In Memorium – Remembering Robin Williams and How Hollywood Deals With Tragedy

robin williams

This week brought the passing of one of the most prolific and influential entertainers of the last 30 or so years.  Famed actor and comedian Robin Williams ended his own life in the privacy of his home after a long struggle with his alcoholism and depression; these factors possibly playing a role in his suicide.  What is most shocking about Robin’s death however is that few ever saw this coming.  Mr. Williams was noteworthy for his seemingly effortless ability to make others laugh and do so with unparalleled energy and charisma.  But what this shows now is the fact that even though someone may seem jovial on the outside, they may also be hurting on the inside.  Williams hid that from the world very well, so it’s probably why this tragedy came as such a shock to everyone.  While it is sad to see people in the media like Robin pass so suddenly, it does however illustrate something interesting about how we, the media, and the film industry all respond to tragic events like this.  And this is mostly due to the magnitude of the response that Williams’ passing had on everyone.  I for one can’t remember the last time that a celebrity death hit the public this hard; maybe Michael Jackson being the last recent example.  Not to say that all other celebrity deaths are less worthy of acknowledgement, but there seems to be a select few who end up standing out from the rest.  In Robin Williams case, I believe that it was a variety of factors that made his passing such a big story in the news and social media world this week; namely his lengthy legacy in Hollywood and the shocking nature of his death.  What’s more, it’s interesting how a sudden tragedy like this seems to overshadow everything else, such as the passing this same week of legendary actress Lauren Bacall going almost unnoticed.  All tragedies have their own unique responses, but how they evolve seems to reveal something interesting about the culture we live in.

When it comes to how the public responds to a sudden passing of a famous star, it seems to be almost universally the same.  Of course everyone reacts the same way when learning about someone’s demise; starting off with surprise and then branching into feelings of grief, acceptance, or even relief (if that individual was a bad person, of course).  With Robin Williams, everyone’s first reaction had to have been shock, because it was so sudden.  Social media exploded when the news hit, with people expressing their grief and sharing their condolences in real time, mere hours after the news broke.   It was our way of coming to terms with what we were feeling and sharing that with the people around us.  Strangely enough, celebrity deaths has created something new in our society which is like mass social grieving; people from all over the world uniting for a short period to communally eulogize together a person that we’ve all shared memories of.  And even though this comes sometimes from purely online interactions, it nevertheless helps us to understand just how many lives had been touched by Robin Williams, and I’m sure that his family is quite overwhelmed right now by all of the heartwarming remembrances being shared this whole week.  I’m sure that the most likely way that people dealt with Robin Williams passing this week was to find one of the many movies he made over his career and re-watch it again.  I for one looked up my own favorite clips of the man in action, but it wasn’t any particular film.  Instead, I looked up his stand-up routines from both his earlier and later career, because I felt that these best represented what he was great at, which was his boundless energy and ability to make people laugh, and it felt good to see him doing his very best work there.

Of course, when people are compelled to say something about the recent passing of a famous person in a public forum, it unfortunately also leads to some unfortunate statements whenever someone doesn’t think hard enough about what they are going to say, or don’t show any empathy.  This is complicated when a celebrity dies suddenly either by suicide or by some other unusual act.  We saw that this week with lacking in thought statements like one from Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who called what Williams did a “cowardly” act, or the Motion Picture Academy tweeting a misguided phrase like “Genie, you’re finally free,” referring to Williams’ famous role in Disney’s Aladdin (1992).   We all have a passionate reaction when it comes to issues like suicide and deaths from substance abuse.  And unfortunately, sometimes those feelings can cloud our judgement when it comes to commenting on a tragic event like this.  I don’t think that anyone intended to say something hurtful about Williams death this week, but it’s obvious that good taste had to be considered when commenting on what happened.

But sometimes when a celebrity dies in such a peculiar way, it unfortunately leads to some unfortunate speculation that has no basis in truth.  This usually happens when an actor dies in an accidental nature, like the case with actor Heath Ledger in 2008.  His accidental overdose on sleep medication led some people to believe that the actor was suffering from depression, with even more speculating that it was the result of his recent work as the Joker in the movie The Dark Knight (2008), believing that it was the role that actually killed him.  None of this speculation has any real proof, and it’s probably results from people wanting to make the actor’s death seem less random than it was, thereby adding some level of intrigue into it.  That’s not only foolish to think, but also disrespectful to the persons memory.  I doubt Heath Ledger would’ve wanted people to think that he died in such a melancholy way when that wasn’t the case at all.  It’s unfortunately a product of our celebrity culture that even when a person dies, it has to be seen as something larger than life just like the person that it happened to, other than viewing it as a result of our own common mortality.

Because Hollywood is such a huge and diverse community, it’s very common for some people to stand out from the others, and that is certainly the case when they meet their demise as well.  Like I stated before, we also lost famed actress Lauren Bacall this week at the ripe old age of 89.  I’m sure that her death didn’t go completely unnoticed this week, as there were still many out there who highlighted her career in the media.  But, news of her passing seemed somewhat muted in light of Robin Williams sudden departure.  Is that because Mrs. Bacall’s worth in the industry was less than Robin’s?  Absolutely not.  I just think it came as less of a shock to many of us given her age and the fact that she went peacefully through natural causes as opposed to Robin.  Robin Williams’ death was unfortunately the story that proved more fascinating, and as a result it dominated the headlines for much longer.  Sadly this happens to many other celebrities who make their final farewells in the midst of another headlining tragedy.  There’s this urban myth in pop culture that “celebrities die in threes”, which is attributed to the common, coincidental occurrence of famous people sometimes passing away in a very short time frame and it’s always three at a time.  Though that wasn’t the case this time with Williams or Bacall, it does illustrate the idea that sometimes the deaths of celebrities overlap, and one or more will be singled out.  There were many others in the entertainment industry who also passed away this week, but Williams and Bacall took precedence because their legacies made them standouts.  The selection of “threes” usually is just the result of us selecting three celebrity deaths that mattered the most of us, and not because they were the only three.  It’s unfortunate that more emphasis is given to a few over others, but it’s a by-product of how the business works.

