Why I Can’t Bear To Watch Robin Williams Movies

I take no joy in admitting this.

It’s not that I didn’t like the man. Far from it: I was a huge fan of Robin Williams. Or I should say, I still am. But five years ago I stopped watching his movies. It was August 11, 2014 and the world had been dealt the news that Robin Williams, a beloved titan of comedy, had died.

I mourned for the loss of such a brilliant, monumental talent. I felt desperately sad for the man that such a burden of psychological torment led to his suicide. It would later emerge that Williams had been suffering from Lewy body disease, a form of dementia.

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Robin Williams was reportedly suffering symptoms of Lewy body disease, a form of dementia, during filming of 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. (Image: 20th Century Fox)

The avoidance of his movies reminds me of my reaction to my own mother’s death. In the almost 25 years since, I’ve never felt ready to see footage of her. I’ve never heard her voice since a final phone call some 48 hours before her death. The pain of seeing and hearing her on screen has been too much to bear.

But that reaction to the loss of a loved one makes sense to me. Why would I react the same way to someone I had no real-world connection to?

It’s a variation on an evergreen question pondered in countless think-pieces when famous people leave this mortal coil swiftly followed by a global outpouring of grief. The prevailing implication seems to be: don’t worry, you’re not crazy for grieving a famous perfect stranger, but maybe you have some attachment issues characterised by sentimentality.

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Sociology professors and experts with doctorates in celebrity culture (yep, you can get one of those) trundle out the same tired pontifications; we feel connected via social media; we’re confronted by own mortality; we feel that we knew them via their artistic output.

But none of this rings true for me. Social media connection with celebrities is a mirage. I don’t have an existential crisis when a famous person dies. And rather than feeling like I knew Williams, he was a welcome and fondly regarded (if frequently raucous) visitor who would pop by my screens to entertain and move me from time to time.

I’m coming to learn that this lingering grief for an unmet celebrity may be based on a poignant, emotional connection.

It was Williams’ authenticity that drew me to him. Despite the tomfoolery that was never far off, he was one of the most relatable stars in Hollywood because he was so willing to talk frankly of his personal demons. And this was long before it became commonplace for celebrities to bare the darkness of the soul beneath the razzle dazzle.

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He spoke of marriage breakdowns, his personal failings, drug and alcohol addiction, depression. It was the latter that I related to, having experienced depression and anxiety for the better part of my life.

It was Williams’ authenticity that drew me to him.  (Image: Getty)

According to sociology professor Dr Jacque Lynn Foltyn of National University La Jolla, California, a scholar in the public’s fascination with celebrity deaths, we bond with our favourite personalities as “intimate strangers” when they reveal a personal struggle we can relate to.

The problem I have with Williams’ best movies is that they’re a constant reminder of, not only his immense talent, but also his authenticity. That madcap energy, soulfulness, and quintessential humanity -- the ability, as his The Fisher King and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen director Terry Gilliam put it, “to go from manic to mad, to tender and vulnerable”.

It was there in The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs Doubtfire, Awakenings, and of course, Dead Poets Society, among many.

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But his most authentic performance in my book (and my favourite) was his moving, Academy Award-winning turn as therapist Dr Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting precisely because those “tender and vulnerable” qualities shone through.

And Williams’ comic brilliance made the trifecta for what is my favourite scene in all of the actor’s oeuvre. The original script for the scene, a therapy session where Sean teaches Will (Matt Damon) a valuable lesson in cherishing the “little idiosyncrasies” of loved ones, had Sean recalling a mundane anecdote about his late wife and an alarm clock. But Williams went completely off-script, replacing that with an improv about how she farted herself awake, masterfully guiding the scene from hilarity to poignancy. I could, if I let myself, watch it time and again.

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When grief is discussed, the concept of the healing hands of time is often attached. But to paraphrase the recent wise words of a friend, grief has no time limit. And we all react differently. Some will be able to separate fiction from fact, fact from art. That hasn’t been the case for me.

But perhaps now would be a good time to pop on Good Will Hunting and see how I fare. I’ll keep the tissues handy.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about anxiety, depression and mental health contact beyond blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.