Director: Marina Zenovich
Cinematographer: Nick Higgins, Jenna Rosher, Thorsten Thielow, and Wolfgang Held
Producer: Alex Gibney, Shirel Kozak, and Nancy Abraham
by Jon Cvack
To think that someone we grew up watching, who was so funny, charming, and kind hearted, ended up killing himself is difficult to accept. I had never known about his depression, or all that much about his addictions beyond the bits and pieces he’d mention in stand up (though I always found these oddly unfunny; especially compared to how hilarious nearly every appearance on a late night show was). A strange and conflicting image forms when I think too much about it; that a person who I would associate with happiness was actually struggling with severe depression, using his humor as a crutch.
Beyond my one friend at work, I had never heard of this movie. I so often associate Hollywood biographies with those cheesy A&E television docs that rarely dug deeper than the scandals. This film is told entirely through interviews and - what I assume - archival footage; most of which probably hasn’t been seen before. What I appreciate about the story is how little time it spends on Williams' most well known aspects; that is, his most popular films. They’re looked at fleetingly, in order to launch the story into a new anecdotes of a man who we knew so little about.
It opens up in The Actors Studio, as James Lipton welcomes Williams onto the show, asking what is going on inside William’s mind. Is he thinking faster than the rest of us? It’s the first question I asked myself after seeing him on the late shows. It wasn’t just the ability to speak and connect thoughts with humor and metaphor at rapid speed, but to embody entire characters and speak through those voices; where it seemed that Williams had an endless cast of rich personalities living within him.
His story is a bit typical in that Williams originally studied political science ane started spending all his time in acting classes trying to meet girls. Then joined an improv group who put on a western adaptation of Othello at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival, which got Robin Williams on the radar. Later, still struggling to break in, Williams performed his alien character on Hollywood street corners, which finally got him in a role in "Happy Days" (1974-84); which then spun off into "Mork & Mindy" (1979-82), where Williams had the ability to fully unleash his talent; providing him both money, an introduction to the cocaine craze, and the endless amounts of women women.
By this time Williams had gotten married to his first wife and raising their first child in Napa Valley. They soon hired a nanny who Williams would later run off with and have a second child with, before divorcing again and having a third child; just like his father did which left William’s with two half siblings.
Now sober, he would go on to debut in Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), Hook (1991), The Fisher King (1991), and Aladdin (2019), with the film never diving deep into the obvious; as though assuming that any fan watching the documentary knew enough about the films to avoid any extended tangents.
Recently, I had watched Insomnia (2002); going through some strange love/hate roller coaster in which I loved it when it first came out, failed to enjoy it for the last eight or so years, and then fell in love with it again a couple weeks ago. It’s a tight and creepy film in which Pacino and his pending investigation into evidence tampering takes all of your attention where you forget that Williams is even in it. For a personality somehow so large, when Williams appears he somehow fades into the role; losing all his stardom and charisma and showing a deeply damaged soul. It’s arguably the last of his great films, in while he’d go on to play in another two dozen others, few of the roles would even come close to what he accomplished over the previous two decades.
I recall when his television show "The Crazy Ones" (2013) was announced. By then I think the last film I recall seeing with him was Man of the Year (2006), which I mistakenly watched with my mom and sister while home from college and was so embarrassed that I actually turned it off and went back to the video store to exchange it. It didn’t feel unique, or contain the energy I loved. Robin Williams could always make even the most abhorrent stories accessible and light.
"The Crazy Ones" looked like a television show from a man who had lost his magic; as so many comedians eventually seem to do. At one moment, his old co-start from Mork & Mindy, Pam Dawber, who made a guest appearance, described how off Robin had felt toward her while in production; as though something was wrong and he could no longer connect with his former self.
Williams was soon diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s and committed suicide shortly after. While the documentary doesn’t speculate, it’s clear enough that he feared losing the one talent that kept him afloat. As with many great artists, Williams' mind used craft to avoid thinking about the darkest of thoughts. Seeing his mind work, I’m left in as much awe as reading David Foster Wallace, listening to Nirvana, or looking at Van Gogh’s painting. It’s as though they were great because their minds demanded it in order to function; a strange correlation between creative genius and mental struggle. We’ll never know if Williams slowed down during the last decade or so because of the early onset of Parkinson’s, or whether it was a losing battle with even darker thoughts.
I struggle to think of another performer like him, either living or dead; who could improvise some of the funniest material I’ve ever heard while snapping into some of his generation’s finest dramatic performances; who all the while felt genuine, accessible, and good hearted; a person who selflessly gave us laughter who might look deep into your eyes with immense appreciation as you thank him. To think someone so positive lost a battle with his mind is a sobering thought that chills me to this day; as though reflecting a universal truth of life. That the pursuit is hard and tragic and only fun some of the time. Fortunately, some of that time we can forever spend with him and what he created.
BELOW: How he is on every late night show
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