12 Aug A tribute to the ultimate sad clown
It’s been a year since we lost one of the greatest talents the world has ever known. Even after twelve months, it still doesn’t quite seem real. Just remembering learning the news and being forced to hold in the grief over a full day of work (it was announced at 9am Sydney time) still seems like some horrible dream we’re all going to wake up from. We know he’s gone, but it’s not a notion one can easily accept.
I started writing this piece a few days after he died, but I ended up abandoning it. It just became too difficult to write. I didn’t want to rush through writing it and ultimately not do Robin justice or properly say what was in my heart, so I gave up. At the approach of the anniversary of his death, it felt right to pick up the pieces of this article and finish it off, so I present my tribute to Robin Williams, the ultimate sad clown.
It’s difficult for a lot of people to understand how and why the death of someone people never personally knew or physically met can affect them so much. For myself, as someone deeply and passionately immersed in the world of film and entertainment, artists can often become like close friends. A friend you can always turn to, no matter the circumstance. When you need to laugh. When you need to cry. When you need to forget about the world for a few hours. They’re always there for you. As much as one grieves for the loss of a life, there’s also grief at the thought that we’ll never be entertained and delighted by new work from that artist ever again. Yes, their legacy lives on, but it now has a finality to it. That finality is hard to accept when there were still so many years ahead of certain artists that left us too soon.
Then there are those select few that inspire and entertain not just for a moment but for decades. Those that delight people of all ages and continue to amaze and surprise us, year after year, decade after decade. Those select few end up feeling more like family. Robin Williams was like that. Robin was family.
Depression. The black curse. A disease that you will never truly understand until you have been personally touched by it. Without delving deeply into my own personal life and taking the focus of this piece away from Robin, I will admit to having felt that personal touch, and I can tell you it’s utterly horrendous. What confuses people the most about this disease is how functional and “normal” those that suffer depression can seem. Robin Williams is the ultimate example of that. So alive. So energetic. So entertaining every single time we saw him. And yet it’s now painfully obvious that behind closed doors this was a man with an incredibly dark problem and an entirely different persona. For all the joy and laughter he brought to others, it was never enough to allow that joy to find him as well. That’s what depression does to you. It warps your mind. Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing is ever going to change. The pain just never ends.
If only Robin could have foreseen how his death would affect literally millions of people around the world. If only he could see how much he meant to so many people. He would have known. That’s what makes his suicide that much harder for a lot of people to understand. How can someone so beloved still be in such a dark place where suicide seemed the only answer? That shows you just how powerful a grip depression can have on someone. Maybe that’s the one good to come from this tragedy. It has opened so many eyes to what depression can be, how it can often hide in plain sight and hopefully this reminds people that it’s never a bad thing to ask if someone is okay.
Rather than focus on the tragedy of his death, I think it better to look at the joy and light Robin Williams brought to all of us, and celebrate his amazing life and career. As sad as we all are to have lost him, we should take comfort in the fact that we had him in the first place, and that he gave us a lifetime of film and television memories to behold forever. I could write a thesis on every piece of art he created, but I’ll stick with just two, and go into a little detail of how they touched my life.
I first discovered the magic of Robin Williams as an 8 year-old boy. Like most children of the late 80s/early 90s, I was completely in awe of Disney’s renaissance period. We’d all been delighted by The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast, but we had no idea what was up next. I can still vividly remember seeing Aladdin at the cinema for the very first time in 1992. From the moment the Genie literally bursts onto the screen, I was in absolute awe and delight.
I don’t think there would be many who would deny my statement that Robin delivers perhaps the finest piece of voice-over work in an animated film the screen has ever witnessed. So much heart and boundless energy that was not only wildly funny, but incredibly heart-warming and insanely lovable. The Genie is a Disney icon, thanks to Robin Williams. Like pretty much everything Robin did, he steals every scene he’s in; most notably with the brilliant performance of “Friend Like Me”, an instant Disney classic. There was endless laughter at the Genie’s crazy antics and banter with all the characters around him, but ultimately there was utter delight at witnessing our beloved Genie finally have his own wish for freedom granted; an analogy that many used upon Robin’s death.
Obviously at the time I was too young to really appreciate Robin’s genius work as the Genie. His countless impersonations and pop-culture references were not meant for the young. Even now, I find myself finally appreciating certain references that I had never noticed or understood before. They were a way to elevate Aladdin to not just be enjoyable for children, but their parents as well; something we had never really seen in an animated film before. It’s common-place now, but at the time, it was a game-changer. Before Aladdin, animated movies were meant exclusively for children, and no one else. Robin changed that. His work inspired all those working in animation to elevate their scripts and their characters to be more than just kid’s fodder.
Robin was also one of the first big stars to lend his voice to an animated film. Again, this is common-place today, but back then, it was practically unheard of. Big star actors were to be seen in films, not just heard. Robin elevated voice-over work to such a level that suddenly every A-list actor was lining up to provide their voice for an animated film. It’s hard to think of a major actor working today that hasn’t dabbled in voice-over work at some point over the last few decades. Being the voice of a beloved animated character is now something every actor wants to add to their resume. You can thank Robin Williams for that.
