Three months after his death, Robin Williams still generates news articles and provokes discussion both about his career and personal life… and there is no sign that this will slow down. This November, the Gulbenkian will be featuring screenings of some of his most loved films, and in commemoration, I have decided to write about the positive influence he has had on me and others of my generation.
Williams is renowned for not only the outstanding quality of his work but also for the variety; he was an actor of incredible range who wonderfully voiced the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, who made us both laugh and cry in Mrs Doubtfire and who was a source of inspiration in Good Will Hunting. For me, however, his most brilliant role was that of Mr John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society. In this film, Williams plays an inspirational teacher who exposes his students to several significant life lessons through unconventional teaching methods; primarily the value of literature and the way it can help us to understand humanity (“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world”) and how important it is to pursue your passions rather than conform to ideals that others have imposed upon you (“You are not an indentured servant! It’s not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion!”).
I watched Dead Poet’s Society an immeasurable number of times throughout my adolescence, so I can say that it undoubtedly had a huge influence on my desire to study English Literature at university. What I really loved about Williams’ portrayal of the character of John Keating was the way he manages to master the very difficult skill of being comedic, whilst simultaneously conveying profound truths and delivering life-changing messages. At some point in our lives we have all had to confront the choice between doing what would fulfil us most or simply living to placate others, and the choice is never easy. Having someone with the amount as talented as Williams embody a character that speaks words of wisdom that aims to direct us towards a more satisfying life is something that many of us, who have seen the film, are grateful for.
Re-watching it after Williams’ death, the film is even more poignant, considering that it deals with issues that affected the actor himself. What we can take away from it, however, is that despite the ambiguous ending, integrity is more important than conformity; although Mr Keating is rejected by the board of the school, the film ends on a triumphant note because it is evident that he has impacted the lives of the majority of his students.
In my opinion, the best films are those which force you to reconsider which principles you value the most and the way you view the world. Robin Williams’ portrayal of Mr Keating cements ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ as one of those films.
Editor’s Note: The Gulbenkian is currently running matinee screenings of Robin Williams’ films. Mrs Doubtfire will be showing on Saturday 8th November at 10.30am and Good Morning, Vietnam on Sunday 16th November at 2.30pm. Student tickets are £3-£5.