Others have eulogized him more eloquently and with more poignancy, but I can’t avoid writing about Robin Williams.
For me, Williams’ stage performances, those incandescent flights of furious delight, almost always eclipse everything else the man did. Whenever I read arguments over whether comedy is art, Williams is why the answer is a definitive ‘yes.’
My favorite performance was from the early 1980s when Williams was hosting a young comics competition (probably on HBO, although I can’t find the clip) and in the few minutes he was on stage, he transmogrified the crowd (and those watching at home) into a gasping, convulsing wreck. In a ‘normal’ Williams performance, there was build-up, escalation, and then as he wove connections that were always just right, transcendence. Then the man would dial it back so you could breathe again.
No so during this hosting gig. He had such little time on stage, there was no gradual uplift, there was only a brilliant yet maniacal assault that wrecked everyone (including the unfortunate young comics forced to follow him onto the stage he had just incinerated).
Although I had respected the man’s acting (especially in Dead Poet’s Society), I never bought him as a dramatic actor until 1991’s The Fisher King. Besides being one of my favorite movies of all time, besides the amazing magic-realism script, the superb direction, the anarchic set design, and the spot-on performances, what Williams finally managed to do was bring to film the same emotionally assaultive show of force he had up to then only unleashed on stage.
Terry Gilliam’s comments about directing Williams in The Fisher King are insightful.
For some reason, upon hearing of Williams’ suicide, I couldn’t shake memories of Williams’ 1991 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show that I must have first seen around the time I watched The Fisher King. It’s not in this clip, but during the audience participation segment, one of the attendees lays out how Williams’ film performances have followed the trajectory of his personal tribulations with the idea that, with The Fisher King, he had finally achieved redemption, that he had finally beaten back his depression, his addictions, that he had finally defeated the Red Knight.
If only that were so.
We can’t know what finally drove Williams to take his own life. We can speculate that the rip-currents of depression had become too strong to swim against, that the seductive song of alcohol couldn’t be ignored, that it was in fact a diagnosis of Parkinson’s that pushed him to end it. Explanations in these circumstances are comforting at first but they ultimately don’t substitute for the person that we’ve lost. Especially a mega-someone, a wondrous human hurricane of a someone.
Robin Williams is lost to us. There is nothing we can do to make this reality easier to face. Sometimes, the Red Knight wins.
When someone of Williams’ stature loses a battle with depression and addiction, the event sends a message easy to misinterpret: ‘Well, shit, if Robin Williams can’t beat it, how can I?” But Williams was a devoted humanist who probably kept going as long as he did because of his love of other people. I have to believe that Williams wouldn’t want those who similarly suffer from depression and addiction to surrender, even if he did.
Defeating the Red Knight, then, is only ever a transient victory. A victory won in moments, not in days or in months or in years. Yes, we can fight our depression, our anxiety, our addictions for a time, but we have to acknowledge that we’ve only won right now. And the next moment may well bring another full-frontal assault against us, so we must be ever vigilant, and we must always stay strong. Always.
It can be exhausting.
But we must also remember the flipside: in those darkest moments, when the Red Knight has chased us down, and there seems no end to our suffering, the next moment may yet bring us back to equilibrium, may yet bring us back to strength, may yet bring us back to laughter, and perhaps, may yet bring us all the way up to transcendence.
Just as Robin Williams did for us time and time again.