Posthumous Poignancy, Or: Why Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting is more touching than ever
The death of a beloved screen presence can completely change an audience’s viewing experience. A throwaway quip can take on an extra meaning. A troubled character can become tragic. An emotional goodbye can be absolutely devastating. There have been many notable examples, just in the last decade or so. Take Heath Ledger, for example. Ordinarily, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus would have probably been forgotten about as a throwaway Terry Gilliam effort, but the news of Ledger’s death during the film shoot, and the sequence in which his character disappears into a mirror, gone forever, gave the film a beautiful and haunting quality that made it an excellent tribute to Ledger. After Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, many of his films took on extra meaning, none more so than Synecdoche, New York, with its frank depiction of aging and mortality. At least half of the scenes in the film are much harder to watch with the knowledge of his untimely demise.
While I could spend the entire article recounting more of those magic movie moments which take on more meaning after a tragedy, I’m focusing on a specific film, and a specific actor: Robin Williams’ Oscar-winning turn as therapist Sean Maguire in the 1997 masterpiece Good Will Hunting.
For years, I’ve thought Good Will Hunting is a solid top ten pick for Best American Film of the 90’s. If not quite as revolutionary as Pulp Fiction or as beloved as The Shawshank Redemption, Good Will Hunting is still independent filmmaking at its finest. This is mostly down to three reasons (there are obviously other great qualities to the film, but these are the standouts); Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Best Original Screenplay-winning script, featuring an abundance of iconic scenes and terrific characters; an ensemble cast of talented performers, waiting to break out (Damon, Affleck, Minnie Driver); and Robin Williams. Williams is so good in this film, he deserves his own category.
Robin Williams is obviously one of the greatest comedy performers of his generation (even if you want to hold some of the real rubbish against him, he still made some classic movies, and usually carried them on his shoulders), but it was always his dramatic performances that grabbed my attention. Since his tragic suicide in 2014, it’s been widely reported that Williams suffered with depression throughout most of his life, and while I don’t like to speculate, I feel like he often brought this more morose, downbeat side of him to his performances. Characters like Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo or Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad were characters with a sad, world-weary edge to them; people ground down by life’s struggles and fears and difficulties. Perhaps I am wide of the mark here, but I believe Williams was so good as these characters because he knew them well, and he helped bring out their human side.
Never was Williams better as a dramatic actor than Good Will Hunting. His Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor is pretty good proof of that. Sean Maguire is not the easiest role, the widowed therapist trying to remain positive whilst still angry and grieving for the wife he lost after a long fight with cancer. Somehow, Williams does make it look easy, slipping casually from the laidback ‘softly softly’ approach he takes during his sessions with Damon’s titular character, to raging anger when he clashes with more successful college friend Stellan Skarsgard, to animated entertainer when he regales Damon with the story of how he met his wife. Not only is it the best acting performance Williams ever gave, it’s one of the best of all time, full stop. You laugh, you cry, and you smile whimsically at his memorable (and memorably improvised) closing line:
“Son of a bitch. Stole my line.”
While the performance was always sublime and the film always a stunner, it is in the last year that Good Will Hunting has taken on an even more emotional and touching quality. The heartbreaking suicide of Robin Williams was perhaps the most shocking film news of last year. As a man known for his comedic energy and big laugh, many questioned how their favourite funny man could have felt so sad on the inside, when he made so many feel happy with his films and his stand up. It was a difficult time for a lot of people.
I recently watched Good Will Hunting again, for the first time since the death of Robin Williams. Though I’d always found Sean Maguire to be a moving character, and his most memorable scenes full of emotion and honesty, the film seemed more powerful than ever. Though Williams might be best remembered for Dead Poets’ Society, and his urging to “Seize the day”, it is actually in Good Will Hunting that he is truly about living for the moment. The park scene is perhaps the most famous of the film. Sean talks to Will about youth and knowledge, and how he may know all the books in the world but he doesn’t have true experience. It’s a gorgeous scene, well written and subtly acted, but now there’s an even greater level of emotion to Williams’ words. This quote, in which WIlliams describes losing his wife to cancer, is one of the most moving and lovely lines I can remember hearing:
“You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.”
Knowing how much Williams loved his wife Susan, and how difficult his life must have been towards the end, it’s a really tough line to hear, and one that, combined with the strong acting and understated direction of the scene, can make even the toughest audience member well up.
These kind of lines are found all throughout the film. Most critics tend to focus on Good Will Hunting as a drama and it is certainly effective, but they seem to ignore Good Will Hunting as a romance; not just in Will Hunting’s meet-cute with British student Skylar, but in Maguire’s deep love for his late wife. All his scenes eventually come back to her and how he never regrets meeting her (the scene in which he describes missing a baseball game to have a drink in a bar is both the funniest and the sweetest moment in the film), and it’s almost impossible now to separate the character from the actor, and to not feel moved hearing Williams say a heartwarming line like:
“You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.”
Some people may think I’m wrong for letting the real life circumstances of an actor change my view on a film. They may be right to think that. Sean Maguire is just a character in a brilliantly written script written twenty years before the death of Robin Williams. No screenwriter or director can know the fate of their leading actor when they make a film. Rob Reiner didn’t know River Phoenix would die tragically young when he filmed him disappearing into the sunset for Stand By Me. Paddy Chayefsky couldn’t predict Peter Finch’s posthumous Oscar win when he wrote Network‘s raving, nihilistic rants. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck didn’t know they’d written some of the most beautiful and haunting lines in film history when they came up with the character of Sean Maguire.
That’s posthumous poignancy; the small grace notes and tender moments that come through heavy loss and acceptance. With tragedy comes some of the most beautiful moments ever committed to celluloid. Good Will Hunting just happens to be one of them.
By Harry Ford