams films. Lest this post become a novel, let me just give you some highlights of my favorite performances…
My mom took me and my friends to see Hook to celebrate my 13th birthday. I thought it was magical. 13-year-old me wept (again I say…it’s no wonder I am the fangirl I am today. The feels were always there) when tiny Pockets molded Robin’s face into the joyful expression of Peter Pan and said “Oh THERE you are, Peter”. I cheered when Peter found his happy thought and finally flew. Hook was the second movie I pulled out last night. Bangarang.
And then there’s Genie. I was OBSESSED with the Genie…so much so that most of the birthday presents I got for my 14th birthday were Genie related. Robin’s performance in Aladdin is the greatest voiceover performance of all time. It is amazing what he does and is probably why I am so resistant to going to see the Broadway musical. Because I don’t care that James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony…he’s not Robin Williams, so he is therefore inferior.
In anyone else’s hands, Mrs. Doubtfire would have been pure camp. Yes, Robin is hilarious in drag, but he also imbues Mrs. Doubtfire with SO MUCH HEART that you can’t help but tear up as Daniel comes to fully realize how much he needed his family in his life and how much he needed to grow up to keep them in it.
My greatest memory of The Birdcage is how we quoted it all the time because my friend Tevy did a FLAWLESS impression of Hank Azaria’s Agador (“I do not wear shoes because they make me fall down”). The combination of Nathan Lane and Robin Williams is GOLDEN. Their comic styles balanced each other out and it is a shame they never worked together again.
I think the people who hate on Good Will Hunting are just jealous on the success that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had at such a young age. It’s a fantastic movie with a great screenplay (suck it haters), sensitive direction, and excellent performances, all anchored by Robin’s Academy Award winning performance as Sean Maguire. I think it’s a testament to the power of this movie that the park bench that Will and Sean sit on is now surrounded by chalk drawings of quotes from Robin’s career. It’s so funny that people seem to automatically think of Robin’s more manic performances as a comic, but his dramatic work always seemed to resonate more with me. Everything about his performance is wonderful. The bench scene gets the most praise, but to me, Robin really brings it home in the scene where he repeats “It’s not your fault” over and over until Will finally sobs in his arms. I was hard-core Team Titanic at the 1998 Oscars…except in the Supporting Actor and Screenplay categories. I’ve embedded Robin’s Oscar win below. Sorry for the feels (LOOK AT HOW HAPPY BILLY CRYSTAL IS).
So how do you say goodbye to someone like Robin Williams?
I had just gotten home from work and was getting ready to go to the gym when the news broke last night. I sat on my bed in disbelief and wept openly…and then immediately scrapped the gym plans (sorry, fitness) and put on Dead Poets Society. Many may wonder how I could have done that, but for me there was no other option. My feeling was how could I NOT watch it? The Carpe Diem scene comes 15 minutes into the movie and I cried and allowed the memories to wash over me. All of Keating’s words had a brand new meaning in light of this loss. And it WAS a loss to me, even though I had never met Robin. There were (of course) assholes on social media berating fans for expressing their grief over one celebrity when there is so much death and destruction in the world. This is true, obviously. Then my friend Taylah summed it up perfectly when she said “Just because you don’t know an actor personally it doesn’t mean his death cannot affect you. Art creates emotion. Artists give you emotions.” Talk about hitting the nail on the head. I mourn the loss of a man who brought joy into my life through his work and a man whose performances inspired me to be better, both as a person and as an actor. I mourn the fact that, aside from the FOUR unreleased projects he had on tap for the year, we’ll never get new work from him again. I mourn the fact that a man who brought so much joy to so many people ultimately lost the battle to his personal demons. But I also celebrate that his work will be with us forever. I celebrate his legacy every time Sage and I yell “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SHRIMPS?” “FUCK THE SHRIMP!” at each other. I celebrate the fact the one day I will go to my sister’s house and sit down with her kids and say “Let me show you how to live” as I hand them my battered copy of Dead Poets Society.
I posted my favorite Keating speech from Dead Poets on Facebook as soon as I heard the news last night. It bears repeating here.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
Thank you for your verses, Robin.