One of the dumbest things the public does is think it "knows" celebrities. Those people we see on our TV or on a movie screen, because they come into our lives and make us laugh and cry—we believe we have some sort of special connection, not to the characters they play, but to the actors themselves. This is what great performers do: They form an unspoken, invisible bond with us. And in the process, we create an undeserved sense of ownership about that person and his or her career, getting annoyed when someone lets us down, as if anyone's creative choices are any of our business.
When Robin Williams was found dead of an apparent suicide in his Northern California home yesterday, one of the first sensations that rushed through my mind upon hearing the news was immense guilt. One of the most clearly gifted actors of the last 30 years had killed himself, and I hadn't spent enough of his time on Earth appreciating him. I always knew what a talent he was, but I let my disappointment in some of the roles he chose and the directions he took obscure that fact. Now that he's gone, I recognize how utterly stupid my measly disapproval was. What did I think he "owed" me? Why do any of us "expect" so much out of stars?
His life over at 63, Williams had battled substance abuse and depression. (He checked into rehab again last month.) His film career was imperfect, littered with Oscar nominations (and one win, for 1997's Good Will Hunting) to go along with embarrassing duds like 2007's License to Wed. If you're lucky enough to be as successful as he was for as long as he was, you're going to stumble into a few stinkers along the way. But we critics spent far too much time complaining about his missteps. Speaking for myself, I think it's because we expected more out of him: Seeing what he was capable of, we were let down when he seemed to be coasting or slumming. He was far too talented to be wasting his time doing late-'90s duds like Bicentennial Man or Patch Adams—why didn't he know that?
That seems so arrogant now—and shortsighted. The truth is that Williams' career will stand as the signature comedy template of recent times. He's not the only funny actor to transition into dramatic roles, but his path was the most vigorous in both directions. Broad comedies, family films, supernatural dramas, animation, dark character pieces, blockbusters, indies, shameless Oscar bait, crap like Old Dogs: He tried just about everything imaginable, and he always dove in. No matter the darkness that ultimately consumed him, he always seemed to enjoy performing, entertaining, being famous. He made it not seem like a burden, but rather a lark.
His first starring role remains one of his finest. Despite its reputation for being a commercial bomb, Robert Altman's 1980 film Popeye is one of the nerviest, most playful kids' movies ever made: a live-action whatzit that doesn't realize it's not a cartoon. Williams nailed the title role's squint-eyed mannerisms, but also invested the character with an oddball sweetness. The palooka with a heart of gold, his Popeye was like a lot of Altman heroes—an outsider always in search of his tribe—but Williams (best known at the time from TV's Mork & Mindy) made him balletic, inscrutable, endlessly funny and strange. If Popeye is itself a bit of a happy Hollywood anomaly—the sort of film that would never, ever get made today—Williams' performance was a unicorn sighting. Nowadays, when family films are nonthreatening and largely uninteresting, he took real risks by turning the Sailor Man into a fascinating weirdo. You laughed at the character, but you also laughed at his audacity and inventiveness.
That experience stayed with him the rest of his career. Reflecting back on Popeye's box-office failure, Williams once said, "For your first movie to get the shit kicked out of it, it toughened me up. It's kind of, in a weird way, a gift ... 'You've been in your first battle. It wasn't a total victory, but we didn't get slaughtered. So keep going.'"
That resilience, matched by curiosity, drove him. Anyone who makes The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Club Paradise, and Good Morning, Vietnam in quick succession in his '80s heyday clearly doesn't have any fear about what sort of career he "should" have. The exuberance of his standup and late-night appearances could fall into shtick—a self-parody of rotating ethnic voices and broad celebrity impersonations—and his fondness for schmaltz could make some of his tearjerkers insufferable. But in light of his death, such judgments feel small, ungenerous. Unlike a lot of stars, Williams didn't seem to focus too much on his fan base. The sentimental Hook wasn't for the same crowd as The Fisher King, and the people who were bowled over by the depth and nuance of his turn in the very funny The Birdcage probably weren't lining up to see him in RV.
This sort of career zigzagging would annoy critics, who'd wonder when he'd stop doing crap. What we didn't understand is that different audiences loved him for different things. When news of Williams' death first broke, Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poets Society became Twitter trending topics, but so did One Hour Photo. Never mind different genres—those movies aren't in the same cinematic universes. Of those three, I preferred Photo, a little-seen, startling 2002 film in which Williams played a lonely, unwell photo developer whose obsession with a local family is upsetting and also deeply sad. One of the great portraits of alienation, it's a bolder achievement than those other, far better-known movies. But as I reflect back now, all three are linked by Williams' emotionally pure performances. The withdrawn Sy of Photo, the cartoonish Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society's inspirational teacher: They're all deeply felt characters, each one open and vulnerable in his own way.
Scroll through Williams' IMDb credits, and you'll find your share of eye-rollers. But five Flubbers don't have the weight of one Insomnia or his hilarious small role in Deconstructing Harry as a tragically out-of-focus actor. And while the film's plot now hits too close to home, 2009's World's Greatest Dad (about a loser father whose attempts to make his son's accidental death look like a suicide go comically wrong) is the sort of performance that could make you rethink everything you thought you knew about him as an actor. A star initially because of his over-the-topic comedic antics, Williams here went small to play a character consumed by bitterness, failure, and regret. Thinking about that role in light of Williams' death is too painful: No doubt World's Greatest Dad will, in hindsight, be carted out as "proof" of the "real" Robin Williams, the sad-faced clown struggling with inner demons. It's tempting, but it's also offensive: A man this complex doesn't deserve to be reduced to one role, one film.
In the days, weeks, and months ahead, his biggest hits will be remembered: Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Jumanji, Mrs. Doubtfire. None of them were personal favorites of mine, but that's hardly the point. (Likewise, his smaller films that I loved may not have been ones you liked.) Right now, to be honest, I'd just be happy to see any Robin Williams movie. That excitement he brought to his performances—that up-for-anything spirit—should have been celebrated more than it was. The downside of genius is that it creates unreasonable expectations in those who can recognize it: We get greedy and demand it every time. Robin Williams made some really good movies, and he made some really bad ones. When he was alive, that fact annoyed me—I took it almost as a personal offense. Now, I realize the greater disappointment: There will be only so many more Robin Williams movies left to come.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter:@DSconcourse.