Let’s have a moratorium on premature deaths of beloved celebrities. (I was slightly peeved to hear the word pronounced “be-loved” instead of “be-love-id,” the way it’s supposed to be, by some people on some news clip I watched at the Huffington Post, alluding to Robin Williams.)
Losing Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Robin Williams in the same year is a double whammy. (Remember how Mother Teresa was upstaged by Princess Diana when the latter died right after “Mother” and stole her thunder? Man, she must have been pissed–off, that is. I don’t think she was much of a drinker.) Both men were giants in their field. Both suffered from addiction.
Although I didn’t know either of them personally and I’m not a psychiatrist (I just play one on TV), I have a hunch that both of them suffered from the same disease, that of not receiving enough love from the inside. This is a common malady, especially among creative, talented people in the arts and in the entertainment business. That’s why it’s hard for those of us whose lives are far more ordinary in most ways to understand how people who appeared to have it all could throw it all away.
I don’t want to make myself puke by using the phrase “wounded inner child” in earnest, but that may not be far off the mark in describing the demon that haunted Robin Williams. He was one of those people who could make you laugh by being hyperkinetically zany, coming up with all manner of free-associative gags in a seemingly endless riff.
But he could also be tiresome at times because he tried so hard. I know what I’m talking about, because I do the same thing. Philip Seymour Hoffmann was evidently traumatized by playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman on Broadway for a year. He was hurt inside by playing a character who’s obsessed with being well-liked (in other words, loved).
A few years ago I read an essay by David Rakoff in his first collection, Fraud, in which he wrote a scathing criticism of Robin Williams that I thought, at the time, was spot-on. After reading Mark Peters’ tweet (“We’re all from Ork today–RIP Robin Williams”) on the subway yesterday on my phone, then confirming our loss by reading about it on the International Herald Tribune’s site, I spent most of the rest of the day in a kind of mourning. I wondered if Williams, who was obviously so vulnerable, needy, and desirous of approval, had read Rakoff’s piece and been hurt by it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had.
Rakoff himself succumbed to cancer about a year ago. He was another talented, insightful figure. In an interview on National Public Radio, he said when he found out he had cancer, instead of saying, “Why me?” he thought, “Why not me?”
I watched a few clips of Robin Williams doing his shtick yesterday as a tribute to his genius, including the first ten minutes of the concert he did at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I also saw the acceptance speech he gave for a comedy icon award, and was startled by his defensiveness and the resentful edge to his humor. In a recent appearance he made in which he had to improvise based on a cue (e.g., “introverted dictator”), he seemed subdued and sad, much more mellow than in earlier years, but still funny.
And even though he could be cloying, at least he wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve (thanks to Shakespeare for coming up with that idiom, a variation of which was used by Iago in Othello–thanks, Iago–nobody ever thanks the poor guy anymore!). (By the way, I couldn’t just leave the idiom without commenting on it because if I did, I’m afraid someone might accuse me of using a cliche; I thought by making the parenthetical reference, I could have my cake and eat it, which is another cliche. Pardon my utter lack of originality. Can we still be friends?)
For all the plaudits Williams received in the media and from his fans, he was probably unduly hard on himself. He claimed he used cocaine to calm down–oddly, it had that uncharacteristic effect on him. One critic I read yesterday said he may have been coked out during some of his frenetic one-man shows, which would contradict his claim, unless his reaction to the drug varied with his mood.
He knew how to rein it in when he had to for a serious role, where you could see the sadness in his eyes when he smiled. I thought he shone in the first dramatic part he played in Moscow on the Hudson, and I was a sucker for the sentiments expressed in Dead Poets’ Society, too.
