Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams and the Look that Changed My Life

I didn’t have the easiest childhood. We’ve all endured troubles, fears, and nightmares, but at a very young age, my nightmares began living themselves out in my days. And so it goes. This isn’t the proper forum, nor the appropriate time, to divulge further details, but that brief insight is a fitting introduction to explain what Robin Williams means to me.

I was 12 years old the first time I saw Good Will Hunting, and roughly one hour into the film, I knew it was the most amazing movie I’d ever seen. But these were immature, surface reasons. The characters’ constant and creative uses of profanity, and their hasty penchant for street violence, immediately excited and entertained the 12-year-old me. I laughed hard and paid close attention to the profane vernacular that Will Hunting and his friends so freely possessed.

But then something happened. Something so profound and unsettling, that my immaturity concerning the film immediately vanished. It was a moment I didn’t expect, and one that I’ll never forget.

This scene in Good Will Hunting has been ridiculed as much as it’s been revered, parodied as much as lauded. It’s a scene late in the film, directly after therapist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) has had a brutal argument with his old college friend, Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). Will (Matt Damon) interrupts them, and Gerald quickly excuses himself, leaving Will and Sean alone. The two briefly talk about the abuse Will suffered as a foster child (something Will has refused to discuss until now). Sean shares some horror stories from his own past, abuse he endured at the hands of his alcoholic father. And then, sensing that the tension has to break, Sean begins quietly telling Will that all this shit he’s been through is not Will’s fault. “It’s not your fault,” he says, once, twice, ten times. With each utterance, Will becomes more visibly unconformable, and, briefly, violent, before breaking down and sobbing in Sean’s arms.

And that’s when it happened. That’s when Danny Elfman’s gentle music swelled and the film cut to a shot of Robin Williams’ face. A face of immense and unique satisfaction. A face only a father wears when comforting his son. A face that understands.

There are no words, or rather, no words I can clearly form, that encapsulate what that look meant to me. It was a look that said, It’s all right, other people understand – we understand. I remember sitting in the theater, trying to shield my tears, tempted to get up and leave. It’s never easy to be presented with such an emotional moment. My first instinct, especially when I was younger, was to remove myself from such situations, pretend as though it didn’t happen. But, much like Will Hunting, I sat and let the comfort of the moment wash over me. I gave in. I broke through.
I had seen plenty of great movies by the time I was 12, but nothing I had witnessed in a film affected me more than that four second shot of Robin Williams’ soft eyes. When I heard of Robin Williams’ tragic death yesterday, this was the first moment that came to my mind. I knew I had to watch the film immediately, no matter how hard it was going to be. And it was hard. I watched Good Will Hunting last night shaking my head in disbelief, unable to accept the news of Williams’ passing. And right when Sean Maguire began telling Will Hunting that it wasn’t his fault, the strangest thing happened. I reached for the remote with the intention of turning the movie off. Suddenly I was 12 years old again, afraid to let myself feel anything. My anxiety subsided and I let the scene play out, tears flowing the entire time. I’ll always cherish the entirety of Robin Williams’ career, but, because of this moment, I’ll be indebted to him for the rest of my life.

I could go on.

His perfect Oscar speech; his immense sensitivity as Robert De Niro yelled “Learn! Learn! Learn!” in Awakenings; donating blood at Ground Zero mere days after 9/11; his riotous appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio; the time I saw him live in my college town, Richmond, Virginia, where he spent the majority of his set making fun of Richmond’s persistent obsession with “coming in second place in the Civil War”; how, in 2002, he delivered his two finest straight-drama performances, first as a stone-cold psychopath in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, and, three months later, as a tortured, confused, and complex soul in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo; how, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that his work in Mrs. Doubtfire is one of the bravest performances he ever delivered; and how to this day, if I’m ever feeling the slightest bit down, I’ll put on his Live on Broadway stand-up special from 2002, and let the laughs take me.

I could go on, and I likely will in the days ahead. But for now, I’ll leave you with the gentle and accepting eyes of Robin Williams. Eyes that have, and will continue to, comfort me.

I recently turned 29, and the older I get, the more I consciously choose to remember my life in moments. I’ve long since accepted and dealt with those daily nightmares from my youth, and now I make the choice to remember moments of peace, happiness, and inspiration. I remember kind eyes and smiling faces. Faces that let me know that, eventually, things will be all right, and, more importantly, that someone else understands.


54 comments:

  1. As someone who's dealt with depression ever since grade school I'd like to think I know something about what Williams went through. But the truth is that neither I nor no one else will ever know what he went through and put up with in his lifetime. He obviously lived with a lot of pain, sorrow, regret, and any number of things and sometimes the pain can just get to be too much to bear - and there was a point in my life where I seriously considered suicide to be the only way out. I can say with certainty that no matter how down I was feeling in my life and how bad things got for me, Williams was a constant source of light for me. Whether it's his numerous performances of both the comedic and dramatic variety, his stand-up or talk-show appearances, or just the occasional interviews where he was much quieter and restrained - I could always count on him making me smile. Sometimes a smile and a laugh is the easiest way to deal with things, and I can't say for certain since I only know how it's impacted my life, but there's always sometime more beneath. Even now, depression is something that occasionally haunts me. I have nothing but respect for Mr. Williams as both a comedian, an actor, and as a human being, but I feel nothing but sorrow that this is how his flame was extinguished from our world.

