Sometimes an actor has touched you so deeply that it feels like you know him in person. You can’t help but feel hurt when you hear that he took his own life.
And then sometimes you watch a movie of his and his performance is so human and poignant that you feel like he’s with you again.
That’s how I felt when I got to the end of World’s Greatest Dad, which I watched for the first time today, the tragedy of Robin Williams’s suicide still fresh in my mind.
Robin Williams is of course a master of versatility. What this means is that he can wear many masks and make us believe that each one is a real character. He literally wears a mask in Mrs. Doubtfire and fools an entire street into thinking he’s a hobbling old lady.
By contrast, World’s Greatest Dad seems to show us a maskless Robin Williams—one who isn’t jumping off the walls like the Genie, or delivering perfectly sculpted lines like in Good Will Hunting. Instead, he plays an unremarkable teacher who just wants people to love and respect him. He’s tried without success to have his books accepted for publication but he’s on the verge of giving up.
One night, his son accidentally dies by autoerotic asphyxiation. The scene in which his son is hanging from his neck actually slaps you in the face if you know and remember that Robin Williams asphyxiated himself. To mitigate public embarrassment, Robin Williams disguises his son’s accidental death as a suicide. To make it more believable, he pens a suicide note in his deceased son’s hand.
Once the suicide note goes public, the entire school suddenly views Robin Williams’s son as a misunderstood genius, and Robin Williams is thrust into the loving attention of his colleagues and students. To keep the charade going, Robin Williams fabricates an entire journal in his son’s name, winning himself fame, adulation and sexual companionship at the same time.
Yet he does not wish to keep the performance up forever—it is simply not him. In one of the last scenes of the movie, he runs to the school swimming pool alone, having confessed his sins to the world. A smile washes over his face—the first time in the entire movie he smiles in earnest—as he strips down to his socks and ascends a ladder to the diving board. We remember that he was on the diving team in college and off the board he goes, naked, shameless, totally in bliss.
The camera follows him as he plunges underwater and, as he reaches the surface face-first, in slow motion, like a baby in the womb, “Under Pressure” crescendos in the background. He has washed away his sordid past, having achieved everything he wanted but baptized now with the realization that there is more to life than he once thought. Robin Williams tells us, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”
Now, I don’t know Robin Williams, what he was like in person and in private. But we heard that he committed suicide and was struggling with depression and substance abuse for much of his acting career. Yet despite this, he was able to embody so many different characters that gave us so much joy.
What did he have to suppress to make his performances so believable and powerful? Perhaps a side of him that was as sad and vulnerable as his own character in World’s Greatest Dad. Or perhaps even a side of him that resembled the callous and selfish son that choked to death.
I don’t know. But I truly hope that Robin Williams, like his character in the movie, is in a better place now than where he was when it was all just a show.