August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, R.I.P.

He was a prodigious talent, no doubt about it, but his appeal - unlike that of his hero, Jonathan Winters - largely escaped me.  I grew up outside the range of Mork and Mindy*, so I missed Williams at his peak; his movie work, that which I saw of it, generally made on me a negative impression, if anything at all.  People like Patch Adams and Adrian Cronauer (the fictional ones, that is) are generally the kind that, in a perfect world, would receive a punch in the nose.

*Literally, thanks once again to the world's worst town.

And yet there were two performances of his which I would not hesitate to label as extraordinary - dramatic turns in Insomnia and Dead Again - that convinced me Williams could really act, if he put his mind to the right role.*  In that way, too, he mirrored Jonathan Winters, who turned in a memorable dramatic performance in an episode of The Twilight Zone that made one wonder what else he might have been capable of.

*I know: the old canard, which I largely agree with, that comedy is more difficult than drama.  True, likely, but not necessarily more satisfying.

There was, of course, the other trait he shared with Winters, and with many other entertainers, and that was depression.  Listening this morning to some of the details of Williams' life, we heard about how he was an unpopular, overweight child, and resorted to comedy and voice talents to create an alternate world in which he could be more comfortable.  He had later, well-publicized battles with addiction, and in retrospect one is tempted to look back at his body of work and see a latent sadness in it, an attempt to wring humor out of a world that was inherently hostile.  Again, the link between comedy and tragedy, separated by such a thin line.

In his obit of Williams this morning, NRO writer Michael Potemra used blogosphere language to describe depression; not unlike an internet troll, it is "an equally malevolent, anonymous force, trying to break someone’s spirit — only he actually lives inside that person, has the person’s own intelligence, and therefore knows that person’s faults with infinite specificity and can use them to destroy him."

That's about as good a description of depression as I've read, and as one who's suffered from it myself, I can testify to its debilitating qualities.  It is a tragedy wrapped in a tragedy, and it is why the Catholic Church has come to understand that suicide does not automatically condemn one to Hell, for it often renders that person incapable of thinking in a clear or straight manner; they literally become incapable of making a prudential judgment.  As Christians we know the deadliness of the sin of despair, and when one becomes so enveloped in depression that one cannot even recognize despair as anything but a way of life, it calls for - and, we can only hope and trust, will receive - a level of mercy that far surpasses the disease.

I started out with the suggestion that I was not a fan of Robin Williams; even in death I don't resort to hagiography.  But I know well that a great many people were and are, and his death affects them in a special way.  They'd come to know him, to feel that he was a part of their lives, one that gave them simple pleasures, perhaps even pulling them out of their own depression.  That's an essential element of our humanity, the ability to bring light into the life of someone else; a commendable one, and one which, again, we trust will carry with it its own merits and rewards.  Thus is the life of Robin Williams, its tragedy and ultimately its triumph.  To Thee do we commend his eternal soul.

4 comments:

  1. I did grow up with Mork and Mindy, and Mork became an idol to my young self. I think I learned a lot about just being yourself from him, no matter how weird and wacky you are. Hard for me to think of Mork being gone. Hard to think of Robin Williams just over and done. Thankfully, there will be his many, many performances to keep making people laugh and smile and remember yet another lost, sad clown.

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    1. That's precisely it, Joe - his tragedy, and his ultimate triumph.

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  2. How Life and Death are both unfair:

    I'm writing this Tuesday night, 10:00 pm CDT.
    I've just read of the passing of Lauren Bacall, aged 89, from a stroke, reported earlier tonight.
    The thought occurred to me that coverage of this passing would likely not get quite the space of Robin Williams.
    Not surprising; remember what happened when Elvis Presley and Groucho Marx died within days of each other.
    "... even in death, it seems, we're not equal ... " - David Frost.

    But then, I noticed another story:

    This past Saturday - before the two passings I just mentioned - Ed Nelson, a familiar face to those who attend this site, died at 85, in South Carolina, where he'd been retired for many years.

    I'll leave it to you to draw whatever lesson there might be from all this ...

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    1. Ed Nelson! I had no idea he'd died; fie on me. You're absolutely right, though - how much coverage will he get? I should do something on him, just to show that he wasn't forgotten.

      Bacall - as with Williams, I was never really a fan of hers. For example, I much prefer the original cut of "The Big Sleep" that doesn't play up her role as much. I wonder, too, how famous she would have been had she never been married to Bogie. Nonetheless, there's no question that she was a real STAR, not merely a celebrity. Maybe I'll do something for her over at the other blog.

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