Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Popeye And Robin!

The recent death of Robin Williams has unleashed a torrent of praise for the distinctive actor and comedian. And it would be exceedingly unseemly, until now, to wade into that sincere celebration of a talent who clearly impacted many, with my own opinion that frankly I found Williams a bit too much most of the time. He could be scandalously funny, but eventually his high-speed antics wore me down and his stage act became tiresome. Not so much his acting, which could be outstanding, if he was in the right role. I particularly liked it when he played characters who were more than a little bit evil.

But my favorite Robin Williams role remains one of his first, as Popeye in Robert Altman's notorious movie of that name. There have been countless attempts over the decades to bring comic strip characters to real life, sometimes with embarrassing consequences. But to my mind, it has never been done as completely effectively as when Williams portrayed Popeye, especially when he shared the screen with the equally fantastic Shelley Duvall as Olive. They were these characters, utterly and convincingly.

Surprisingly it was the decision by Williams (I suspect) to make Popeye a reticent and downright shy character, one who muttered incessantly and merely wanted to make his own way through a world which was full of trouble and complication, which made him fascinating. He was an exceedingly reluctant hero, an often somber man who was eventually forced to do the right thing when discretion was the smarter move. Williams presented Popeye as a convincing human being, at the same time as he was a compelling epic hero who appears out of the wilderness to confront the evils of society.

The movie is famously regarded as a bust, despite the fact it more than made its money back. But Hollywood has never been a place that abided by any sort of logic. Williams would go on to make many movies, and play many roles, including his starring turn in The Dead Poet's Society. The latter movie is among my least favorite flicks, because as a working teacher, I've long regarded the unbridled romanticism of the profession it presents as ultimately damaging to the way people regard the task. But it is, despite my particular complaints, just some people's cup of tea.

For me the Robin Williams I'll always remember and respect is the sullen red-haired sea salt he so successfully portrayed so many decades ago. Godspeed to the best real-life Popeye of all time.

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