While I can never pinpoint the exact moment my Disney obsession began, I would say Aladdin, or more accurately the Genie, was certainly a huge part of it, so for that, I am eternally grateful to Robin.
I think what I am most grateful for in Robin Williams’ incredible career is his work in The Birdcage. Yes, it’s a comedy masterpiece with some of the funniest scenes Robin has ever been a part of. And yes, it’s an absurdest comedy of the finest order that should have been showered in Oscars, if only the Academy took comedy seriously. But above all that, it was the first time I’d seen a homosexual couple portrayed on the big screen in a motion picture. It was the first time I’d seen homosexuals portrayed as normal people.
Okay sure, Albert was flamboyant and wildly stereotypical, but we’ve all met an Albert in our lives, so Nathan Lane was really just playing someone we all know is out there. And sure, they owned and operated a drag queen bar, but that was only the surface of the plot. What stood out most was how ground-breaking it was to see a monogamous, loving gay couple (who had raised a child, no less) as the stars of a major Hollywood film. They were front and centre. They weren’t the comical best friend sidekick. They weren’t the bitchy hairdresser who has one scene with one cliché zinger before completely disappearing. This was their story. This was their film. And as a 12 year-old kid coming to terms with his own sexuality, seeing a film like that was life changing.
Everything I learnt, I learnt from the movies. I learnt about life and culture and people and art and all sorts of marvellous things. Films taught me what I needed to know in basically every aspect of my life except one; it didn’t teach me anything about homosexuality. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, gay cinema wasn’t exactly something a pre-teenager could find. We’re talking about a time before the internet. A time before Ellen came out on national television. A time before a film like Brokeback Mountain changed mainstream gay cinema. Seeing an accurate representation of gay people on film was practically impossible. We were there. We just weren’t all that well portrayed.
As any gay person will tell you, we know fairly early on something is different about us, but we’re not exactly sure of what that is until our teen years come along. So imagine my delight when I reach that difficult time in my life, I am gifted with a beautiful film like The Birdcage. For the first time in my life, I get to see a film that tells me it’s okay to be who I am. I get to see a film that shows me I can find someone to spend my life with. And most importantly, I get to see a film that delivers the powerful message that you should never change who you are simply because someone else doesn’t like you. Life changing stuff, right?
A huge part of that was Robin Williams’ performance. Robin’s character Armand was essentially me at that stage in my life. So much doubt and self-loathing, purely because the world didn’t yet understand that gay people were just like them. We were afraid to be who we really were around those people. So many of us thought we were the problem. We thought we had to change to “fit in”. And so, Armand does just that. He changes. He lies. He hides who he is. All to please someone who he doesn’t even know. And it still doesn’t work. Why? Because you cannot deny who you truly are. Only then does he realise he’s not the problem. The world is the problem. Again, talk about life changing stuff for a kid to see.
I think people forget how incredibly brave it was for Robin to take on a film and a character like this at this point in his career. He was just coming off a string of successful family films like Aladdin, Jumanji and Mrs. Doubtfire. He did not need to make a film like this. Playing a gay night club owner married to a drag queen could have killed his career. It genuinely could have. Clearly Robin saw this film for what it was and what it could do for the gay community and what it could do for society’s acceptance of gay people. The power of cinema at its finest. Through his trademark charm and humour, he was able to shed a light on an incredibly serious issue that we’re sadly still dealing with today. Gay people are just people. They’re no different to anyone else. And if you don’t understand that, you are the one with the issue. Not them.
I wouldn’t exactly say seeing The Birdcage got me out of the closet immediately, but by god, it gave me one big almighty push. I had never felt such a sense of acceptance for who I knew I really was until I saw that film. And I had also never before felt that somehow everything would be okay some day. Seeing Armand and Albert so incredibly happy together was perhaps the most inspiring thing I had every witnessed on the screen up until that point. That film truly changed my life, and for that, I am also eternally grateful to Robin.
I could go on and on about Robin Williams’ films and characters. His sublime comedy in Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning, Vietnam. His family film work in Jumanji and Hook. His continued voice-over work in animated films like Happy Feet and FernGully. And his ability to leave comedy behind and surprise us all with brilliant dramatic turns in films like Dead Poets Society, the enormously underrated One Hour Photo and, of course, his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting. He truly did it all. He elevated every movie he was in. It didn’t matter what it was. The movie could stink, but Robin would always be great in it. That was something you could count on.
As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, and boy is that true. It wasn’t until Robin was gone did I truly realise what he had meant to me for all these years.
I loved him. I adored him. And I miss him, so very much. But because he left us with films and performances that will last forever, I can still love him, I can still adore him, but I will still miss him. Unfortunately nothing can take that pain away.
Rest in peace, sweet clown.