In memoriam: Robin Williams as William F. Buckley

To cleanse a sour news palate, something sweet that made the rounds this afternoon courtesy of Tim Cavanaugh. He’s right about this:

Williams was in some respects the reverse of the old show-business cliché of the clown who wants to play Hamlet (and by the way, his walk-on as Osric in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is fantastically funny). According to this tradition, comedians are always trying, and usually failing, to inflate themselves into careers as serious actors. I’m not sure the idea is ever true, given the widely acknowledged reality that comedy is harder to do than drama. But Williams’s movie career is a stunning refutation of the clown/Hamlet dichotomy…

[I]f you look at Williams’s dramatic roles there’s one great performance after another: The World According to Garp, The Fisher King, Good Will Hunting (the Oscar-winner), Insomnia, a little-seen TV adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, One Hour Photo, and my favorite movie about the cultural Cold War, Paul Mazursky’s Moscow On the Hudson would be enough to earn anybody a ticket on the Space Ark.

Ross Douthat made the same point. I had that thought myself last night after the news broke. It may be a function of age but practically none of my favorite memories of Williams involves comedy. The only one that bubbles up is Mrs. Doubtfire (a “run-by fruiting”), and even there, the moment that stays with me from the film is that heartbreaking little speech he delivers in the last scene about divorce. His knack for heartbreak was uncanny, to the point where it almost feels as if his best-known roles were unfair. If you hand Robin Williams material as poignant as “Dead Poets Society” or “Good Will Hunting,” of course he’s going to destroy you with it. Those are belt-high fastballs to a Hall of Famer. And filmmakers sensed it early: He got famous playing a zany alien on a sitcom but had landed the lead in “Garp” in just his third movie role, and within five years of that he was a full-blown dramedy A-lister with “Good Morning, Vietnam.” Two years after that came “Dead Poets Society” and he never looked back. Somehow, for the funniest man in the world, comedy was a sidenote. John Nolte thinks it was his eyes that betrayed the heartbreak but I’ve always thought it was that lipless smile, as if he was physically holding something in even when letting some happiness out. It was always there. It’s why we responded to him.

We’ll never watch those movies the same way.