When I was young and struggling to raise my son on a secretary’s meager pay while working on my degree, my friend Amy and I used to say to each other, “Keep passing those open windows.” This way of encouraging each other was a reference to John Irving’s novel “The Hotel New Hampshire”. In the book, the Berry family would remember the suicide of a family member by repeating the phrase back and forth to each other as a talisman. “Keep passing those open windows”; keep finding a way–as a sensitive, creative, caring soul–to make it in this world.
Yesterday, at the age of 63, magical spirit, Academy-Award-winning actor Robin Williams, who was equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles, lost his battle with passing those open windows and gave up the fight by hanging himself with a belt. Depression and addiction, the media report, were the twin taskmasters that took away his strength for the continuing battle.
Why do we feel his loss so personally? No, was my reaction. Not Robin Williams. The outpouring of collective grief has been visceral and seemingly universal. Not Robin Williams.
We do not want to give him up because he was a member of our family. The truly good guys, the creative-life-force family of those who teach us and who help us laugh at the absurdities of life, the bullies, the doubts, the fears, and the injustices–those guys we do not want to live without. His stand-up comedy was angry and powerful, hilarious and fierce. He was us–except better and quicker and deeper and bigger than life.
And he did what no other stand-up comedian of his generation has done: he was as compelling and adept at dramatic roles as in comedy. It was in his title role in the movie “The World According to Garp” (from a novel written by John Irving), his inspiring teacher in “Dead Poets Society”, and his wounded spirit therapist in “Good Will Hunting” where he won my heart. Actually, he could have done just done “Garp” or “Dead Poets” alone and he would have made my own personal hall-of-fame.
He may have lost his own battle with life, but three of his best movies give a blueprint for how to live passionately, grab life by the throat and say, “It’s me. I’m going to live life on my own terms, not the empty rules and going-through-the motions life that has no juice or spirit!” For that’s how he lived his life.
“The World According to Garp” (1982) is filled with the eccentric characters that inhabit John Irving novels–and real life, let’s face it. For nothing is stranger or harder to believe than the crazy wackiness of what really goes on in life. Garp’s mother, a nurse named Jenny Fields played by Glenn Close, wants to have a child, not a man, mind you, but a child. So she does the most practical thing she can think of and mounts one of her patients, a technical sergeant who was brain damaged in World War II combat but who remarkably still has what it takes to do his part in reproductive bingo. And voila, Jenny gives birth to T. S. (named after his father, the technical sergeant) Garp played by Robin Williams in his first defining dramatic role, and he was made for it.
After Garp grows up, he and his wife are looking for a house to buy and while they are standing in the backyard with the real estate agent, a small plane crashes into the upper portion of the house. Ninety-nine percent of the world would look further, but Garp decides the bad-luck lightning could not strike twice at this location, so he says they will take the house.
John Lithgow’s character in the film is a former NFL tight end who feels strongly that he is really a woman trapped in a gifted professional athlete’s body. He becomes the woman he was meant to be and finds a family of his own choosing with Jenny and Garp.
Garp lesson: unless you are a sociopath or a reality-TV star, do not live by the more meaningless rules established by society, institutions, your family, or other people in general if they do not ring true for you. And choose your own family, biological and/or otherwise. Aside: if you are a novelist and are lucky enough to have your book made into a movie, do a cameo appearance in the field of your dreams, in this case Irving’s is competitive wrestling!
In 1989’s “Dead Poets Society”, Williams plays John Keating, a passionate unconventional teacher at a straitlaced all-boys academy in 1959. All the boys have the same haircut and most are afraid of straying too far from the conventions and the futures their parents have chosen for them. But Keating stands on top of his desk and incites them with the sword of poetry to live passionate, full lives, to “suck the marrow out of life.”