If you look at what separates the reactions to Robin William’s death with Lauren Bacall’s the most, apart from how they died, it’s the generational reactions to each.  Fewer people today have grown up with Lauren Bacall’s movies in this generation.  More people in my generation grew up with Robin William’s movies, like AladdinHook (1991) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1992), so we feel very attached to him as a performer, seeing as how he was a shared part of our childhood.  Many of us became more aware of Bacall’s films as we got older and discovered her work through classic film studies or through our own fascination of with her long and prosperous legacy in the business.  Nevertheless, their passing affects different generations in different ways, even when both have equally as impressive legacies.  I’m sure that as time goes along, both actors will stand apart and become honored icons in the whole of Hollywood history.  It’s just unfortunate that one becomes more iconic in the moment of their death than the other.  Perhaps that’s the one negative of all the coverage that’s come Robin Williams’ way this week; that it’s been focused more on how he died rather than what he’s left behind.  I’m sure Williams himself would’ve been very happy to see people rediscovering all the things that he did well over the years, but I also don’t think he wanted to be singled out either.  From what I’ve read, it seems like his suicide was an escape from the pain of his depression and not a desperate cry for attention.  Unfortunately, suicide does garner attention, whether or not it was intended, and that’s what has pushed him into the spotlight.  And in an industry like Hollywood where getting attention matters, it has led to this result.  I know that Hollywood attempts to downplay favoritism after a popular entertainer dies (they’ve recently started muting the audience reactions at awards shows during the In Memorium segments), but there are some things that just can’t be avoided.

Then there is the unfortunate circumstance in Hollywood when a celebrity dies with unfinished business.  Due to long gestating projects in development and production, sometimes there will be a case where an actor or filmmaker will die before their work on a movie is done.  Sometimes it’ll happen when a film is nearly complete or has barely started, which makes it easier on the production team to either put the finishing touches on the actor or director’s work, or recast them altogether.  In Robin Williams case, he had thankfully finished all of his films in progress and had yet to begun on the ones that remained on his future slate, making his film appearances complete and without complication.  There have been cases in the past, however, where a film had to work around an incomplete performance, and this leads to some ethical challenges on the filmmakers part.

For instance, on the  set of the movie Gladiator (2000), actor Oliver Reed died of a heart attack shortly before he filmed his final scene.  Not wanting to waste his standout performance, director Ridley Scott found a way to digitally impose Reed’s face onto a stand-in double for the last scene, thereby completing the film with the majority of the actor’s original work still in tact.  No one noticed the difference and saw that as an acceptable alternative.  The same cannot be true for actor Bruce Lee’s final film Game of Death (1978), which was cobbled together from an unfinished movie made before he died, with poorly dubbed dialogue and horrible super-imposed facial replacement on a double used to finish the film, and was purely done to exploit Lee’s name in the years since his death.  But probably the only time that a film actually changed entirely because of an actor’s death was when Heath Ledger died unexpectedly in the middle of shooting director Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009).  Gilliam restructured the film around Ledger’s scenes and made a film that was very different in form than the one he started, thereby still letting the world see the actor’s final work and giving the film a better overall vision; with actors like Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell filling in the remainder of the movie.  Though it rarely occurs, Hollywood has to show good judgement when they work an actors final performance into a film, because it can either look like you’re honoring their memory or exploiting it for profit.

My hope is that even with Robin Williams untimely end, that it won’t cloud the legacy that he left behind.  He had an impressive body of work and it’s easy to see why the outpouring has been so strong for him this week.  While his track record in film wasn’t the most solid (1998’s Patch Adams being a particular blunder), whenever he delivered something good, it proved to be spectacular.  Apart from his slate of family-friendly projects, he was also fantastic in darker and more serious films as well, like 1990’s Awakenings, or 2002’s disturbing One Hour Photo, or Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia (also 2002); and of course the role that won him an Oscar in Good Will Hunting (1997).   Also, just the fact that he was a peerless comedian made him special.  I love how he would also cop to some of his cinematic blunders and admit that they were horrible too (the dreadful 1997 film Father’s Day was one that he loved to slam often).  It just shows how clever and honest he was.  Every celebrity death leaves an impact, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to put more focus on Robin Williams’ death over others.  He touched that many lives and the way he left certainly left a vacant hole in many of our hearts.  I just hope that when people highlight Robin Williams’ legacy this year, that they also remember other like Lauren Bacall, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Eli Wallach, and all the other great Hollywood icons that we’ve recently lost.  Some may have not touched our lives in the same way, but they all contribute something extra to the great tapestry that is the world of Hollywood.  What’s great is that all of them have left behind bodies of work that will enable them to live far beyond their time here on Earth and that is an encouraging thing to think about.  So keep their memories alive by revisiting all their best moments and follow in their example.  Carpe diem.