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Robin Williams

The news arrives as a shock but then, after the fact has sunk in, we all primly claim that we saw it coming all along. 

It happened a few months ago with the death by drug overdose of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and now, once more, with the death, a reported but unconfirmed suicide, of Robin Williams. 

How can the demise of any apparently healthy person be predicted?  The simple answer is that it can’t.  A more complex one is that it can because the victims are only apparently healthy, but actually unhealthy, and evidently intent on driving themselves to the metaphorical precipice in a fast car that has no lights and no brakes. 

Both Hoffman and Williams were addicted – sometimes sequentially, often simultaneously – to drugs and alcohol.  Williams – and perhaps Hoffman, too, I don’t really know – was said to have suffered from the bipolar disorder we used to call manic-depression.  So now that he is dead, we can add all these factors together and say, with an air of smug certainty: “I saw that one coming; after all, it was only a matter of time”.  

Beloved comedian beset by demons has long been a show business cliché.  The list seems endless.  Robin Williams has now joined it; others equally admired will join the sad procession.  One likes to think that they are all having fun together in the Great Hereafter.

Down here we mortals must enjoy them while we can.

Whatever Williams was like in private, he could be excruciatingly funny in public.  His anarchic riffing on stage, and during interviews, qualified him as a mad comic genius – up there in my opinion with Groucho Marx and the unsung and now largely forgotten Jonathan Winters.  As a Brit, I might add Spike Milligan – another manic depressive, by the way.

Williams carried his zany talents into only a few of his films, especially the best of them, Good Morning Vietnam, in which he memorably let loose as Adrian Kronauer, a demented and subversive disc jockey on an armed forces radio station in Saigon.  But even that film, as good as it is for the first three-quarters of its running time, suddenly descends in the last quarter into a gloopy sentimentality that undermines the whole enterprise. 

So many of Williams’ other, more forgettable, films start off that way, with a treacly theme and Williams simpering for all he’s worth.  Frankly, it is a deeply embarrassing sight.  Other films of his, like Insomnia and One-Hour Photo, had him playing a dark, terrifying villain.  A deeply disturbing sight. 

Was he, in the two latter films, cast against type?  Hardly.  From the switch from comic mayhem to terrifying menace emerges a clear case of art imitating life.

Watch Good Morning Vietnam.  Forget the rest.  

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