I’ve been finding myself reflecting on Robin Williams since the news of his tragic suicide broke a few days ago. It’s always moments like this when you start to appreciate what is lost, and when you seriously examine Williams’s work, it’s instantly apparent what tremendous talent the man had. As an improvisational comic, Williams was without equal. The man was lighting fast, and could instantaneously invent comedic routines far superior to the ones other established comics refined and revised for years. I imagine Williams’s mind started to run hot as he hit the full stride of his stream-of-consciousness mania; his words came out so loud and fast that it got almost to the point of being intimidating. However, no matter how crazy his commentary became it was always clear that there was a sincere humanitarian at the controls – and he never descended into insulting individuals or generalized groups. Williams found enough absurdity in the human condition, and though that does seem like an eternal wellspring of inspiration, it’s surprising how many comedians have to cheat to get attention.
In many ways, Williams’s talent didn’t exactly mesh with the silver screen, but he had so much obvious ability that you had to find a way to use him or you weren’t being true to the concept of art. In some films he gives tremendous reserved performances such as in “Good Will Hunting,” but I think that unless directors can utilize the mania, they really aren’t taking full advantage of what Williams can do.
“The Fisher King” turned out to be a pitch perfect project for a guy like Williams. In it, he plays a regular man who has his life torn apart by tragedy. The tragedy transforms him from a mild-mannered professor to an indigent who lives in a junkyard, dresses in rags, and claims to hear the voices of fairies. The character’s name is Parry, and he seems to constantly be in the throes of a desperate good mood which his obviously nothing more than a cracked mask intended to cover up his spiritual torment (you can see why Williams would be convincing in a part like this).
Parry thinks of himself as a knight, and he patrols the city streets in a personal quest to help those in need. As long as he is able to live in his illusion, he is more or less a functional person. However, if something happens which allows him to settle down and remember how regular people behave (falling in love for example), he is tormented by a vision of a red knight which chases him back to insanity.
“The Fisher King” is a lovely story of redemption and healing. The title is from Arthurian legend and Parry (his name should evoke Percival—or Parcival depending on the translation you read) tells the story of the Fisher King in one of his moments of lucidity. Parry inherently knows that he needs the grail to be healed, so the film becomes a grail quest narrative.
“The Fisher King” was directed by Terry Gilliam, himself the most manic member of Monty Python, and I think he was the perfect director to work with Williams. The performance Gilliam gets out of Williams is manic, but restrained, and hits all the right notes. I could see how other directors might be intimidated by Williams and not give him a “safe” environment in which to create – but Gilliam clearly knew what he was getting with Williams, and the pairing is inspired.
It really is a beautiful film, and I especially love the urban fantasy element. There’s a reason that fantasy remains such a popular genre in the age of cell phones, the internet, and laptop computers. The image of an armored man riding a horse in defense of good or as an emissary of evil is powerful, and Gilliam manages to explore the impact those images have on our collective psyche. The visual side of the film is stunning, but “The Fisher King” achieves its power thanks to Robin Williams through whom the audience perceives terrible torment inflicted upon tremendous humanity – just like in real life. Go watch “The Fisher King” or watch it again if you’ve already seen it. It’s a fitting tribute to a great talent, and it will make you happy...a little sad too...but mostly happy, which is good.
Robin Williams will be missed.