Friday, August 15, 2014

On Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and what we lose when an icon dies

It has been a rough week, to say the least, for film fans. The loss of icons Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall in the same week has taken a definite toll. Tens of thousands of words have been written on both, and it is not my intention to add to the noise – however sincere and heartfelt that noise may be. Williams and Bacall were legends who touched countless lives in the eight decades of work between them, and they deserve every word of honorific praise bestowed on them.

All in all, it has felt like a tough year. Williams and Bacall. Ruby Dee. Bob Hoskins. Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I certainly have not named them all. By coincidence, I had only just finished my review of A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman’s stunning final lead performance, when I heard the news about Williams. Hoffman was a personal hero of mine, and I used the review as a way to honor the actor I loved and will remember.

After that, I could not immediately turn around and write on Williams. It just was not in me, so I gave it a day. The next afternoon, I sat down to write an appreciation of the critically dismissed, nostalgically revered Hook to honor Williams and belatedly Hoskins, and the news of Bacall’s death came. Williams has grabbed the lion’s share of headlines and deservedly so – a major talent, a long life well lived yet still tragically brief – but Bacall is no less than a paragon of Hollywood cinema, a throwback to the classics of yesteryear.

In that, I found a similarity. I mentioned nostalgia, which is a word that gets used a lot these days. The Internet is an ideal place to revel in the joys of our youth, and oh, in how many joys of our youth did Williams play a part? He was the Genie. He was Peter Pan. He was Mrs. Doubtfire. He was a lost boy found in Jumanji. He was so much more of course, but to my generation, who grew up with those films and many others, he represented childhood memories that will now be colored by just a little pain.

Bacall is a representative of old Hollywood, the studio system, the “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” pictures. She taught a whole other generation how to whistle. She was Bogie’s girl and so much else. But what strikes me is how the nostalgia is the same. Loss is always painful – be it marked by the years past or the loved ones passed on – but when what we lose represents something even deeper, the pain takes on new shapes and colors and levels.

I wrote after Hoffman died that the important thing to focus on and respect was the grief of a family who had lost a father, son, and loved one. That remains true of Williams and Bacall, of Hoskins and Dee, and of any others lucky enough to influence large swaths of people. Most of us did not know them personally, and the pain we feel is not the same and could never be. But the loss we feel, that is as real as it gets.

The loss of Bacall hurts because she connected us to our past, both cinematically and nostalgically. She has gone and taken a little part of history with her. The same is true of Williams, and for many, the loss feels more personal because his films were a part of our personal histories.

When I think of Jumanji, it is tied up in memories of my grandparents’ living room – of my grandmother who has been dead nearly a decade now and of my grandfather whom I am lucky enough to have still around – a place where we would sit on the floor, too close to the TV, chins resting on our palms, and stare up at the screen. My grandmother cooked and my grandfather researched the family as they obliged their grandchildren to take over the room with children’s movies.

And what are Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire about if not the love of fathers for their children, so rarely portrayed in movies with any real insight or care. Raised by a single father myself, I know what that love looks like, and as engrossing as those films are, what I take from them is the love of fathers for their children and how it might not hurt to send a little of that back the other direction.

So, yes, let us mourn the passing of Williams and Bacall and all those others. The loss of icons is great, but the loss of what they represented will be felt even as the years press on. Those memories of my grandmother’s French toast, of walking around the lake with my grandfather, of my own father who went to work every day but always came home – those memories are tinged with just a little more sadness now, but I will take the sadness as long as I can keep the memories.

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