Robin Williams could do anything, given the right material or the right platform. In a career that went from TV to stand-up to the stage to the big screen, and that ended abruptly and tragically with his death on Monday, Williams proved he was a tremendous comedian, a legendary improviser, and a seemingly boundless font of energy who was able to turn the volume down dramatically to take on serious roles. He could be big and electric, voicing a role like the Genie in Aladdin, and he could shrink himself down to play a pleased-with-himself killer in Insomnia or a desperately lonely technician in One Hour Photo. He worked in the tireless way that people do when they truly love something, and in the restless way that people do when they’re never really satisfied with their output.
He was in his purest form as a stand-up: mile-a-minute, effervescent, slipping from voice to voice and thought to thought. When squeezing himself into characters on screen, the results could vary. He was particularly fond of playing holy clowns, the bright, rebellious, occasionally martyred voices of warmth and humor and madness in the middle of unforgiving worlds — like the role he got his first Academy Award nomination for in Good Morning, Vietnam, or his part in The Fisher King, which was also Oscar-nominated. His earnestness could crossover into treacly, in movies like Patch Adams or Bicentennial Man. But it could be powerful and moving, like when he was the best possible replacement dad in Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting, loving but firm, shucking off cynicism, coaxing the young men in his care out from behind their shells of defensiveness or indifference.
He plays a father in World’s Greatest Dad, a 2009 indie written and directed by fellow comedian Bobcat Goldthwait that may be the Williams role that I love best of all. It’s also one that is, for many reasons, almost unbearably sad to revisit now, not the least because it deals with themes of suicide, but also because its emotional epiphany is so hard-fought and so uncompromised, directly dealing with how people mourn and how we sanctify the dead.
Williams could go big (take Mrs. Doubtfire) and he could do weird (see his turn in Robert Altman’s live-action Popeye), but no other movie has allowed him quite the same combination of emotional honesty and recognition of how strange, dark, and hilarious life can be as World’s Greatest Dad did. The only other recent thing that came close was Williams’ appearance on Season 3 of Louie, in which he and Louis C.K. are the only two attendees at a funeral for a man they both acknowledge was absolutely awful.
C.K. could have been borrowing from Goldthwait’s film in sentiment — in it, Williams plays Lance Clayton, a high school English teacher, failed writer, and the father of a teenager boy named Kyle (Daryl Sabara) who’s an unrepentant little shit. Kyle’s nearly friendless and hates everything except for porn, and he’s fond of throwing around the terms “fag” and “retarded” to refer to everything else, including his loving but exasperated single dad. Kyle dies in an accident involving masturbation, and in an act of parental love, Lance restages the scene as a suicide, penning a note that gets published in the school paper and makes Kyle posthumously popular for the fineness of his writing and his unflinching observations about identity and belonging.
World’s Greatest Dad is pitch black, but it’s never mean, and I can’t help but thinking about it as the waves of appreciations and salutes roll in — not because there’s anything wrong with them, not at all, but because it’s inevitable that we think of people’s best selves when we grieve for them, smoothing over the more complicated, fallible figures they were when alive, looking at the ways (as I am here) in which they touched our own lives. Williams could be a brilliant performer and was, by all accounts, an incredibly generous colleague, friend, and human being, but he was also someone who struggled with addiction and depression that may have lead to him taking his own life — and he was open about his battles, most memorably, for me, in an amazing episode of the podcast WTF With Marc Maron from 2010 that was recently reposted.
Like many great comedians, Williams’ gifts for laughter seemed parceled with that inner darkness, and its acknowledgement of that pairing is one of the reasons World’s Greatest Dad feels so resonant. It’s a role that showcases Williams’ underappreciated capacity for nuance — the scene in which he’s being comforted by a total stranger and can’t stop himself from giggling at the absurdity, a reaction the woman he’s talking to keeps mistaking for tears, passing him tissues. Or like this scene from the end (mild spoilers!), in which his face conveys such a quicksilver mix of sadness, regret, resignation, and the slightest touch of mischief. That clip doesn’t include the lines that follow, in voiceover, as the soundtrack kicks off the perfect song and a callback to earlier in the film: “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worse thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” It’s an observation to break your heart, but the sequence that it’s a part of is filled with such complex but exhilarated joy and mourning all at once. It’s the kind of role Williams could pull off so well. God, he’ll be missed.