Robin Williams. A comedic legend of both television, film and on-stage as a comedian, Williams did it all in a career dating back to the 1970s. I've always thought Williams was an underrated dramatic actor so as a tribute of sorts I tried to catch up with some of his best works. First up? A film he picked up a Best Actor nomination, 1989's Dead Poets Society.
It's 1959 at the prestigious Welton Academy, a four-year, all boys prep school, and a fresh school year is about to begin. This is a school that has quite a reputation for producing above average students, many going onto the Ivy League. This year, Welton is welcoming a new English teacher to its faculty, John Keating (Williams), who favors some unorthodox teaching methods to get his lessons across. Some students like Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) take instantly to this out of the box teaching, embracing Keating's message. Other students, like the criminally shy Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), are more wary and stay guarded. Keating's teaching seems to have quite an impact on his students, but it also catches the attention of some of the rest of the faculty, including the administration that runs the school. The message and goal is there, but is Keating going too far in teaching his students to be free-thinkers?
Whether you watch this movie to rewatch a classic, as a tribute of sorts to Robin Williams, just to explore a new movie you've heard good things about, it's all a positive. I hadn't watched this film from director Peter Weir in years, but it doesn't matter. It still resonates years later because it is pure and simple, a wonderful, beautifully told story. Filmed on-location at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, 'Poets' is visually gorgeous, a film full of richness, an almost earthy tone, with some shots looking like a painting. Composer Maurice Jarre's score is equal parts haunting and beautiful, relying on two main themes. Listen HERE for an extended sample. It's the type of perfect score that is effective and powerful and emotional without overpowering what we see. It plays like a companion piece, giving each scene a notch or two up.
But here we sit. Many people think of Robin Williams first and foremost as a comedian, and he's damn funny to the point some have said he's a comedic genius. I think he's criminally underrated as a dramatic actor, and this is a prime example. In a part that earned him a Best Actor nomination (losing to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot), Williams absolutely steals the show. His John Keating is an English teacher who simply wants his students to learn to think for themselves, to be themselves and to question the norm. In a no-nonsense school, these teaching methods obviously ruffle some feathers. You watch his scenes teaching, and all you think is that THIS is how and what teaching should be like. He inspires, he pushes, he questions, and he makes his students question what they know, how they study and learn. Williams gets his quick glimpses into his comedic ability -- he does a trio of really strong impressions to get a point across about Shakespeare -- but this is Robin Williams at his subdued, dramatic best. Just an amazingly perfect performance.
So while Williams' Keating is the one trying to deliver a message, it is in the students we see how the messages land, some effectively, some with a thud depending on the student. Robert Sean Leonard is excellent as Neil, one of the smartest students at Wellton, a likable kid who's trying to find out who he is and what he wants to be, his incredibly strict father (Kurtwood Smith) limiting those choices. In just his second feature film, Hawke nails his part as Todd, the very smart but very shy new arrival to Wellton who's struggling to find his way. The other students we meet and end up forming the Dead Poets Society include Knox (Josh Charles), the lovestruck kid who falls for a cheerleader at a local public school, Charlie (Gale Hansen), an underachiever who always loves to stir things up, the grades-obsessed Cameron (Dylan Kussman), and Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) and Pitts (James Waterston), the smart, tech-savvy nerdy types of the group. It's an impressive group of young actors, all of them playing off each other well and finding a groove almost immediately.
The movie has too many worthy moments to mention. I love Keating forcing Todd to step out of his comfort zone to embrace his inner poet. I love Keating's out of the ordinary lesson plans from the Carpe Diem speech to the walking exercise to the strong opinion on the J. Evans Pritchard intro to a book of poetry. It all pales in comparison to where the story goes in its second half. 'Poets' packs quite the emotional punch in its finale in one scene after another. At no point does it feel like they're begging for emotions or trying too hard. Weir, Williams and the young cast manage to find this perfect middle ground, leading to one of the most perfect endings to a movie I can ever remember. It hits me in the gut every single time I watch it. Hawke, Williams and Jarre's score absolutely destroy the final scene.
A classic, a great movie. You will be missed, Mr. Williams.
Dead Poets Society (1989): ****/****