Review – Robin Williams, When the Laughter Stops. 1951-2014 by Emily Herbert

Like many other people, I was shocked in 2014 to hear actor/comedian Robin Williams had taken his own life. It is always immensely sad news to hear, but for a comedian to hang himself is somehow especially perturbing. How can someone continue to make the world laugh while living with such inner turmoil that they would extinguish their own life? It’s a mystery.

I hoped this biography, which I read as an ebook on Kindle, would help me to make sense of events. For a celebrity biography, it was reasonably well-written but maybe there wasn’t too much to find out for it felt there was little depth, with the early chapters focusing on the ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour of a son whose father was rarely at home, and whose mother focused more on charitable works than her child. It is always easy to use cod psychology to explain issues, to throw in a spot of maternal deprivation, but it seems a tad lazy. Certainly, our upbringing has an impact on us but it cannot fully define one’s life as an adult. However, Robin and his family seemed to spend some time in therapy so there was presumably something more to uncover. He was surely not shallow.

To be fair, the demons of cocaine and alcohol were probably huge culprits in Williams’ mental demise, the alcohol probably masking his depression. Like many others, he became a victim of his own success, womanising and substance-abusing because he could. Whether he was generally unhappy or had an addictive personality, who knows? He also suffered some major losses, including the deaths of his parents, brother and his good friend, Christopher Reeve (Superman) plus the demise of two marriages (he married thrice altogether). All of these would have an impact, as did his perceptibly failing career. Yet many people have similar and far worse to deal with without a huge financial cushioned fall back on. They do not necessarily reach the same conclusion as Williams. Death by asphyxiation is a particularly masculine choice, aggressive and effective, with a terrible impact on whoever finds the person. We are not really given a compelling reason for Williams’s inner anger, why he might have chosen this way to his end.

The second half of the book mainly reads like a list of films and reviews, from moments of sheer brilliance to mighty flops. It becomes clear that Williams had an anarchic sense of comic genius which tends to come at a cost but I’m not convinced the filmography was necessary. It did, however, fill pages.

Having liked Williams as an actor, I realised from reading this I only really liked a very small proportion of his films. Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Mrs Doubtfire, for example, defined him in my eyes. I never really understood the attraction of ‘nanu nanu’ Mork in Mork and Mindy, the early tv programme. This maybe explains a good deal. Robin Williams veered, it seems, between extremes. He acted the lead role in some fabulous films but also appeared in some dire ones. He was an able stand up comic, at times happily married and grounded, at other times, drowning in chaos and drink. To say his life is portrayed as a rollercoaster is cliched but also pretty accurate. He was obviously troubled about the quality of his work, the reviews, money, his domestic circumstances, yet had a tendency to destructive behaviour. Yet, when he successfully gave up cocaine, according to the book, he took up cycling big-style, becoming pretty good at it. He was not debauched and out of control. When he wanted to, he controlled his behaviour pretty well. He was a massive acting success, a generous person and a big earner. He did not appear happy with half measures, seeming an all or nothing kind of guy. This manic and potentially perfectionist streak surely made the down times seem even worse.

By the end of the book, I had a much greater knowledge of his films, I realised many things had not gone his way though he started and ended life wealthy, but what made him one day decided enough was enough remains a mystery. To be honest, this is the one key question we all have about Robin Williams’s life, and it is the question that was not fully answered. Biographies as much as any books need to offer an authentic voice. This at times felt like an eclectic mix of secondary sources by someone who made no real effort to get to know the man, who had no fresh ideas, or a compulsion to uncover the real person, but who was commissioned to write a biography on his untimely death which happened after he had received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.

His films were catalogued to the point of boredom but where were the interviews with family and friends, the people who knew him best? Why did Robin Williams hang himself? I still don’t know.

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