Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall: an appreciation

Image of Nigel Andrews

With uncanny regularity it happens. The death of the famous in duplicate. Robert Mitchum and James Stewart died on successive days in 1997. Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the exact same day (July 30 2007). British funnymen Frankie Howerd and Benny Hill, jesters to the gentry, doyens of the double entendre, virtually joined at the zeitgeist, were called to the comedy clouds on April 19 and 20 1992.

Two score years before, on March 5 1953, Russia quaked when Joseph Stalin died. In doing so he obliterated obituary space for a man expiring the very same day, his mirror opposite and illustrious victim of his philistinism, the composer Sergei Prokofiev.

From Moscow to the Hudson, and the Hudson to Hollywood . . . You spend months paying no heed to mortality’s menace, at least in those places, such as California, where goodnights are mostly gentle, cosseted and expected, and then two “go” together. Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall had little in common but screen fame. But with a twinned instantaneity still astonishing (after all these centuries of death notices for the famous) the same narratives were rolled out for each, and the same boilerplate questions asked, quasi-rhetorically, in order to create those narratives.

What made Williams and Bacall special? How much were they loved? Where were they in the pantheon of comedy/stardom/sex appeal (name your commodity)? What was, is or will be their legacy?

With a strident unity no less deafening, everyone said good things about these stars, almost no one said bad. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. But with a gentle humour surely allowable – nobody is perfect, as the most perfect end line in movies has it (RIP, Billy Wilder and Some Like It Hot) – we can look back on a time in his early-middle Hollywood career when Robin Williams’s films were like a plague. People ran from them almost screaming. Cadillac Man? Jack? No one remembers? Schmaltz by the mile? Sentiment by the gallon? Inner children by the innings?

Likewise, Lauren Bacall’s career was becalmed by mediocrity quite soon, and quite extendedly, after the winning combination of opposites with which she found fame in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Youthful teenage sheen and smoky sophistication of manner: by the 1950s these had been nullified by the vanishing of the first and the hardening of the second into repetitive mannerism.

The first casualty of death is honesty. We must race to our superlatives. We must bin the bad stuff as we go.

Yet stars, hard to believe, are human beings. Some present themselves as all too human in the poignant defeat of premature death, like Williams and earlier this year the man who could sometimes seem, on a Dadaist day, his tragic-masked double, Philip Seymour Hoffman. We love them both despite the “imperfection” of their deaths, yet we rush to erase imperfections from their lives and careers.

Isn’t that, though, what makes them stars? That vertiginous quality of risk, uncertainty, unguided instinct with which they first step before us? That quality that we know will bring bad as well as good – count the calamitous missteps and fiascos in Marlon Brando’s acting career – and which makes us impatient with the bad (every time it happens) only because we know the good is always around the next corner.

Let’s say it in celebration. Robin Williams was rubbish in Patch Adams. He was embarrassing in Jakob the Liar. He was cringeworthy as the adult Peter Pan (what a concept) in Hook. But the very quirks that curdled your stomach in these performances – that full-on emotionalism, those fidget-frenzies of an overworking body language, or worse, and conversely, the sense that he was reining these in to essay saintliness or martyrdom – became the tropes that triumphed in the right role or arena. The hyperactivity was perfect on the stand-up stage, where Williams was a dynamo you couldn’t control and wouldn’t want to. And the throttled, anguished quietism worked in the movies where dormant menace was the key of the character’s music: One-Hour Photo, Insomnia.

Lauren Bacall found her key instantly in To Have and Have Not. No girl this young while also this sexy-cool could be anything but bad. Yet somehow Bacall’s character seemed the moral centre of the whole movie. Sage as well as saucy, she breathed lines as if they were smokes from some timeless pack of Delphic soothsayings: “You know how to whistle, don’t you? . . . ”

Bacall grew up to become a star on the fringes of stardom: first filling the dullish femme fatale leads of the wholesome 1950s, then becoming celebrated as a raconteur, interviewee, memoirist . . . She got starrier, paradoxically, as she grew beyond middle age. She launched a stage musical version of All About Eve called Applause! (If Bette Davis could sing, this was she.) And she was Oscar-nominated for a waspish supporting turn in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces.

The young Bacall came back into public view, at least a little. The old mischief returned, sly, sardonic, self-possessed. We almost forgot the dips and descents of the intervening career.

But that, of course, is what some obituarists would like us to do. Perhaps the mirror does have two faces and always has. There is the face the world looks into, at the time of a star’s death, to see its own features dispensing dutiful adulation. And there is the face hidden from view, as tributes flow, in which the failing or flailing components in a star’s career are put out of sight – in case we can’t be trusted to believe in the richness of an achievement that has also known, as all richness should, poverty, struggle and moments of disillusion or misdirection.

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