I’m guessing he may have been a perfectionist, and perfectionists can never be satisfied. They are possessed by the Buddhist spirit of dukkha, the sense that something is always missing (even if it isn’t–figuring that fact out is, apparently, nirvana). Williams’ idol, Jonathan Winters, struck me as a much more effortless performer, someone who was a lot more comfortable in his own skin (never mind that he did time in a madhouse and may have also had a weakness for booze, as Williams did; he stayed happily married to the same woman his whole adult life, so there). He was also, in my opinion, even funnier than Robin Williams, something the younger comic acknowledged in the loving obituary he wrote only a few months ago for the New York Times.
In the course of doing and hanging up my laundry I watched Bruce Springsteen induct Jackson Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then listened to Browne’s speech in which he thanked all the people who’d influenced him. I used to listen to Jackson Browne religiously when I was in my early teens, and I thought highly of his music at the time. Afterwards I went through a decades-long phase of thinking he was an overly sincere, affectedly sensitive sap, which was an unfairly caustic analysis I’d like to withdraw. I’ve started listening to his music again with renewed appreciation, and the stuff he did in the seventies (everything up through the album and especially the song Late for the Sky) is valuable. His later work I appreciate for its political message and heartfelt idealism, even though it doesn’t do anything for me musically.
While there are a lot of rock and roll casualties out there, comedy is also a dangerous field in which to make a living. Performing stand-up comedy live on a stage in front of a bunch of strangers, blinded by the bright lights that make it impossible for you to see anyone’s face, is a lonely, difficult business. I realize he’s on a lot of people’s shit lists right now, but Woody Allen gave an excellent (serious) interview you can buy on CD in which he describes the rigors of being a stand-up comic. Having to make different groups of people laugh night after night, traveling around the country or the world, living out of a suitcase–it’s a ball-buster of a job.
So you can see why even (or perhaps especially) the most talented comics are also often the most wounded. Richard Pryor, whose Live in Concert is considered by greatest stand-up performance of all time by many of his peers and fans, grew up in a whorehouse, got addicted to coke, and tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. After that you could see he was scared (who wouldn’t be?), and then he suffered the crippling debility of multiple sclerosis for the rest of his life.
Although he was an ensemble performer rather than a stand-up comic, Chris Farley may have been the most tragic young talent of all. Grossly overweight (and getting bigger all the time–because he thought it made him funnier), he desperately sought love and acceptance from others, and all the time he was destroying himself, he was also being funnier than hell. He died of a heart attack caused by a drug overdose at the age of thirty-three.
Bill Hicks, a less warm-and-fuzzy type, was likewise self-destructive in his compulsive smoking of cigarettes, something he incorporated into his routine as a way to take the piss out of non-smokers. They’d have the last laugh, however, as that towering comic and social critic would die at thirty-two of pancreatic cancer. Hicks was strong enough to overcome his addiction to alcohol with the help of A.A. (Robin Williams was also a member–shhh, don’t tell anyone), but cigarettes he couldn’t lick.
Yesterday I finished reading Impossible Vacation, a memoir disguised as a novel by the late, great Spalding Gray. If you’re a Gray fan, I recommend you read the work–or even if you’re not, as it’s seamlessly written. There was another performer whose life felt to him like a non-stop crisis. His mother, a Christian Scientist who went crazy, took her life while he was still a young man. He went around the world soul-searching, finding plenty of material for the monologues and books that he’d later go on to do and that would make him famous. A few years ago he was involved in a car crash in Ireland in which he sustained a brain injury that plagued him for the rest of his life.
Even though he’d finally gotten it together enough to settle down with his steady girlfriend Renee and raise children in a happy, stable home, chance interfered and the accident sent him spiraling into a deep depression that led him to jump off the Staten Island Ferry into the Hudson River and drown himself (he was, I believe, in his mid-sixties at the time, close to Robin Williams’ age).
The cover of Impossible Vacation shows an arm rising from a lake waving an American flag.
Let that flag wave at half-mast today for another wonderful artist who died too soon.
And if all this makes you feel suicidal, just remember you can’t do anything creative, fun, or exciting when you’re dead. You can be loved, but at that point you won’t know love from a hole in the ground.
Death is easy; life is hard.
Live instead. Life is where the action is.