Missing Robin (Williams)

Every year, at some point, I reflect on one my favourite actors and comedians of all time, and the tragedy of his death. His death, originally ruled a suicide because of depression, was a result of a debilitating brain disease called diffuse Lewy body dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) that took hold of Williams.

I’m not saying that to suggest that there isn’t causation between depression and suicide. As someone who has battled depression for most of my life, there have been times when suicide seemed the only real option. The connection is real. But it’s important we get the details right.

There was a lot of noise when Robin passed away, and nearly all of it was gratitude and sadness. Sadness for the loss of such a great shining light. And gratitude for all the joy Robin brought to the world through his performances.

His film credits are extensive, and though he was a favourite, there were some massive hits and a few pretty big misses. There was Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning, Vietnam. There was also Death to Smoochy and One Hour Photo. But the one movie that captured the essence of the man, or what we have learned about him both before and after his death, is the one that always that the most impact on me.

Good Will Hunting.

Now I’m positive that a big reason for the impact is that many depressives, like myself, spend their entire life looking for a counselor like Sean Maguire, the character he plays in the movie. It is such an even, quietly hilarious and touching performance. And it won him his first Oscar.

As I’ve said many times, this is a writing blog. So how come it took so long for such a talented actor to win an Oscar? Let’s look at three reasons.

1) Williams was an all-time great, charismatic comedian

There’s no question that Robin Williams is one of the greatest American comedians to ever do it. That talent translated to both the small screen, whether it was Mork and Mindy or TV interviews, as well as the big screen. And the temptation for screen writers and directors was to simply let him go. (For my money, Williams is one of the greatest improv comedians as well, and the stories about him improvising on set are legendary)

And his movies made A LOT of money this way. (Over 2B in box office revenue) So the temptation to simply let him do his thing was understandable.

2) Writing a great role for a comedian that talented is hard

The comp is Bill Murray. Now Murray has done far more work with independent film makers over the years. But his role in Lost In Translation, the 2003 Sophia Coppola film, for which he should have won an Oscar, is the easiest comparison. Murray is hilarious in that movie, but the film itself is melancholic. Good Will Hunting is more of a straight drama, but the tone is similar. Both are emotionally powerful because they get one thing right.

3) Sentiment is the goal. Not sentimentality

Sentimentality is when a writer tries to force emotion. Like when a novelist tells you how you should feel or how a character feels instead of showing it. If you tell people how to feel, and that can be through writing, or in movies and TV shows, through things like music or voice over, you’re creating sentimentality, not sentiment.

Sentiment is the hard stuff. You aren’t “over writing” a scene in the hopes of capturing emotion. You’re trusting that what you’ve written has earned it. This is true of Lost In Translation. And it also true in Good Will Hunting.

Gus Van Sant, the director, and the two writers, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, do not go overboard on the attempt to create sentimentality. Yes, there’s that one scene near the end where Damon’s character breaks down into Robin’s arms. But it’s earned. It is a proper climax. (The opposite happens in Robin’s popular but panned film, Patch Adams)

When I was a young writer, I found this difficult, since my tendency is to write from a place of emotion. But make sure you aren’t telling your readers how to feel. Let them feel it through the actions of the characters. (And yes, this is true in short pieces as well.)

I talk about this in my course, and in writing and in film, you want to show, not tell. The key here is patience. Don’t be in a hurry. Trust your audience. Because when you do get to that climax, when you arrive at that singular moment, it will resonate far more deeply.

I’ll never forget Robin, and I’m sure I’ll continue to revisit Good Will Hunting. As a fan, I’m just grateful he got to play a role, a powerful role with real sentiment, that allowed him to show his talent as a dramatic actor. His death was a tragedy, but what he left behind will be celebrated forever.


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