Picture courtesy: www.robinwilliams.com
Robin Williams possessed an exhausting genius for performing arts. Quite easily, there was simply no match for his volatile artistry on stage, on television and in the movies. It was as if he could never switch off while living. There was only one way for him to switch off.
Considering he had so much of it, it was rather easy to take Williams’ excessive talent for granted. To me, he died of excessive talent. Every time I saw him, either in a movie or on stage or television, the predominant sense one got was that he had a terribly hard time containing himself. If there was one film which could have described the sheer raw and kinetic energy level that he possessed, it would be his 1997 outing in ‘Flubber’ as an absent-minded professor who creates a crazy bouncy rubber-like substance. Not a particularly memorable film, it had the single virtue of encapsulating Williams’ high octane energy.
There was something to Williams’ talent that suggested tremendous inflammability. It was so charged up at all times that sometimes one felt that even mundane routines of life could set him off. It was as if his mind and his articulation were in a constant race with each other. It would have been fascinating to go inside that mind and feel from within what it felt to be him.
I don’t know about you but I found it hard to keep up with his relentless humor, antics, performance and pure joy. I thought he had the kindest face in Hollywood and those who knew him well say he had the nature to match his face. I liked almost everything that Williams did. Even his hamming was better than many so-called actors’ acting.(I have said this before for Dilip Kumar). I remember many roles but the two that pop up instantly are as the nonconformist English literature teacher John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989) and Dr. Malcolm Sayer in ‘Awakenings’ (1990). He nailed the two characters with frightening ease. Remember that one of them, Dr. Sayer, was with Robert De Niro as the catatonic patient Leonard Lowe.
Not that an Oscar is a measure of a talent of Williams’ magnitude but he should have won for ‘Dead Poets Society’. Notwithstanding that, the role seemed to have been tailor-made for him, Williams’ performance was brilliantly memorable if carefully shorn of gimmickry. I felt particularly connected to him in that movie because he taught his students to be nonconformist and as a measure of that encouraged them to stand on their desks. That I used to stand on my desk a full four years before ‘Dead Poets Society’ was made gave me a minor sense of triumph. I vividly remember exulting with a weird laughter when the scene first came in the movie. It was so unexpected. My fellow audience members thought that I had laughed more than the scene deserved but it was personal for me.
The thing with Williams was that whatever he did—standup comedy, television roles and movie parts–everything seemed to come naturally to him. I am sure there was effort involved but it never appeared that way. He seemed to lead a life that was written before he was born. And yet extemporaneous, impromptu, off-the-cuff, adlibbing, improvisation were all descriptions that fit him like a finely tailored Savile Row. He improvised and adlibbed so much throughout his long career that one should not be surprised if he often forgot the many memorable things that he said and did.
I watched his old clips, including from the raging hit ‘Mork and Mindy’ (ABC-1978), and was struck by how throughout his performing career he had what I call a combustible authenticity no matter what part he played. A significant part of that had to do with Williams’ apparent lack of inhibitions. There was this supreme self-assurance to his art that made him certain that the audience would watch it with great relish no matter what he did. In a way, Williams embodied uninhibited selves of millions of others. He became what others wanted to but could not.
In tributes to him I found one recurring theme about the generosity of his spirit when it came to sharing his art. There was that, of course, but, equally I think, it was also the fact that what he possessed was simply not containable.
I am conscious that I may be overstating some of his strengths but rather that than miss them altogether.
So here is to a man who lived a life of constant and spectacular creative agitation.