    RIP. Robin Williams - you will be missed more than you know.

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    1. Wow man, thank you so much for sharing that. Really, truly, very brave of you. I respect and appreciate everything you've been through, and I must say how much it warms my heart to hear that Williams has always been a source of light for you. At it's best, that's what comedy can do. It can uplift us, inspire us - it can make us feel whole again. But, as you mentioned, there was far more to Williams than just laughs. I'll so saddened by his loss. He will most definitely be missed, indeed.

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  2. Oh
    My
    GOD...this post is everything. I'm seriously in tears right now. I finished rewatching Good Will Hunting mere minutes ago and I'm shaking. I had such a bad memory of the film and the performance and honestly considered it overrated and now I'm so angry with myself for rejecting it for so long. Maybe it's the sentimentality that surrounds it, but the power in that look you posted here is breaking my soul right now.

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    1. Thanks man, I appreciate your kind words, they mean a lot. I'm glad to hear that you've come to enjoy Good Will Hunting, even though it's under such sad circumstances. That performance will always stay with me.

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  3. It's a little hard to read this without being emotional, shit man, that's just heartbreaking. It really is. Williams was a legend. And will always be, that's for sure.

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    1. He certainly was. This wasn't very easy to write, believe me. A very emotional time right now. So very sad.

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  4. Great post. He most certainly will be missed.

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  5. Such a beautiful and personal post! I think it's impossible to overestimate the degree to which books and movies have helped so many of us find solace from pain and learn to fully experience and cope with our emotions. I've always wanted to write a post about this, but I don't know where to begin.

    The last paragraph of this post is fantastic. I wish I'd had this perspective when I was 29. :-)

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    1. Thanks Irene. Your support has always meant so much to me. I guess in a way I've always wanted to write this post as well, but I never knew how. Really saddened that it took Williams' passing to bring it out. But such is the way it goes. And thanks for the final sentences of your comment - that was very kind of you.

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  6. When I first watched Good Will Hunting, I didn't find anything particularly special about it. After hearing of Robin Williams' passing, like many others including you, I sat down and watched as many of his films as I could. I started with Mrs. Doubtfire, then Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Aladdin, Insomnia, and then finally, I topped it all with Good Will Hunting. How I ever thought that it wasn't anything special is beyond me. But all I knew was that I was watching something great, something to be cherished and to be shown to everyone.

    Very few people have the ability to immediately cheer someone up. Whenever I watch a movie with Robin Williams in it, no matter if it is a comedy or a drama, I feel as if I have known the character for a long time. I know people like Genie, and John Keating, and I hope I will meet someone who changes my life like Sean Maguire. I have a special place for Williams in my heart, and I know that his contribution to cinema, and all of the people whose lives he touched with his comedic brilliance will never be forgotten. I cannot thank you enough for this post, Alex.

    Your move, chief.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and leaving such a kind comment, Aditya. I love hearing that you have such a strong emotional connection to so many of Williams' characters. Feeling like you know a fictional character - THAT is acting. There really is no better way to connect with the audience. I'm really glad you gave Good Will Hunting a chance, and that it affected you much more this time. I'm going to admire Sean Maguire for the rest of my days.

      Son of a bitch, stole my line.

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    2. First Robin Williams, now Lauren Bacall. What class acts, both of them. May they rest in peace.

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    3. Class acts indeed. Two damn tough days right in a row.

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  7. This is one of the saddest celebrity deaths i have witnessed in a long time. I was shocked when i first saw the headline that he ha died and just sat there for what must have been several minutes and just stared at that headline before eventually clicking on it. Robin Williams has been one of my favorite actors and comedians for as long as i can remember. I remember destroying my VHS copy of Jumanji as a kid because i had watched it so much. It never mattered if the movie was good or bad, he would always give it everything he got. I remember even getting a few chuckles out of Old Dogs just because of his line delivery. But he was a damn fine dramatic actor as well. Good Will Hunting has always been one of my favorite movies and his performance in it is flawless. One of the best. R.I.P. Mr. Williams. You will definitely be missed.

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    1. I reacted the very same way. Just thinking, No, wait, no, this can't be true. So very sad. And I fully agree, even if Williams wasn't in the best films, there was always something to take away from his work. I remember watching Old Dogs on a place a few years back and thinking, Oh come on, this is that bad. Why? Robin Williams, that's why.

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  8. Dammit, I'm crying again. That is beautiful man. I'm going to watch Mrs. Doubtfire later tonight just to pay tribute to the man. Good Will Hunting is a great film and man, that scene killed me though I would say his best moment was the ending in Dead Poets Society. That made me cry as well.

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    1. Thanks man, really appreciate you leaving this comment. I quite enjoyed your tribute post as well. That conclusion to Dead Poets Society is just absolutely perfect. I can't wait to rewatch that film tonight.

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  9. Thank you, Alex. That was beautiful.

