The first movie I remember ever actively wanting to see was Flubber. I was eight when it came out and I watched it more times than I can remember. Yes, I was drawn to it because it featured a grown man palling around with a batch of sentient green slime, but what kept me there was that there was something off about Robin Williams. There was something about the way he screamed, yukked and bounced around the movie that almost scared me. It was hard to tell who was bouncing around more, him or the Flubber. No adult human should have been that energetic, silly, so deeply manic. There was a palpable imbalance onscreen and it was there intensely enough to be sensed by someone who was unable to articulate it. As I grew older, I would slowly understand why.
Around 12pm PST yesterday, Robin Williams was found inside of his northern California home, dead of an apparent suicide. The news sent shockwaves throughout young people—here was a guy, maybe even the guy, who had brought them happiness throughout their childhood, found dead in the most grim way possible. People took to Twitter to voice their grief, celebrating his life and lamenting his death. A popular trope quickly developed, where users would name their favorite Williams films in order of their release. I'm sure that you could create some sort of taxonomy of personality archetypes based on a person's favorite Robin Williams movies. For the record, mine would be: Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin, Hamlet, Good Will Hunting, Flubber, Bicentennial Man and Death to Smoochy, which I understand on the continuum of conventionally "good" films that Robin Williams was in, is pretty limited. Oh, also you have to mention A Night at the Met, which to me is one of the greatest comedy albums of all time, not only because of its humor and replay value, but also because of its scope—its tracklist looks less like a list of joke fodder and more like a survey of the human condition. Soon thereafter came a wave of tweets making fun of those who chose to express their grief for the passing of a man they'd never met, as if they were doing so for selfish means or ignoring greater problems in the world.
Both of these perspectives, to me, seem valid. People mourned Robin Williams because he touched their lives. He anchored so many films that were important to so many people growing up, and once you'd matured, there was a whole different Williams to discover, one who created passionate, emotionally complex characters whose manic tendencies weren't unchecked, but instead balanced out by a darkness. His was truly a rare career and that should be celebrated. On the other hand, a human life is more complex than a tweet or a body of work could ever hope to articulate. Trying to memorialize him in any capacity feels dishonest in a way. Robin Williams was a person, a person who we never had the chance to know. All we got from him was what he chose to reveal to the public, and when we mourn, we mourn the public perception of Robin Williams. It's important to remember that.
People put up walls to keep the harsh realities of existence out. For Williams, the foundation of many of those walls seemed to be performance. You got the sense that in public, Williams could never quite shut himself "off." As I was re-reading Dave Itzkoff's 2009 profile of Williams, I found myself questioning whether or not Williams was ever actually candid with the writer, cracking jokes in place of offering confession. On the other hand, if you keep it bottled inside long enough, the sadness tends to leak out of you in other ways. There was something in his eyes that conveyed a quiet desperation. Whether that stemmed from his addictions to drugs and alcohol, depression, the thirst for approval that plagues many comedians, or even the frustration of playing a role as ridiculous as Alan in Jumanji, or the star of a film as bad as Being Human, or trying to act through the knowledge that the sum of his acting talents had led to him playing opposite a computer-animated green blob in Flubber, we'll never know. But that's not important. What's important is we need to remember that we'll never know, and instead of speculate, celebrate the life of a guy who poured his everything into the roles he played, even when he was attached to a sinking ship or merely a ridiculous one.
The Robin Williams who always resonated me was the guy who hid the melancholy behind the jokes. They say you laugh to keep from crying, but, sometimes, you end up crying anyway. But, then again, maybe that's the point.