By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published August 12, 2014
There’s a scene in “Dead Poets Society” where, for nearly a minute and a half, all we see is Robin Williams wheeling around a young Ethan Hawke. At first, the camera watches idly as Williams chides Hawke.
“No, not just a yawp. A barbaric yawp.”
“Oh that’s a mouse. C’mon louder.”
“Oh, good God boy, YELL LIKE A MAN.”
Then he leans back. He knows he has our attention, so he uses it. And it’s not because of the way his hands shoot up in agreement or the point he finally admits “There it is. You see? There’s a barbarian in you after all,” but because both of these things — these crucial, decisive shifts in tone happen in a matter of two seconds, before anyone in the audience can anticipate the minute that’s about to follow. A seamless cut to the portrait of Walt Whitman mounted above, glaring at his pupils with bearded disdain. Then Williams snaps his fingers and as if on queue, the camera comes alive. He circles Hawke while we shadow. He pokes him for answers. He keeps talking. He commands the confidence, crackling, so visible in his own voice to seep into Hawke’s.
Soon, we are Hawke. The camera settles behind his turned shoulders. And with him we watch — no, feel — this frenzied, fiery ball of charisma revolve around us, wringing us awake before it pauses to place its hands over our eyes. Now we’re Williams. We’re revolving with him, seeing that fire spark awake in Hawke, stoking it alive until at last, it is. The camera slows. Williams kneels off to the side. Then, in the moments before he knows his work is done, he leans into an astounded Hawke. He speaks with that same burning assuredness as he whispers “don’t you forget this.”
After a lifetime of similarly gripping performances, all characteristic of his inexhaustible genius for improvisation, Williams died on Monday morning. He was alone at home, the most likely cause of death suicide by asphyxiation.
However many times I rewatch that scene, and however long I spend thinking about each tiny movement, I’ll never experience what I felt the first time I saw it ten years ago. Because over the course of two minutes, a high-strung pair of hairy knuckles had placed its fingers over my eyes and forced me to see what great acting could do, how humanity lived in those little transitions between elation and anticipation. Though more importantly, his performance, as any great performance does, spoke to the people witnessing it. He asked me to reevaluate my own inhibitions, question them in the same ways the best films could influence and ultimately inspire an audience of strangers to be moved in unison.
It would be impossible trying to encapsulate Williams’s entire career in a string of words. It’s too vast. There’s simply too much to be said: The startling electricity still coursing through his stand up specials; the seconds before he climbed over a balcony, into the audience while recording his first one; all those instances he ad-libbed lines on the spot; that time when his fake boobs caught on fire; the fact that he made a joke about hot flashes immediately after.
There can be solace in thinking on the ways all those tiny pieces fit together, prop each other up to create a persona as iconic as many of the movies it inhabited. It’s sad knowing his last few moments in a world so much better off because he lived through it were ones tinged in the anguish of severe depression. But after a while, what’s really meaningful is being able to wonder about those last few hours of silence. Wondering whether before he finally closed that door, he lingered for a while thinking about how much happiness he’d given anyone who listened. I like to hope he did, that he relived some semblance of the happiness he gave me.
Years from now, when I think about him, I’ll go first to the stories he told while standing alone on stage, secluded behind a solitary mic. Then, I’ll think about a story I read an hour after learning he’d passed away.
He spoke about his time on set.
“One time in makeup as Mrs. Doubtfire, I walked into a sex shop in San Francisco and tried to buy a double-headed dildo. Just because. Why not? And the guy was about to sell it to me until he realized it was me — Robin Williams — not an older Scottish woman coming in to look for a very large dildo and a jar of lube. He just laughed and said ‘what are you doing here’ and I left. Did I make the purchase? No. * Did I walk away with a really good story? *Yes.”
It would be wrong to say Williams is solely responsible for those two magical minutes in “Dead Poets Society.” That scene, more than anything else, is a result of some of the most elegantly simple photography and direction ever put on screen. But there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind why we’re being directed to watch Williams do what he does best — command our attention with that torrent of explosive, manic passion he seemed to have available at any moment’s notice. So no, Robin, I’ll never forget what you showed me that day. And neither will the millions of others around the world who continue feeling your work imprint insignias of joy on their souls.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.