Robin Williams' Brilliance Broke My Heart and Mended It, Again and Again

Robin Williams' Brilliance Broke My Heart and Mended It, Again and Again

Celebrities are our Greek gods. We place them on their Olympus with great intention, collecting constellation stories from our stars, sometimes for a season and sometimes for decades. When life’s big events affect our players with marriages, births, deaths, addiction, tragedy, or crime, we take their stories in more deeply, and notice how their stories are woven fast against the cloth of our own lives. We look for ways to understand our own lives through theirs, because it can sometimes help us more than trying to look headlong into our own. They carry us through both our desire to know and our desire not to know too much, and they give us a common language to use to discuss these big issues with each other.

This common language is an amazing thing, the way our celebrities and their art can make it possible for us to share ourselves and create a culture with each other with clarity and meaning. Robin Williams was one of our biggest, brightest stars, holding tremendous capacity to illuminate our vulnerabilities and soothe them with both comedy and pathos, so this one really hurts. His life has been woven tightly to ours for decades, his suffering and death poignant and painful. This one really hurts.

Robin Williams in The Fisher King
Image: © Columbia Pictures/Entertainment Pictures/

When our stars are gifted and prolific artists, we have even more spindles of thread to work with. When we talk about them, we are reminded of each piece of their work, and are instantly transported to who we were when we experienced it. When we talk about Robin Williams, then, we are talking about what we know of him: the proud father; the generous philanthropist. We are talking about all the issues he brings with him into the spotlight: comedy as an art form; addiction; relapse; mental illness; suicide. We talk about his art: the unique explosion of Mork; the memorable, improv-rich comedic sets; the breadth of his roles in Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo, Dead Poets Society. His connection to the magic of childhood as Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, Teddy Roosevelt. And on and on.

Mostly, though, we talk about what all of that means to us. I think about who I was when Mork got me through lonely school weeks. How Mrs. Doubtfire made me believe that some men were, contrary to my personal experience, good fathers. How Ferngully, in which Robin Williams was perfectly charming as the voice of a bat, captured my then-young son’s heart so much that after many VHS viewings, one of Batty’s lines, “Gravity works!” became a lifeline catchphrase for our family.

Spill milk? Say Gravity works! in Robin Williams’ voice, and he is right there suggesting you laugh instead of crying. It works. Williams' magic, like gravity, works.

Sometimes it feels like we’ve grown up with a star because we have. I grew up with Robin Williams, and then later, so did my boys. His shows, performances, and movies mark milestones in our lives. We traveled along with him, as we do with other celebrities, as careers ebb and flow. We watch our stars, and in skillful, hard-wrought vulnerability, they let us into their light. They channel people and stories, and put handles on hard and wonderful things so that we can understand—or can bear living with that which we understand all too well. Robin Williams, exquisitely talented at dovetailing comedy and drama, major supernova star, gave us so much, for so long. Not long enough, of course, but for so very long indeed.

Last night, I re-watched Robin Williams in The Fisher King to be in touch with his art in the aftermath of his death. I also watched Hook and The Birdcage. I didn’t pick these films because I think they are his very best work. I picked them because each means something deeply personal to me. Hook reminds me of the years when I was a young mother in the early ‘90s, trying to find my way to becoming a nurturing parent while healing my own broken childhood, and while figuring out how to be an adult without losing my creative spirit. Robin’s Peter Pan helped. The Birdcage is always a needed, madcap celebration against the insanity of homophobia, and I’ve turned to it again and again.

The Fisher King, like the “it’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting, brings me back to the painstaking work I’ve done, and that I continue to do, to mend myself after life-altering traumas. I’d only seen The Fisher King twice before seeing it again last night, because it’s hard for me to watch, but I love it and it’s important to me. Robin Williams’ searing vulnerability is luminous in the role of Parry, a man who was broken by tragedy and is trying to find his way back to himself through love, connection, forgiveness, and service to the similarly broken. I remember being undone, ugly-crying in the theater, holding the story dear and letting it wash over the parts of me that were struggling at that time in my life with forgiving my mother for events in my childhood. What he did with that character was so brilliantly Williams: charm to disarm, then help break through viewers' armor to touch pain, heal, then mend it back up again. He did it to me with The Fisher King, and he did it again and again, directly or with the kind of laughter that makes you breathe a few inches more deeply.

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