For me, the most meaningful performance Robin Williams ever gave was in the 1982 film The World According to Garp, adapted from the John Irving novel. Williams plays the title character, T.S. Garp, the son of an iron-willed nurse and a brain-damaged WWII turret gunner, who grows up to become a literary novelist.
Garp is a quirky, rambling drama that veers from slapstick comedy to the darkest tragedy, sometimes combining both in a single scene. It’s not an aggressively emotional film, but it ambitiously attempts to tell an entire life, from birth to death, covering the heights and depths of the human experience.
I probably had no business watching Garp, back in the summer of ’82, since I was a tender 13 and unequipped to appreciate the film’s adult themes. Plus, it was rated R, and I can’t recollect how I got in to see it. (I suspect the theater staff wasn’t all that zealous in guarding this fairly tame character drama from incursion by under-17s.)
It caught my attention because I was a huge Mork & Mindy fan, so I was immediately on board with anything starring Robin Williams. I’m sure I went in expecting a straight-up comedy, which it very much wasn’t, but what it turned out to be completely blew my teenaged mind, and I ended up watching it three more times that summer, and a few more times when it eventually came out on VHS.
Garp had a particular tone to it that I hadn’t experienced before. It wasn’t focused on a single objective, like the action/adventure flicks I normally watched. It was just the story of this man’s life, interwoven with the lives of his friends and family, jumping from episode to episode as it drifted with the current down this long narrative river. Later on, I’d learn that the tone I sensed was that of a long novel, the kind I had never read.
If I thought in windy film critic terms back then, I would have said that Robin Williams’ performance was “revelatory.” The last thing I expected from Mork was a subdued, human-scale dramatic performance. But Mork disappeared completely the moment the adult T.S. Garp made his entrance.
It’s Williams’ face that was new to me. I didn’t know that likable, goofy face was capable of expressing pain, anxiety, sorrow, anger. It was all the more affecting because Williams didn’t overplay the emotions, but kept them mostly beneath the surface, only his eyes and the set of his jaw communicating his intensity. And the goofiness was still there, humanizing those emotions, making them sympathetic and universal.
John Lithgow deservedly stole the movie with his out-of-nowhere performance as Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual ex-football player, but for me it was all about Williams. There’s a scene late in the film between Garp and his wife Helen, whose infidelity inadvertently leads to a family tragedy. In the aftermath, an enraged Garp confronts Helen, but since his jaw is wired shut, he can’t speak. He can only glower, his posture stiff, every movement charged with anger.
Then, his rage collapses into a torrent of helpless sorrow and unimaginable pain, all communicated through Williams’ amazing physical performance. Every time I watch that scene, it breaks my heart.
Garp ends the way anyone’s story ends, if it goes on long enough. In his final moments, Garp tells Helen to remember “everything.” Watching the movie at 13, I did remember everything. I felt for the first time that I’d experienced a life in full, with all its crazy emotional textures and strange and mundane moments. It gave me what felt like a truthful look into the grown-up world, the entire road map of a person’s journey — and their mortality.