America lost two entertainment legends this week: Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall.
While fans feel the weight of both passings very deeply, the nature of these two losses contrasts radically.
Bacall will forever be remembered for her seductive looks and voice, her fierce political activism and an adventurous career spanning the end of the Hollywood studio era into the digital era. She reportedly hated being called a legend, but with apologies to Bacall, she was the very embodiment of the word.
She died from an apparent stroke, and while that is certainly nothing to shrug off, Bacall lived to age 89. She will be missed, but may we all enjoy the same longevity.
Williams’ suicide at age 63 is, in other ways, harder to accept. Coping with suicide is always difficult regardless of circumstances, but especially so when the victim spent his life inspiring laughter and cathartic tears for others.
Not long after hearing the news, it struck me that Williams has been part of my consciousness for almost as long as I have had one.
I first became aware of Williams when he appeared on “Happy Days” as Mork from Ork, which soon became his first signature character when “Mork and Mindy” was spun off. I was only 8 years old but, like everyone, I instantly recognized what a unique talent he was.
As a teenager, I saw “The World According to Garp” and identified with Williams’ Garp as closely as any movie character I’ve encountered yet. His aspirations, flaws and questions were the same as mine. And watching Williams capture Garp’s barely contained mania for a meaningful life was a seminal moment for me.
There is no need to review the rest of Williams’ movie career, because everyone knows it. And everyone has a favorite Robin Williams movie. Mine continues to be “Garp” with “The Fisher King” a very close second.
He will most likely be remembered for his frenetic, stream-of-consciousness improvisation. But over the course of his career, Williams played the straight man as often as the clown and worked with many of the most talented directors and actors of his generation.
Williams is almost as well known for his philanthropy, for entertaining troops and for his generosity toward his friends. He gained the enduring love of seemingly everyone with whom he came into contact.
Search online for tributes to Williams. Everyone from Norm Macdonald to Questlove to Ellen Degeneres to the USO has posted remembrances. The common thread among all of them is that Williams gave. He gave so much of himself and tried so very hard to lift people’s spirits.
One of my favorite stories was told by Christopher Reeve, Williams’ former roommate at Julliard, about Williams coming into his hospital room after the accident that paralyzed him. Williams charged into the room wearing scrubs and speaking in a Russian accent about needing to give Reeve a rectal exam.
As Reeve put it, “My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be OK.”
Williams was a consummate performer. It didn’t matter whether he was acting in a scripted role, improvising dialogue for an animated movie, appearing on a talk show, providing a distraction while technical malfunctions were fixed at a TED talk, or meeting Koko the gorilla (you can find video online of the latter two). Williams needed to move people emotionally, either to roaring laughter or transcendent tears.
His performance style was often so effusive and imbued with such a desperate desire for validation, though, it obviously sprang from deeper psychological needs.
Terry Gilliam, who directed Williams in “The Fisher King,” put it best: “When the gods gift you with the kind of talent Robin had, there’s a price to pay, there always is. It doesn’t come from nothing. It comes from deep problems inside, a concern, all sorts of fears — and yet he could always channel those things and turn them into something gold.”
Williams’ death, like so many before him, reminds us those capable of giving others great joy sometimes struggle the most deeply.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.