Saturday, August 16, 2014

let's talk about Robin Williams.

Whenever I come up with an idea for a blog post, I write it down on an ever-expanding list. When blog-writing time comes around, I’ll look at my list and pick a topic: maybe one that fits in with the time of year, or maybe a story that looks particularly fun to write.

Robin Williams has been on my list for some time now. I was looking through my movie collection one day and noticed that one actor appeared way more often than any other: Robin Williams, of course. “Huh,” I thought to myself. “I’d better write about Robin Williams someday.” So I wrote it down.

Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and disheartened when I heard of Robin Williams’ death on Monday. As a child of the 90s, I grew up with Robin Williams – and when he died, it felt as though part of my childhood went with him. Obviously, I didn’t know Robin Williams personally, but it still feels like a friend has died. I felt the same impact when Mr Rogers died in 2003 and when Michael Jackson died in 2009. When each of these men died, I felt like there was something missing – how would the world go on without them?

Of course, the world does go on – I still have to go to work, clean the house, go grocery shopping. But there are so many good memories to share – so what better time for me to write my Robin Williams blog?

This blog will be broken into movies – ordered not necessarily by when they were released, but by the time they impacted my life.

My first encounter with Robin Williams was as the voice of the Genie in Aladdin
Aladdin came out when I was five, and we wore that VHS out – it was one of the few movies upon which my siblings and I could agree. I loved (and still love) the songs, and I always wanted to be Princess Jasmine. (Growing up in white-bread Midwest, I couldn’t fathom a place filled with sand where you wore bikinis every day – plus, I was jealous of Jasmine’s hair.) I thought the Genie was hilarious, and I would’ve loved to have a friend like him. (See what I did there? “Friend Like Me”? Get it?) As a kid, I may or may not have teared up when Aladdin sets the Genie free. You can count on Disney for a good happy ending.

 Mrs Doubtfire
Mrs Doubtfire was the movie that triggered my love for all things drag queen. 
Though Mrs Doubtfire wasn’t your traditional glamourous drag queen, she set into motion my deep appreciation for drag queens of all shapes and sizes. (My favorite scene has always been the one where Harvey Fierstein and his boyfriend transform Robin Williams into a montage of different women.) Sure, the premise of the movie is pretty strange – a dad dresses up as an old English nanny so he can secretly spend time with his children – but you have to admit, it’s kind of sweet. The best part about Mrs Doubtfire is that it was one of my Grandpa Darwin’s favorite movies – Grandpa Darwin, the old farmer who watched almost nothing but John Wayne movies, loved it. I saw Mrs Doubtfire for the first time with Grandpa Darwin, and we’d watch it countless times together in Badger. So it always makes me think of him.

Growing up, I never really realized how lucky I was to have the dad that I did. My dad is a farmer and is therefore very busy in the fall and in the spring – but in my seventeen years of schooling, he only missed one school event. ONE. And you know why? Because it was a concert I played in college in Morris, and it was blizzarding. I didn’t put two and two together when I first watched Hook – Peter Banning NEVER made it to his kids’ events, and when he did, he was on his cell phone – but years later, movies like Hook with Peter Banning the absentee dad make me really appreciate my own dad. There’s so much to love about Hook: it’s got two of my favorite actors of all time: Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman.
(Want to know who the other two are? Of course you do: Jack Lemmon, Gene Wilder, and Jimmy Stewart.) Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook is just fantastic. FANTASTIC. And Rufio? 
The Birdcage
Like Mrs Doubtfire, The Birdcage was introduced to me by someone I never would’ve expected. My great uncle Burt lived just down the hill from us, and he had an extensive movie collection. Whenever I went to visit, he would send me home with movies that I hadn’t seen. One day, Burt sent me home with The Birdcage. This would be the second time in my life that a drag queen movie was recommended to me by a seventy-something male relative who I never would’ve pegged as someone who would appreciate a drag queen movie. (Grandpa was a farmer, and Burt had been a paratrooper in the Army and worked as an airplane mechanic after the Korean War.) Anyway, I loved it – it’s about a gay couple (Armand and Albert) who must pretend to be straight (and not Jewish) in order to impress their son’s fiancée’s conservative parents. (Nevermind that the son is a total jackass for asking them to pretend to be people they're not.) One of them finds that he cannot play a convincing straight man, so he dresses in drag and plays the part of the housewife. Of course, it all unravels in the end, but it’s an absolute delight. 
Nathan Lane plays Robin Williams’ partner Albert, and they are the perfect duo. The Birdcage was released in 1996 – years before it was common for straight actors to play gay men. So not only was The Birdcage ahead of the times, but it also provided me with the single most important fashion rule that I follow at all times: Albert is trying to dress as a straight man would, and he puts on a very somber dark suit and a tie. When he crosses his legs, we see that he has on a pair of hot pink socks. 
When Armand calls him on the socks, Albert says, “One does want a hint of color.” It’s a rule I’ve followed ever since.

Dead Poet’s Society
I have a hard time choosing my absolute favorite movies of all time, but if I had to, Dead Poet’s Society would most certainly be in the top ten. Probably even the top five. I have never been much of an appreciator of poetry, but Dead Poet’s Society cracked open that door for me. From barbaric yawps to gathering the rosebuds while ye may, Dead Poet’s Society helped me discover how awe-inspiring and soul-shaking poetry really can be. 
John Keating is exactly the kind of teacher that everyone wants to have: fiercely intelligent and passionate about their subject, but with enough of a sense of humor and down-to-earthiness to be able to relate to the students and help them develop a love of said subject. (He tells his students that they can refer to him as “O Captain, My Captain!” for crying out loud.) And the scene at the end?
O Captain, My Captain!
I’ve watched this movie more times than I can count, but it gives me chills every single time. Yes, everyone wants a teacher like that: and the longer my husband James teaches in Ellsworth, the more I can see that he is just that kind of teacher. O Captain, My Captain!


In these five movies, the characters Robin Williams played were always people who were flawed, but they turned out to be pretty great guys in the end. Three dads who love their kids enough to go to great and ridiculous lengths for them: Daniel Hillard dresses up as a woman in to spend time with his kids in Mrs Doubtfire, Armand Goldman pretends to be straight for his son’s fiancée’s conservative parents in The Birdcage, and Peter Banning journeys to Neverland to rescue his kids from Captain Hook. One great teacher: John Keating shows his students how to appreciate poetry – and in the meantime, appreciate life – in Dead Poet’s Society. And one great friend: the Genie will do about anything for Aladdin, even if it means giving up his freedom (which, thankfully, he doesn’t have to).

There are other Robin Williams movies that I certainly appreciate – Good Morning Vietnam, Jumanji, Good Will Hunting. But these five films had the biggest impact on my young life. And for that, I will be forever grateful to Robin Williams.

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