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    1. Thanks Catherine, really appreciate you reading.

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  10. Personal and powerful, Alex. I can only imagine Robin Williams would have been humbled by this. If that look changed your life then that look quite clearly helped yield one hell of a dude.

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    1. Thanks man, really kind of you to say. Sometimes, it all comes down to a look. Funny how that works.

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  11. Beautifully written Alex. I love the way you can connect your passion for the cinema so articulately with your personal life - something I often struggle to do well.
    Jumanji was the first Robin Williams film I ever saw and from there he seemed to be a permanent fixture in my comedic film experience. I will forever respect the man for giving me laughter and happiness (no matter how fleeting), inspiration in the bravery of his performances and the courage to afford happiness to others even when he could not do so for himself.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words Angela, they mean a lot to me. Film really is ingrained in me, always has been. But I'm so pleased that came through in the post.

      Jumanji is a ton of fun. I used to watch that movie on repeat as a kid. In fact, I'm due for a rewatch. No time like the present.

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  12. What more can I add? I read a lot of blog posts, often in the hundreds each week. Few really move me, though. This post was one of the exceptions. It takes courage to really put yourself out there. Brilliant work, Alex.

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    1. Thanks Dan, very nice of you to say. I've always appreciated your support of my writing. Really man, thanks.

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  13. What a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing.

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    1. Thank YOU for reading, and commenting. Means a lot!

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  14. Exceptional post, AW. Just perfect.

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    1. Thanks dude, really appreciate you reading.

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  16. BRAVO ALEX... SO POIGNANT AND BEAUTIFUL!!

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  17. This post, Alex, is why you're easily one of the best online writers I read. Bravo.

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    1. Thanks Anna, that is such a kind thing to say. Means the world to me.

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  18. Beautiful post Alex... your writing is top notch and I love it as it comes from the heart. Thank you for sharing a little about how Mr. Williams had made an impact on your life. This is a beautiful scene indeed and I remember tearing up when I saw it. I didn't have the easiest childhood either, as my mother died on my 16th birthday. His film that made an impact on me around that time was Dead Poets Society, I wish I had a teacher like John Keating.

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    1. Thanks for reading and leaving such a nice comment, Ruth. I'm so very sorry to hear about your mother, I can't imagine your pain during that time. But thanks so much for sharing it here. I really do appreciate it.

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  19. This is a wonderful post, Alex. Williams was a genius but with so much humanity in him. I guess that is why so many of us loved him when we were kids. It's still hard to accept that he is gone. This year has been terrible.

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    1. Thanks Nik. It has been such a tough year, and I'm still having trouble accepting that he's gone as well.

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  20. This is such a beautiful post. A one look, a short scene, can capture such emotions sometimes. It's seemingly a small thing but it's something you remember for years. I think it's when actor's actual emotions shine through and it all becomes so real that it makes it so incredible and memorable. It's such a tragedy that a warm person like that suffered this much pain.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I agree, it's so very sad that such a kind and genuine person battled these inner demons. I honestly still can't believe this.

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  21. Wow, very moving post. I love that you like to remember life in moments, including the ones where a movie scene or an actor touched you in a way that nothing or no one else could. That's why I love the movies. Good Will Hunting was a great movie, and definitely one I will re-watch with new eyes.

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    1. Thanks Kristin, really appreciate you stopping by and commenting. I love that Good Will Hunting has had such a positive effect on you as well. I'll never tire of that film, especially now.

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  22. Fuck. This is beautiful, man. Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. Thanks man. Really appreciate you giving it a read.

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  23. Probably the best tribute and shared experience with the great work of Williams. Just looking at those pictures got me teary-eyed in memory of that scene. It's due for a re-watch for sure. Great, great, great post, Alex. Two thumbs infinity up!

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    1. Thanks Courtney, that's really nice of you to say. This movie... damn, gets me every time. Even more so now. Really appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

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  24. Excellent tribute man! I watched GWH around the same age, and this scene really hit me as well. Williams was so gifted at underplaying and overplaying when he needed to. This loss still stings.

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    1. Thanks man. It definitely still stings. I find myself getting lost on YouTube for hours watching his stuff. Interviews, movie clips, stand up acts - I can't get enough. Very curious to see Billy Crystal's dedication on Monday.

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  25. Just finally read this....still can't believe it. I suppose we all grew up with him....

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    1. We did indeed, in some sort of oddly special way. Thanks so much for reading.

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  26. It just seems this movie is such a touchstone for our generation in so many different ways. I didn't have a tough childhood, but my teenage years... that's a whole other story. I grew to resent so many things and people around me, long story short because I never fit in with anybody. Years of bottled up anger and frustration were starting to implode on me, but it was Williams words on that park bench that I finally started to ease out of it. I was already mellowing out before revisiting Good Will Hunting, but his speech there to Will is therapeutic in ways that are hard to express. He will be missed as the great healing counselor to us all.

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    1. Exactly man. It really is a touchstone for our generation. I love hearing that William's words spoke to you as well. Everyone involved with this film really hit on something special. Still so sad that Robin is gone. Thanks for sharing your story here, I really appreciate it.

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