That Smile: A personal reaction to Robin Williams’ death


Sometimes, being a film fan has its low points.

On February 2nd earlier this year, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his bathroom with a syringe in his arm and a cocktail of drugs in his system. Actors die, year in, year out; it’s one of the occupational hazards of being a film lover. Those whose work you cherish will someday, regardless of their immense talents, die. And Hoffman’s immense talent is exactly why his death knocked the movie world back so much; we felt that there was so much left to see, and to feel.

August 11th – yesterday – we lost another giant of the screen. Robin Williams, avatar of most of our youths, had taken his own life, seemingly after a long battle with depression and addiction. My reaction to Hoffman’s death was wordless shock, and above all a bottomless pit of disgust, disgust that he had gone so early, that even in an Oscar-littered career, I felt we had yet to see his best work. My reaction to Williams’ passing yesterday were tears, for we had already seen his best work – and what really set the waterworks off was that there was so much of it.

After a few spluttery starts such as 1980’s Popeye, and following a stand-up career that honed his funnybones, Williams first found true fame in the Happy Days spin-off Mork & Mindy. He played an alien who came to Earth and got into many mishaps; the reason he got his own show wasn’t just because he brought the laughs, but because he was a complete anomaly on the screen – almost an alien. Then, of course, came Good Morning, Vietnam in ‘87 – his elated scream of those words are probably playing through your head right now – and then finally, the role that would define the rest of his career, as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. It was a performance of quiet intensity, of a simmering yet calm stoicism, which inspired not just his students but the entire audience; ‘carpe diem’ entered the pop culture vocabulary.

That smile.

That smile.

We wouldn’t see the same grace in an authority figure again until 1997 in Good Will Hunting, but between that time, Williams was busy; Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Jumanji, all titles that have special places in people of a certain age’s heart – that age being anywhere between five and ninety-five. Imagine them without Williams’ smile at the centre of them; would they be as big box office hits as they were? Even if that were so, they would not be remembered in the same way. And even between those huge hits, he starred in many other critically acclaimed pictures; alongside Robert De Niro in Awakenings, and in Terry Gilliam’s best film The Fisher King. Hell, I still even loved the bad ones – Hook, Jack, Toys, Patch Adams – because of him. Who else could we imagine playing an adult Peter Pan, a hairy-armed middle-aged dude who has the glimmering eyes of a ten-year-old? He may routinely have been in bad films – but he was untouched.

Of course, after inspiring everyone all over again (plus Matt Damon) in Good Will Hunting as Dr. Sean Maguire, Williams showed a different side to him in the 2000s. 2002’s Insomnia, where he played a psychotic murderer, proved he wasn’t just a comedic actor, but a dramatic force to be reckoned with, even when appearing aside such heavyweights as Al Pacino. He continued that streak as hyper-creepy – but because of William’s innate charm, strangely loveable – Sy in One Hour Photo. He saw out the decade with World’s Greatest Dad, a delicately layered performance that ranks as my personal favourite.

But what was it about Williams? Whenever I look back on the most moving, memorable moments of his oeuvre, I think of him – as John Keating, as Sean Maguire, as anyone – looking down to his feet in full-on confessional mode. He’s telling us something emotionally important, perhaps concerning how he chose to miss a historic baseball game to ‘see about a girl’. How he has a dark, bloodstained memory repressed in the back of his mind, ready to explode at any moment. How current medical practices don’t align with his own philosophy of life, love and laughter. He could be telling us about anything, but through it all I always imagine him smiling. He’s a man who knows what and who he is, and no matter what troubles he’s experiencing right now, nothing can take that away from him.

I find it hard to reconcile those wonderful memories of him with how he died. That he chose to end his own life, because – it would seem – he didn’t see a way out. But that’s what depression is; no exit in view. Like carrying around an empty void that just won’t let go, because you and it are one and the same. Whatever metaphor you want to pin on it, depression is a condition that needs to be understood by others, and fought against by helping those with it. I don’t want to think of Williams, the funniest, warmest, most huggable man to ever appear on the big screen as someone who didn’t have anyone to look out for him. Because, really, who wants to live in a world in which Robin Williams gave in to depression?

The man has a special place in my mind; not only is he part of my childhood, he’s also part of my adulthood. His good-natured humour, softly-spoken fortitude and again, that smile, aren’t just things you enjoy as a kid and then drop; you carry them for the rest of your life. ‘Make your lives extraordinary’, he tells his students in Dead Poets Society. We can all use his as a template.

Follow the editor @GaryGreenScreen

About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.



  1. Pingback: THE FILM JOURNAL | September 2014 | FilmOnTrial - December 6, 2014

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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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