I always thought Robin Williams bore an uncanny facial resemblance to the double masks of comedy and tragedy. With his prominent nose skewing toward his prominent chin, he could go either way, and he took you along with him, whether into the blazing, manic hilarity of his stand-up, or the unforgettable cry of grief that ends the 1986 PBS “Great Performances” film of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.”
Williams was a genius of comedy, agile, fearless and riffing at warp speed; his 1980’s stand-up appearances on The Tonight Show, hosting Saturday Night Live and HBO specials were watershed moments in the era when comedians became rock stars. But his funny movies never quite did his rapid-fire, inventive, anarchic comic spirit justice, maybe because the camera always caught the hint of the tragic mask peering through. On film, he was better suited to serio-comedy, like Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning Vietnam, or drama leavened by a flash of gentle humor (his Oscar winning role in Good Will Hunting). Ironically, the movie that really “got” Williams, that knew what to do with him, was one in which his own face didn’t appear — Disney’s animated Aladdin. Watching the blue genie is like mainlining the purest distillation of Williams’ sly, exuberant mischief.
Robin Williams’ death has sent the Bay Area (where I live) into deep mourning. He was a long-time resident of Marin County, he worked the San Francisco comedy clubs (often unannounced), he was a regular out and about, at Giants’ games and rock concerts (I lost count of how many times I saw him at Springsteen shows) and lending his talent to just about every worthy cause in town. Right now, I can’t imagine San Francisco without him.
That such a large-hearted life-force was struggling with private despair and demons is almost too tragic to bear. So let’s end this on a laugh, and let the comic mask be the one we remember best.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014