Seizing the day in right spirit

Second Take

For years now, I haven’t been able to stand Robin Williams in anything.

 I’m sure, as a person, he was really fine, but as an actor and comedian, he had long worn out his welcome — at least for me, and for several people I can think of who were once his fans. He used to be a favourite actor, and then, in the last decade or so, I began avoiding not just his movies, but would quickly skip a TV channel if a clip or a scene with him in it popped up when surfing. His energy was becoming tiresome, his sad face squelching was so full of déjà vu, bringing to mind dozens of movies where he would be doing the same simpering. Terry Gilliam, the British filmmaker and Monty Python member said Williams was able to in a single scene “go from manic to mad to tender and vulnerable.” And this probably is what I found so bothersome in his style. 

Once, perhaps some five years ago, I thought I would give his famous stand-up act a try. It was a highly-acclaimed piece of performance; that particular show had become a legend in stand-up comedy. I thought: maybe here I can reclaim the genius of Williams that everyone talks about, but just 15 minutes of it was enough. All the tics that became famous later were there: the mumbling, the rapid fire shtick, the delirious energy, like someone grabbing and spewing words as if words would run out if he stopped. And yet, unbelievably enough, there was a time when we sought out his movies; at the video library we would drop everything else to pick up something with Williams in it. I remember when Awakenings first came out, we rented it more for Williams than for De Niro: we were itching to see him play Oliver Sacks, a writer we had been reading.

We were also fans of The World According to Garp, and became excited on learning Williams was to play Garp. Good Morning Vietnam, of course, we saw over and over again. Dead Poets Society changed everything for Williams: from a comedian, a midlist star, he shot to stardom. Williams could use that sympathetic style of wit and sadness to play serious, dramatic roles. 

After being a fan — like probably thousand others — of Dead Poets Society, I grew to dislike it, even though strangely I continued to like Williams in it. Dead Poets Society was pure Hollywood fakery which we believed, and this became clearer when I caught up with other movies with a more authentic school setting: from Kes to Flirting to The Browning Version. Most stories of this genre — gifted, struggling teacher inspiring students — eventually have rousing scenes of self-congratulatory classroom sessions and an emotionally overblown climax with the teacher finally triumphing, like that famous end in Dead Poets Society. 

By the time he turned up in The Fisher King, Patch Adams, The Birdcage and Hook, I couldn’t bear to watch Williams (and Dustin Hoffman, who had also worn out his welcome by then). The most loathsome of all was Mrs Doubtfire, signaling that Williams had gone from an iconoclast comedian to populist start. Good for him, of course — all that success and money, but bad news for his fans. The disillusionment and disappointment began setting in. 

He did a lot of theatre in these last years, one in particular I can only imagine how dreadful it must have been: him and Steve Martin in Waiting for Godot. I don’t know who was probably worse, though I can hazard a guess that Martin must have slightly edged Williams out in his comic obnoxiousness and smugness. There are some RW performances I still like: that perfect little part in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry; The Night Listener, The Aristocrats and the one film critics never single out. 

The film is Seize The Day, a Saul Bellow novella turned into a 93 minute television film in 1986. This is the only film I treasure Williams in — that thing Gilliam had said about him, that he could go from manic to mad to vulnerable is here played out not in every scene or as a constant, unwavering performance, but played out through the film as the character plunges deeper into the story. So, it was before he became popular, before Good Morning Vietnam. When he was unconscious of his style, hadn’t frozen it into a formula, was exploring his own depths as an actor. 

The film is difficult to find, it never had a wide release, and I remember finding a grainy VHS of it by chance in the late 80s in a video library. Realising that it would be hard to find again, I made a copy of it, and watched the even grainier copy several times, often urging friends to see it with me. I trawled through YouTube in the hope that some kindly soul had uploaded it, but repeatedly it brings up only clips from Dead Poets Society because they appropriated the title as a catch phrase in the movie (carpe diem). We’ve often been told that Williams can communicate the pain a character is going through, but it is here in Seize the Day, directed by Fielder Cook, that you can really feel his pain, never mind his feeling the character’s pain.

 He plays a man in mid-life crisis, having lost his job and his wife and children to a divorce, he now has to beseech his autocratic father (Joseph Wiseman) for money. He goes from one excruciating situation to the other, as his pain and despair deepen. By turns, the film becomes comical and tragic, as various characters Williams encounters go for each other’s throats. The most comical Bellow character here, an ersatz doctor played perfectly by Jerry Stiller, leads him further into trouble with poor counsel. You feel terrible at times to be laughing at such enormous foolishness and engulfing failure, but laugh you do, helplessly, even as you realise with a little dread that this long suffering character could well be you someday.

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