Robin Williams's Terminal Condition: On The World According to Garp

In 1982, Robin Williams went on a Dallas-area talk show to discuss his title role in the film adaptation of John Irving's novel The World According to Garp. The show's host—a cheerful, robotic woman named Bobbie Wygant—asks her questions, and Williams provides his answers.

What's interesting about the interview isn't what happens during it, but after, at about 8:50 in the video below, when Wygant turns her chair toward the camera and suddenly looks stern. "And now, all of this is different," she says. "No flowers, none of that." The camera zooms in on her face, cropping both the flowers and Williams out. "You want the flowers?" Williams says off-screen. "No, no, no," she says, without turning her head, waving him away like he was an intern. "I don't want them." Williams shuts up, and suddenly, Wygant's face is warm again. "I'll do reactions first," she says.

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What ensues is, I guess, normal: She reenacts her side of the conversation she just had, smoothing out the edges, dropping the ands and uhs, punching up her laughter and softening her sympathy in an effort to sound even more convincingly human than she did before. In the middle of a series of nods, Williams—who has already been off-camera long enough that you forget he was there—says, "I did ride a mechanical bull though. On a real low setting. I was so afraid." He starts imitating the machine—a deep, grinding sound.

Wygant ignores him and turns toward the camera again, announcing that she will now record her questions. "So, what do you remember about your trip to Dallas?" she asks, already smiling at his answer. There is a beat of silence, and then you hear Williams' voice again, suddenly in full Texan caricature: "Girl named Betty Lou." He says it tentatively, as though testing a weak floorboard. Wygant cracks up, which is the response you sense he has been looking for the whole time. He shouts, delighted—"Haha! I got you!"—and proceeds to run the joke into the ground, stretching every permutation to its logical end, desperate to ferret out another laugh. It's funny, but mortifying, like an animal that keeps doing tricks even after you reward it with treats. "Listen," Wygant says, composing herself without looking at him. "Don't let me run out of tape."

Earlier in the interview, Williams had told her about how Garp's director, George Roy Hill, would scrap a shot every time Williams tried to improvise. The effect was like damming a river—what was used to rushing was forced to stand still.

Garp was Williams' first dramatic role, a departure from the antics of Mork and Popeye, exploring instead the insecurities of a novelist who feels like he has it hard, but is surrounded by women who he knows has it harder: his wife, Helen (a professor who calls his affairs "shabby" and criticizes his writing with surgical intelligence), a trans ex-football player named Roberta Muldoon (played by John Lithgow), and most importantly, Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, a nurse-cum-feminist icon who in writing her own life story achieves a level of respect that Garp can't match no matter how hard he tries. Basically, another story about a man who doesn't get the validation he needs and can't seem to give it to himself, who keeps doing tricks long after he stops getting treats.

In a lot of ways, Garp is a movie in which Williams is systematically confined. At first we see him pigeon-walking, fresh in his prep-school blazer, doing stomach-crunches in his sweats while explaining to Helen (played by Mary Beth Hurt) that his initials—T.S.—stand for "terribly sexy." Williams was already over 30 here, but he's a natural teenager, permanently carbonated, always about to jump for joy and possibly hurt someone in the process. And like Garp, he grew up a wrestler—someone used to demonstrating his power in short, combustible fits. At one point, Garp tackles a dog to the ground and bites its ear off; at another, he bats out the headlights of a reckless driver tearing through their neighborhood.

But as the movie winds on, he becomes just another suburban dad worming his way into the panties of babysitters, his primary displays of physicality reduced to playacting with his sons in the yard. More and more you see him in smaller and smaller spaces: bedrooms, porches, quiet conversation. At one point, he is literally rendered unable to speak.

And then there is crying—rivers of it. In 1982, Williams' capacity for drama was untested, but you can imagine what Hill saw in him: an antic exhibitionist who given a minute of silence would sink so deeply into the heart of things that you wanted him to start joking again, which, eventually and slowly, he would. This is why that Good Will Hunting scene—you know the one I'm talking about—remains so indelible. In an older version of that movie, Williams could have stood in Matt Damon's shoes—the immovable object, moved.

Midway through the Wygant interview, she pivots from a light question about how John Irving felt about Garp's adaptation into more solemn territory. "How do you get through such stressful times?" she asks. "What is your strength?"

What follows is a gesture I've only ever seen Williams make, replicated so many times over so many years in so many different contexts that were someone to perform it in charades, I would know it instantly, almost subliminally: He tilts his head back and to one side, blinking and raising his eyebrows at the same time, and then says, Oh.

It's a sad, knowing sound—the sound of someone who has seen more than he can say. It's also the sound of awe. In an instant, the answer to Wygant's question unspools in front of him like skywriting: the truth under the surface of his life. Then he suddenly becomes Robin Williams again, moving from "strong wife" to "good friends" to his ranch in Sonoma, where the donkeys ask him what show business is in a vaguely Hispanic accent while Wygant breaks into her anonymous laughter once again.

In a review for The New Yorker, Pauline Kael called Garp a "castration fantasy," noting that "it's when writers create straw men to attack that they expose what's bugging them, and Irving creates straw women: Garp's drillmaster mother and the Ellen Jamesians."

The latter refers to a group of women who cut out their tongues in solidarity with someone named Ellen James, whose own tongue was cut out by her rapist when she was a child. Garp doesn't understand them, or why they do what they do. He thinks it's crazy, extreme, beside the point. Kael's comment about them—or about Irving's invention of them—is clever but too acidic. The truth is that most people respond to hurt by hurting themselves.

"I think people will walk away feeling really good," Williams tells Wygant, which is a curious thing to say about a movie whose third act is punctuated by bullets.

Whether or not you agree will probably depend on whether or not you think the circular nature of tragedy—the way our own mistakes return to us at high speeds and oblique angles, like ricochet—is just part and parcel of being born. Or, in Garp's words, that we are all terminal cases. It was the first movie I thought of when Williams died in part because it's the first memory I have of thinking he was more than a crate of dynamite with chest hair. His performance is funny, but it's also brooding, pent-up, angry, sappy—the corny exhortations and the short, quiet oh.

But more than anything, the movie mirrored—and continues to mirror—so much of what I understand to be true about life, namely that it is fitful, chaotic, unhappy if you let it be, and God willing will end in the company of people you love, preferably on a helicopter.

Oh, and that it hems us in the way it hemmed in Williams, but that sometimes the hemming—the bonsai-like confines into which circumstance puts us—ends up making us more fully ourselves. The question I keep asking—the one I can't seem to sleep off or sweat out—is how he managed to be so convincing onscreen about truths that eluded him in life.


Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is a contributing editor at Pitchfork.

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