A FITTING TRIBUTE TO ROBIN WILLIAMS

Like many of us, I was shocked and saddened by the recent news of the death of Robin Williams, an actor who had been a family favorite for many years. I can’t even begin to recall how many road trips I took listening to the dialogue from Mrs. Doubtfire or R/V as my kids watched the movies in the back while I tried to keep my eyes on the road. Ironically, my wife and I (definitely not with the kids this time) had just recently watched the comedian’s 2009 HBO standup special, Robin Williams: Weapons of Self-Destruction, which made the news of his passing even more poignant.

Though I refer to one of Williams’ films in my World Literature class every semester, I hadn’t actually re-watched one particular movie since its initial release in 1998, when it won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. That film is What Dreams May Come, the title derived from a line in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in which he ponders the possibility of suicide. Given the recent tragedy, revisiting that movie seems fitting.

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward, Dreams was adapted from a novel by prolific fantasy/horror writer Richard Matheson, who also wrote the Christopher Reeve film Somewhere in Time, with which Dreams shares more than a few similarities. Both are love stories, both are fantasies, and both are absolutely entrancing.

In Dreams, Robin Williams plays Chris, a loving husband and father who’s killed in a freak accident, leaving his already heartbroken wife (Annabella Sciorra) to cope with what is only the latest tragedy in her life — four years earlier, their two children had died in a car accident. After his own death, Chris finds himself in a beautiful paradise evoked from the paintings he had loved in life, eventually reuniting with his children. His wife, however, cannot cope with her despair, and chooses suicide instead.

Refusing to heed the admonition of his heavenly guides (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Max von Sydow) that those who commit suicide have doomed themselves beyond redemption, Chris sets forth on an odyssey through hell, modeled visually and even thematically on Dante’s writings, determined to rescue his condemned wife with his love.

A verbal summary cannot do justice to the emotional impact of What Dreams May Come, which manages to achieve genuine sentiment without falling into simpering sentimentality. This is the kind of character Williams played effortlessly, a nice guy with equal parts sensitivity and humor. That’s why he was so perfect in The World According to Garp. However, the real genius behind Dreams is its director, Vincent Ward, who has made too few films, his last a 2008 documentary called Rain of the Children.

Interested viewers should check out Map of the Human Heart (1992) — like Dreams, another masterpiece from Ward about love and loss, ranging from 1930s Alaska to the bombing of Dresden in WWII and beyond.

Whatever demons haunted Robin Williams in real life, he leaves behind a rich legacy for us to remember him at his brightest. Hamlet provided the title for Dreams; it concludes with what might be a fitting eulogy for Robin Williams as well: “Good night, sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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