Robin Williams and Dead Poets Society 25 Years Later

On Monday, August 11, 2014, it was reported that actor and comedian Robin Williams died. It was less than a month after his 63rd birthday. I first heard the news on Twitter and immediately on the social network, people began sharing favorite moments from some of Williams' most popular films. The most frequent film that kept popping up was the iconic ending to Dead Poets Society.

Given the early reports that Williams' death was the result of a suicide, I wonder if people were commenting on the irony of the film in this context. Dead Poets Society is a very inspirational movie that also deals with a suicide. People, including myself, referenced the film's most famous quote, "O Captain, My Captain" in the spirit that the movie intended, which was a rallying cry in support of the love and passion of Williams' character. Yet, referencing the film at all is in a way a desire to have Williams himself sit down and watch his own work, to learn the lesson of the film, as a suicide prevention.

I noticed also on Facebook, people were inclined to watch films by the late comedy genius in honor of the great career he had. I wasted no time and instantly began to watch Dead Poets Society via While many probably would wish Williams had perhaps done the same before taking his own life, for those of us still here, it should be viewed in light of its star's passing as a reminder that it is better to hold onto what we have here.

Dead Poets Society opened in U.S. theaters on June 9, 1989. This summer marks its 25th anniversary. This summer also marks the 25th anniversary of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. A special screening and party was celebrated in Brooklyn where the Spike Lee classic was filmed. Earlier this year, the same was done for Dead Poets Society.

The story about a preparatory school and the poetry teacher who motivates his class was the first major feature shot entirely in the state of Delaware. Middletown and New Castle served as the primary locations. St. Andrew's School was the key setting, but a crucial scene was also shot at Everett Theatre in northern Delaware, so this year Everett was where the 25th anniversary celebration of the film was held.

Dead Poets Society was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Writing, which it won for Tom Schulman. It also got nods for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Robin Williams. It was Williams' second Oscar nomination after Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), directed by Barry Levinson, but Williams would go on to be nominated a total of four times. The third was for The Fisher King (1991), directed by Terry Gilliam, and his final time for Good Will Hunting (1997), directed by Gus Van Sant.

It was that final time, which won Williams his one and only Oscar. He had already won two Emmys. His first Emmy came by way of the comedy special Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin (1987). He went on to be nominated for nine Emmys. Yes, he had a great film career, but he was also a force on television. It started with Mork & Mindy (1978) on ABC. It concluded earlier this year with The Crazy Ones on CBS.

The comic whizzbang was honored numerous times. His last major honor was probably when the Golden Globes gave him the Cecile B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement. A lot of people joke that a person who gets such an award means that it's over for them, but Williams was still working and in fact has four completed films set to be released. There was even talk to do a sequel to one of his most successful films Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

In Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams played a man who pretended to be a British nanny in order to be closer to his own prepubescent children. Some might accuse Williams of being an overgrown child himself, but in that movie as well as many others he was a father figure, or a mentor. Dead Poets Society was no different, as he was a teacher to a group of teenage boys.

Set in 1959 at Welton Prep School in the northeast, we're introduced to Williams who plays John Keating, the new English teacher and former alumnus. We're then introduced to Keating's main class of about a dozen or so boys, focusing on six in particular. Three of the six were played by teenage actors who are still well-known today.

Ethan Hawke (Training Day and Before Sunset) plays Todd Anderson, the young brother of a popular alumnus who built his reputation through athletics. Todd, however, is the opposite. He's not very outgoing. He's instead introverted and shy. He's certainly not an athlete. He's probably more of an artist, but one that's afraid to pursue any art, certainly not in front of a crowd.

Robert Sean Leonard (House M.D. and Falling Skies) plays Neil Perry, the roommate of Todd. They have a lot in common in that Neil is an artist too. Except, Neil's passion is acting, but he's under extreme pressure from his father who wants Neil to abandon acting and focus solely on becoming a doctor.

Josh Charles plays Knox Overstreet, a kid on the fast-track to becoming a lawyer. This is funny in retrospect because Charles has done a lot since this job, but his most recent role and what will probably be Charles' most iconic role is his character in The Good Wife in which he plays a lawyer. Yet, his character of Knox is a love-struck boy who is running or biking around as the school's hopeless romantic.

All of the boys have a passion but are reticent to chase it. They are instead more inclined to fall in line with what most elders want, which is to study things, even art, in the most artless or colorless way possible. Keating enters to challenge or change that, and the theme or the issue at hand is what is the best manner to teach or how should teachers approach education.

Earlier in the same year of this film's release, the U.S. also saw John G. Avildsen's Lean on Me hit theaters. Lean on Me was a film that took place in a present-day school in the inner city of New Jersey. That school had a predominantly black student body and a similar theme and issue were tackled in that film, but the goals were vastly different.

The students in Lean on Me struggled with getting access to the basics and cracking the fundamentals of learning. Therefore, the lesson to be learned was discipline and perseverance. The students in Dead Poets Society, which were all privileged, middle to upper middle-class Caucasians, had access to the basics and so much more. Therefore, the lesson to be learned is what will take them further. Keating argues against realism and eschewed the strict adherence to pragmatism.

Keating is a lover of poetry but poetry in its pure sense, as a vehicle of expression that isn't so bounded, exploring intangible concepts of beauty and human emotions. He promotes individualism and free-thinking, even radical thinking that goes against the grain. He's not necessarily for rebellion, or making boldly stupid moves just because it goes against the status quo or authority.

Directed by Peter Weir, the film is really all about the performances between the boys, their interactions and chemistry. Weir's camerawork is good in encircling the boys and getting us close, if not right beside them, so you can feel them. Hawke is the clear standout, which is odd because you'd think it would be Williams.

Roger Ebert in his review back then called it "recycled out of the novel and movie A Separate Peace and other stories in which the good die young and the old simmer in their neurotic and hateful expressions." This is essentially true, but the performances from the boys make it work. You can't help but fall in love with each one, particularly the main three. How anyone doesn't look at Josh Charles' smitten face and not melt is a mystery to me!

Ebert even criticizes Schulman's screenplay as turning the poetry that Keating quotes into platitudes and makes the boys love Keating more than the poetry. I disagree slightly, but even if that were totally true, the final shot also conveys how much Keating loves the boys, as Keating recognizes in a conversation with another teacher, it's not about getting the boys to love poetry but getting them to love something.

As we think about Williams' death, that is what I think should be our takeaway. We all might not love poetry but we all should love something and not be afraid to pursue it. Watching Williams give a very haunting speech in the movie, which is even more haunting in the light of his passing, he talks about death and what one's legacy might be.

Much in the same way Shakespeare, a poet referenced in the film, called "all the world's a stage," in As You Like It, Keating calls life a play. The quote that is my favorite is when Keating says, "The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."

Dead Poets Society
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for language and some adult content.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 9 mins.


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