Dead Poets Society (1989)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a double feature of Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

Robin Williams was an actor who selected his film roles very carefully. Despite his ironclad station as the greatest American comedian of his time, Williams acted in drama nearly as much as he did in comedy. One need only look to the shy Dr. Sayer of Awakenings or to the chilling villains of One Hour Photo or Insomnia to see the acting mastery Williams commanded.

On the surface, John Keating of Dead Poets Society and Sean McGuire of Good Will Hunting are two more of these “serious” roles that broke the mold for Williams the comic. There is no doubt that both helped to establish him as a master thespian regardless of genre. He was nominated for Academy Awards for both roles and won Best Supporting Actor for the latter, beating out the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Robert Forster.

But Williams didn’t take these roles for fame or recognition. Prep-school English professor John Keating and Bostonian therapist Sean McGuire are similar in many ways, and comparing their ideals might enlighten what Williams saw in the role when he first read it on the page. A concern with legacy is perhaps the most obvious point of correlation between the two characters. John Keating states this explicitly near the very beginning of Dead Poets, standing with his class in front of a wall of graduates from decades past: “If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you…carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Legacy to Keating is something built today, something to be actively sought, wrestled with, grasped and pulled into the future. By encouraging his boys to consider their futures, he simultaneously encourages them to live more fully in the present.

Sean McGuire’s message to troubled genius Will is essentially the same, if stated much less explicitly over the course of Good Will Hunting. Speaking on the kind of relationship that holds true value in life, Sean tells Will that he’ll “never have that kind of relationship in a world where you’re afraid to take the first step, because all you see is every negative thing ten miles down the road.” Sean pushes will to do the same thing that John Keating encourages of his students: break out, reject fear, live life, seize the day.

So, yes: both John Keating and Sean McGuire, in their own ways, defend the importance of living fully in the present and confronting the future. It’s entirely possible that this aspect of character was what drew Williams to these roles, just as it’s entirely possible his portrayal is what makes the trait so apparent and admirable. Important as legacy and the “carpe diem” mantra may be, though, there is another ideal that Professor Keating, Dr. McGuire, and Robin Williams himself all preached: that of passion, of fervor and devotion. Of love.

The immortal speech from Dead Poets Society, taken in by the wide-eyed Literature students, speaks inexorably of this belief: “Medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.” Some of the boys find this passion immediately, some fail to find it at all, and some only begin to see the love and passion of life by the end of the film. Will Hunting, too, learns to stop resisting Sean’s outlook. “Real loss,” says Sean, “is only possible when you love something more than you love yourself.”

John Keating and Sean McGuire are much more than just “dramatic roles”, and Robin Williams was much more than just a comedian. We lost a great comic, a great actor, and a great man with his passing earlier this year, and Williams did as much to inspire a generation as any of his film characters. As with the students of the Welton Academy and as with Will Hunting, the legacy and love fall to us to carry on.

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