Robin Williams’s last Instagram photo, which he posted on July 31. The caption read: “#tbt and Happy Birthday to Ms. Zelda Rae Williams! Quarter of a century old today but always my baby girl. Happy Birthday @zeldawilliams Love you!”
Unfortunately, this script is all too familiar: Robin Williams has become the latest “star” whose life ended prematurely, apparently a victim by his own hands. He follows a long line of actors and actresses who – whether through suicide or drug overdose – seemed unable to cope with reality, joining the ranks of recent stars such as Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But this one really hurts.
This is because – confession time – I used to be addicted to movies (watching and writing scripts for them), and Robin Williams was a favorite. He entertained me in Good Morning, Vietnam, caused me to laugh in Mrs. Doubtfire, inspired me in Dead Poets Society, and gave me a lot to think about – between all the vulgarity – in Good Will Hunting (a favorite in my younger years for many reasons – not least of which because it was set in Boston).
I now, of course, question all the time I devoted to such a medium, wondering about its net effect on my overall development and character – and I certainly wouldn’t make any unqualified recommendations to anyone about any of his movies. But, whether good or bad, these movies – and Robin Williams – are a part of my history.
It is for this reason, and many others, that I am very sad this morning – along with a lot of other people. At face value, Robin Williams seemed like one of the last persons who would be plagued by grave depression, ultimately leading to his own death. He appeared to be a genuinely nice person, who loved to make people laugh – and sometimes cry.
There is a lot of discussion today about depression and suicide. These are important conversations. But what strikes me more than anything else – and this is probably a predictable target coming from someone of my ilk – is the industry to which he belonged. I can’t help but wonder how much that contributed to his beleaguered life and ultimate end.
I remember reading a provocative and stimulating article about a decade ago by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach as he reflected on the Academy Awards. The words were seminal in my own thinking on the entertainment industry, and they still reverberate in my mind. “Arguably, the biggest problem in American culture today is the fact that mere entertainers are its heroes,” Boteach started the article, “There is no precedent in any civilization in the history of the world for entertainers – actors, singers, dancers and directors – to be elevated to the highest positions of prominence in the culture. That’s why none of us can name actors and actresses from ancient Greece or Rome. They weren’t important enough to be remembered.”
The words that resonated with me the most, however, came in the fourth paragraph: “In our time, however, the incredible has happened. The court jester has become the king.”
I wonder what the net effect of all this glorification of the “court jester” has had on the psyche of these Hollywood stars. It’s amazing that any of them escape the throes of major depression – if any of them actually do.
Think about it: they get paid millions of dollars to act like someone they’re not. They are heralded, loved, and praised, not for being themselves, but for being an apparition – the projection of everyone’s fantasy worlds, including their own. They are lauded for pretending to do tremendous acts of bravery and heroism, when it’s all a mirage. They constantly live their lives as someone else – which is probably the point for many of them, utilizing the art as a way of escape. (Let’s face it: TV and movies are a pretty unhealthy form of escapism for all involved – writer, actor, audience.)
We all love to induce laughter, or to bring joy, of course. Seeking to bring levity to someone’s heart can be – I think in theory – a selfless act.
Yet there comes a time for everyone – whether actor or audience – when a person can no longer cope with trying to be someone else; when the pressure to perform – to be entertaining or evocative all the time - leaves one overwhelmed and feeling empty. And confused.
And sometimes – many times – that turns people to some pretty tragic solutions.
I didn’t know Robin Williams personally. The closest I came to knowing him was the time my brother met him in Napa Valley, while the former was attending Pacific Union College (he said he seemed like a genuinely nice guy). I don’t know all the varied and complicated factors – and there were, as always, many – that contributed to his depression and his death. And it’s probably apparent to many of us today that we hardly knew him – the real him – at all.
But I do know that, at the end of the day, Hollywood – and the fame and fortune it brings – wasn’t his saving grace.
I also know – and this is big – that each time I pay my money to the box office, it’s like saying to the court jester, “Again, again, again. Be someone you’re not. That’s how I like you.”
And if I could have somehow told Robin Williams, or today tell Tom Hanks or Will Ferrell or Miley Cyrus, something, it would be, “You don’t have to be Patch Adams or Forrest Gump or Ron Burgundy or Hannah Montana to be of value – or for us to like you. Simply listen to the words of Him who cannot lie, ‘This is My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.'”