Well, obviously I had intended on writing about something completely different for my next installment of this mental gafiation.
Unfortunately the shock waves are still reverberating over the death of Robin Williams. Next to this a review of "The Mysterians", or "Our Man Flint", would've seemed specious at best. The good Lord knows I have my callous moments, but even I can't turn away from this without at least a bit of reflection.
We are a peculiar species. We crucify our saviors, claw at our heroes and voraciously consume those who enliven our lives. Someone will rise above the pale and shine with a clear light . . . and, all too unfortunately, the weight of adoration will prove too much to bear. Either that, or the reason someone shines and expresses brilliance is because he or she is attempting to outrun the demons which live inside even the most spiritually blessed among us. The demons can be patient, and the Sun does eventually set.
But we could be so easily deceived into believing that Williams had a clear lead. Few people seemed so remarkably adaptable or vivacious. Watching Williams at full tilt one could believe he'd always nimbly escape his demons. More fool us. If Williams was clever and nimble then, by default, his demons were equally so.
A real tragedy was that, for me, Williams was never allowed to reach his full potential. The last thing I saw from him was a trailer for another weary installment in the wholly forgettable "Night at the Museum" series of films which continue to plague us. Williams was being completely wasted playing Theodore Roosevelt: a comedic bit of fluff that any lesser person could've phoned in.
But that's what a lot of people unfortunately wanted. And please permit me a bit of a detour here in order to underline a point. Some years back I was getting a haircut, and the barber shop patrons and employees were discussing Jim Carrey. "Man in the Moon" had just been released, and none of the people in the shop could understand it. They loudly wondered why Carrey wasn't making "funny" movies anymore, like "Ace Ventura", "Dumb and Dumber" or "The Mask"?
(Naturally, "Dumb and Dumber To" is on the verge of being released. Ah me . . .)
Forty years ago I would've argued loudly with the people in the barber shop. A good actor would constantly be working to stretch his or her dimensions. A good comedian even more so. Objectively I felt Carrey wanted to expand into other roles.
Forty years ago I would've argued. But long since then I've come to realize that (A) not only do people not want their opinions changed, and (B) I learn more by keeping my mouth shut. People did not want Jim Carrey as a consummate actor, they wanted Ace Ventura.
It was the same with Williams. People didn't want a Robin Williams full of subtle complexities, they wanted Mork.
Not that I want to deny that Williams had a genuine comedic talent. "The Birdcage" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" are both excellent films which any pantheon of comedy would be proud to receive. For true steamy, unbridled, gong bong comedy, however, I would direct each and every one of you to find some way to catch the June 10, 2001 episode of "Inside the Actors Studio". Williams was James Lipton's guest and was turned absolutely loose. Totally all over the place and utterly indefatigable (much of the material which appeared on that show would find its way into his "Live on Broadway" concert).
But more than his comedy, I found myself appreciating Williams' "other" roles far more. Films such as "Good Morning, Vietnam", "Patch Adams" and "The Fisher King". Comedies but not wholly dependent on laughs. Films like "The World According to Garp", "Dead Poets Society" and "Moscow on the Hudson", where Williams had a chance to stretch himself. Others such as "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia" where he really stretched himself (proving that the line separating Comedy and Horror could be quite thin).
(Not that I ever would've had a chance for this, but Williams' death forever closes the door on an experiment I would've loved to have tried. Using camera trickery I would've so loved to insert Williams into Anthony Hopkins' scenes as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs". I privately suspect that Williams' interpretation of Lecter would've inspired nightmares, and that he had the potential for being a horror actor without peer.)
But more than his starring roles, I find my favorite Williams performances were in his various bit parts. Almost as if, free of the burden of having to carry an entire film, Williams felt liberated to really run with a performance. I love it in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" when Williams glides in as John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith. One of the brightest moments for me in Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" is Williams' brief bit as Osric. His King of the Moon, in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", is funny, but once again with faintly delicious traces of horror. For even more horror, though (and my all time favorite Williams bit part), his role as The Professor in Christopher Hampton's 1996 adaptation of Conrad's "The Secret Agent" is sheer delight to watch: his menace as poised and coiled as a cobra.
Even more than a comedian and an actor, though, I found myself in sheer envy of Williams' lightning talent for improvisation. If, as Edmund Kean said, comedy is hard, then Williams overcame the difficulty by having a rapid-fire mind which could find the proper mad line to insert into a situation, backed by the potent ammunition of a wonderfully literate intellect. A friend recently reminded me of Jonathan Winters. As with Williams, Winters was another master of smooth improv (and also plagued by demons). Naturally he and Williams were friends. And, just as naturally, their true potentials were cut off at the knees when paired together on "Mork and Mindy". Hollywood never quite knew what to do with Williams (the same confusion would cause movie studios to hobble another genius: Ernie Kovacs). Always demonstrating how much potential he possessed, Williams was thrown the usual tired material (e.g. "Man of the Year", "RV"). Williams benefitted from his success, and was also made a prisoner of it. Perhaps it was the imprisonment which allowed the demons to finally catch up.
We may never know. As for now, he's probably headlining in Heaven, on a double bill with Winters. All that's left for us is the work he left behind, and a prayer that good seats will be available when we're called.