“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.” “Carpe diem“, he says, “Seize the day”, for we do not know how many chances or days we will have. He quotes Walt Whitman’s poem written as an elegy in 1865 at the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln:
O Captain, my Captain, rise up and hear the bells; Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills;
Actress Anna Kendrick quoted this passage in her tweet after Robin Williams’ passing, and I found it quite perfect in its simplicity. Robin Williams was our captain and teacher, just as he was for his students in “Dead Poets Society”.
Dead Poets lesson: “I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” If only Robin had remembered this and reinvented himself, again, as he had so many times before and taken on a role that he could fully inhabit in the way he did John Keating, T. S. Garp, and Dr. Sean Maguire of “Good Will Hunting”. Perhaps he would have remembered himself and all he taught us and how much we loved him, his generosity, and his work.
In 1997 Matt Damon and Ben Affleck finally realized their dream of bringing their screenplay “Good Will Hunting” to the screen with Robin Williams in the pivotal role of the psychologist and Damon as the troubled mathematics genius Will Hunting.
Damon’s character Will could not communicate his thoughts or feelings, nor could he accept the opportunities open to him by his self-taught intelligence and photographic memory. He wanted instead to stay in the low-responsibility role of a janitor at MIT, drinking with his buddies on the weekends. But after he anonymously solves an algebraic math theory problem thought to be unsolvable, he is challenged to do more with his life by his best friend (Affleck) and the psychologist (Williams) who shares his own pain in order to reach him.
Sharing his own pain in order to reach us is what Robin Williams did best. He followed in the footsteps of the creative geniuses who inspired him, from early film innovator Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp to Williams’ beloved touchstone comedian Jonathan Winters.
“Good Will Hunting” lesson: “You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to,” said Williams as Dr. Maguire. If the bad times always woke us up, Robin would still be with us. But we would be taking him for granted, which is the lesson we learn from “Good Will Hunting”: we are not blessed with everything we want and need out of life, but we must grab the opportunities, expand ourselves, and take risks to get to where our talents can take us. And not take for granted the serendipitous wonders that come our way, such as laughing and crying with a man of great talent such as Robin Williams.
I have been frustrated by the coverage of Robin’s career since his death yesterday. Too few references are made to his dramatic range. The photos across the top of USAToday‘s “Life” section depict Williams in “Mork and Mindy”, “Night at the Museum 2”, and “Mrs. Doubtfire” which, no matter how good he was at playing a woman in the latter, do not begin to show the range of his talent.
And the headline of the front-page article of today’s New York Times reads “Gushing Comic, Giddy TV Alien, Oscar Winner”. That’s the best the Times can do: gushing comic and giddy TV alien? I submit “Gifted Actor, Comedic Legend, and Inspiration to a Generation” would be more on point.
How about his tireless work with Whoopie Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and other comedians on HBO’s Comic Relief, a series of telethons that raised millions of dollars for the homeless? What about, as President Obama mentioned in his tribute to Williams, his many trips to entertain American troops stationed around the world?
Ah, well. His work and his generosity of spirit stand on their own. As my friend Steve eloquently put it in a Facebook post, “How ironic is it that the sanest, most humane, and funniest man in film died of depression? He was our Little Tramp who made us recall time and again what is important in life.”
“Dead Poets” and “Garp” are two of my favorite movies because they encourage me to live life fully as me instead of being a pale derivative of all the people I am not–who would (perhaps) fit in better in the world around me. Living life with passion and creativity is not for the faint, and I suppose, it is understandable that our own dear Robin stopped passing those open windows. He metaphorically jumped off the whirlwind and is out of pain, leaving us bereft, one really fabulous spirit short for the duration.
Yes, depression is indeed the province of many a genius, generous spirit, and tireless reformer who cannot make the world a better-enough place. Maybe that was it instead of his battle with addiction. I don’t know. But I am so sad that he was alone at the end and did not remember how much so many people love him–those who have met him and those who have not–and have been inspired by him.
He wasn’t a child when he died, but he had about him a child-like, ever-young way that drew us to him. Good bye, Captain, O my Captain. We loved you well, sweet spirit, but now be free.
// Anna — 8/12/2014