Much has and will be written about the struggles Robin Williams endured and fought, notably his long battle against depression and alcoholism. From the outside, the fight seemed to become more difficult the past eight years when he fell off the wagon in 2006 after 20 years of sobriety, unable to ever fully hop back on. That, in and of itself, is enough to break someone — even without depression.
But far more learned people will cover this, and people who were much closer to Williams will excel at remembering him far better than a 23-year-old who grew up on “Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and “Hook.”
What someone can talk about, though, is his perfect performance in “Good Will Hunting,” the film that netted his sole Academy Award for his role as Sean Maguire, the titular character’s therapist. In it, Williams plays a man, contrary to Matt Damon’s Will, who has lived and lost, marrying his soul mate, Nancy, only to lose her to cancer. After her death, Sean receded, stopping his practice, beginning a somewhat reclusive life in a messy apartment with only Jack Daniels to keep him company in addition to teaching co-eds at a local community college. Will, a savant who operates in another plane of mental fortitude along with an atypical view on social conventions, looks through Sean and sees — to borrow the film’s metaphor — someone who hasn’t returned to the poker table after betting and losing big. He cuts him, which pushes Sean to the edge of actually cutting Will.
Their relationship is mutually beneficial, as both can ignore the façade with which each live their respective lives. The two broken men need each other to piece themselves together, not only requiring the deft writing of Damon and Ben Affleck, but director Gus Van Sant’s ensuring a particular subtlety to the somewhat neutered Sean and pompous, damaged Will.
Sean is a reeled-in Williams, only ever briefly flashing his trademark ebullience in a handful of moments. But with his relatively restraint comes a believable insightfulness and empathy, and compared to his foil and former roommate — Stellan Skarsgard’s Gerald Lambeau — he becomes the first outside person in Will’s (shakily) established circle of trust to unconditionally love him whom Will also accepts. (Skylar [Minnie Driver] does, too, but Will’s abandonment issues leads to his pushing her away.) Even through his zaniness, Williams’ warmth always appeared authentic — never put on for a performance.
This monologue, most of it in one take, puts forth Sean’s pain and opens Will up in just their second meeting, and there’s little doubt he — both Williams and his character — means every word of what he’s saying. Somehow, it’s reactive acting, despite Williams being responsible for about 95 percent of the verbal lines.
The key to Sean, though, is, for lack of better phrasing, shutting down all forms of bullshit. He’s confident enough and sure of his own person to fight Gerry in any reckless suggestion that Will — anything but the average 20-year-old — can just “handle” the dream of academic revolution that Gerry conjures. Lambeau calls out Sean for disposing of his life as a genius mathematician (smarter than him, per Gerry), and Sean could not care less about either eschewing that or the path he chose. Though the success and fame weren’t achieved, Sean’s personal priorities shifted to a more fulfilled life — and that’s all he wants for Will. He almost seems too good to be real, but the glimpses of a partially tortured existence brings the viewer back to the reality that the path of “love” was anything but easy and risk-free — but, in Sean’s case, worthwhile.
It’s hard not trying to discern how much of Williams’ own life he tapped into for Sean. And it’s really not fair, as few writing on Williams knew the extent of his demons — it’s foolish and careless to assume, “Oh he, undoubtedly, did X, Y, Z and drew on that.” In all the pain Sean possesses, there’s not an ounce of resentment and regret, relishing the little things (even if he skipped Game 6 of the 1975 World Series). At Williams’ best, that was palpable. He’ll remain the smiling, caring doc who’s once again ready to take on the world (even if he’s “angry” about Will stealing his line). It seems like goodbye, but Sean Maguire and Robin Williams’ gentle, pained selves persist, forever reminding that you “gotta go see about a girl” in all aspects of life.