The Tragedy of the Comic: Robin Williams
There is much political content in the life and work of Robin Williams who took his own life yesterday. He poured out his life for others in a way that reminds us of Christian faith.
By Ed Knudson
I have not been surprised by the widespread reaction to the death of Robin Williams. As a comic figure we all now experience him in a highly tragic way even as the content of his comic work itself can only be be properly understood from a perspective of tragedy. The truth about human life and history is so terribly tragic that it can only be approached through the comic even if we know that laughing about it will not redeem it. Some other force even greater than that is the source of our redemption.
Watching Williams I had the sense that the man literally was pouring out his life and energy for his craft, on behalf of others. He did what finally all of us must do to have a life with any meaning, a life given for others, just the complete opposite from what a capitalist society tells us we should want for ourselves, more and more stuff for ourselves.
The folks over at Think Progress sent some thoughts about Williams and the political content of his movie roles. Here is what they said:
The sudden death of Robin Williams has left the world without an acting genius. Williams was able to bring characters of all kinds to life not just for a few hours on the screen; he was able to make them stay permanently in his audience’s memory.
Through these characters, Williams was able to elevate social issues in movies in a way that few actors can. To honor the man, Think Progress assembled a list of seven such issues Williams touched in his films. We give you an excerpt below:
1. Homelessness and mental health in ‘The Fisher King’. Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Parry, a homeless man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder living on the streets. The National Alliance for Mental Illness named The Fisher King one of the top movies for mental illness, and while there’s been some debate over how accurate his portrayal of mental illness was, the movie clearly reflected Williams’ personal dedication to the issue.
2. Gay identity and gender expression in ‘The Birdcage’. In a time when it was still relatively controversial to be gay in America, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane played a loving gay couple who fought through stigma and showed their son why he shouldn’t be ashamed to be part of a gay family. It was just one of several Williams films that positively portrayed drag to mainstream audiences, but more than that it normalized gay love and adoption writ large.
3. Press freedom in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. War and censorship are rarely laughing matters, and in other hands the the 1985 film “Good Morning, Vietnam” could have been a maudlin flop. Instead, Robin Williams took on the role of Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer and performed with such gusto and conviction that the movie rightly is remembered as one of his best.
4. Addiction in ‘The Crazy Ones’. Williams returned to television last year on David E. Kelley’s sitcom “The Crazy Ones,” playing a character not far from himself as Simon Roberts. Roberts, a recovering addict who had struggled with mental health issues (“I prefer nutjob or psychologically interesting,” Roberts quipped), was still able to build a successful advertising agency around his extraordinary energy and creativity.
5. Domestic abuse in ‘Good Will Hunting’. In 1997’s Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams and his co-star Matt Damon worked together to give heightened national attention — and a human face — to the struggles of those who endure domestic violence and abuse. The role earned Williams an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
6. Deforestation in ‘FernGully’. In the 1992 Australian-American film fully titled FernGully: The Last Rainforest, Robin Williams provided the voice to a fruit bat named Batty Koda, in his first role in an animated film. The plot revolves around a protagonist who leaves his rapacious team of loggers that threaten a magical rain forest, and joins the indigenous magical natives to save it.
7. Single parenting in ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’. In character as Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams addresses the stigmas of divorce and single-parenting, responding to a note from a little girl: “You know, some parents get along much better when they don’t live together. They don’t fight all the time and they can become better people. Much better mommies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don’t, dear. And if they don’t… don’t blame yourself. Just because they don’t love each other doesn’t mean that they don’t love you.”
BOTTOM LINE: Williams’ characters evinced progressivism and were role models for our lives. He showed us what it meant to be compassionate, open-minded, empathetic–and, of course, how to have a good laugh.