The Tragic Clown

Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting”

The death of Robin Williams seems to hit harder than most. Of course we feel sad when a great actor dies, someone we look up to and appreciate the work of. But the death of Robin Williams for some reason feels sickening, a vicious punch in the gut. He was a man who my generation could really appreciate the full body of work because his career soared as we got older. The trajectory was the same. His cinema was a staple for middle-school and high-school teachers to show their students as a learning experience of life. When we were little kids, he was The Genie (Aladdin). When we got older he became our nanny (Mrs. Doubtfire). Then as we entered the adolescent years, he was our teacher and captain (Dead Poets Society). Further on, when we were getting ready to go to college, he was our mentor and life-coach (Good Will Hunting). He taught us that a little bit of laughter can work wonders (Patch Adams). Even as a film enthusiast, looking at his less ‘popular’ work such as The Fisher King, Awakenings, The World According to Garp, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo, we see an actor who became his characters. That is a cliche, yes, but only because it is overused on individuals who just mimic. Robin Williams dove head-first into a character unlike I had ever seen. He was not a method actor like Dustin Hoffman or Daniel Day-Lewis. There were no tricks to his trade. There was just him, unfiltered, unapologetic. For Williams, it came natural because he was born performer. There are always those few actors who have been there from since we were children, and their roles grew along with us. Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise. Like them, Robin Williams was Generation Y’s actor.

What’s even more heartbreaking about his death is how it happened. It was a suicide, something that is completely preventable on the fact that our biology is engineered to naturally stop ourselves from doing it. It requires an incredible amount of physical and psychological depression and ill-will to commit suicide… it is not something that is easy, nor is it something that is selfish.

“I heard a joke once: A man goes to the doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life is harsh and cruel. Says he feels alone in a threatening world. The doctor says “Oh, the treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go see him. That should pick you up!” …. The man bursts into tears and says, “Doctor, I am Pagliacci.”

It is quite clear we never understood Robin Williams. We never knew who he was. We simply only knew what he dreamed of being. What he hoped to be. Someone who teaches, inspires, does great work, someone who can be happy about who he is. What is most tragically ironic is how much Robin Williams’s roles in cinema teach us not to be like he was in real life. A manic depressive. Bi-polar. Mentally ill. Sean Maguire says to Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting, “You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.” Why couldn’t Robin Williams see the good stuff. I am in no place to judge what is easy or hard, good or bad to the man, but me and a million other people my age spent time after time looking back at Williams’s cinema as a way to get us out of a rut through his eccentricity and good humor. “Feeling down? The treatment is simple. Watch a Robin Williams movie.” The man who committed suicide because he didn’t think he was good enough meant more than the world to an entire generation. Robin Williams was Pagliacci.

Some times, it was all the more obvious. Hunter Adams stands on the edge of a cliff contemplating suicide and exclaims to God: “So what now, huh? What do you want from me? Yea, I could do it. We both know you wouldn’t stop me. So answer me, please. Tell me what you’re doing. Okay, let’s look at the logic. You create man. Man suffers enormous amounts of pain. Man dies. Maybe you should have had just a few more brainstorming sessions prior to creation. You rested on the seventh day, maybe you should have spent that day on compassion.” Film critic Bilge Ebiri tweeted on the wake of Williams’s death, “You start off as a kid seeing Robin Williams as a funny man. You come of age realizing many of his roles are about keeping darkness at bay.” In many of his roles, Robin Williams is the mentor, the teacher and the guide for individuals who have lost their way, find themselves in a dark place, or have just lost all hope. But nobody ever returned the favor to Robin. Through his drug addictions, alcoholism, depression among a litany of other problems, the world listened to a deeply hurt individuals putting on a smiling face and giving us the best advice we could have ever asked for, but never did we think he could have used it too. Hearing the downpour of sorrow from the internet full of people mourning his death is what he really could have used during his life. The pinnacle scene of Good Will Hunting shows Sean Maguire repeating “It’s not your fault” to Will. “It’s not your fault.” Maybe Robin Williams needed someone say that to him, but it never happened.


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