Your Move, Chief

There is a moment in The Fisher King where Robin Williams’ character, Parry, a deeply disturbed homeless man, says goodnight to his love interest Lydia (Amanda Plummer) after a perfect first date. As he stands in front of her stoop, smiling about their first kiss, the filmic manifestation of his inner troubles, The Red Knight, appears down the street on horseback. Knowing this hallucination means a breakdown is imminent, Parry falls to his knees in the middle of the road and desperately begs for the demons to stop haunting him. “Please let me have this,” he cries. He does not get it though.

When I watched that scene last night, my eyes welled up as I realized how eerily fitting the moment was for the day.  I don’t often think about the aftermath of the date when I think about The Fisher King. I think about the moment immediately preceding it, where this nonsensical, crazy homeless man gives Lydia the kind of pep talk that only works in movies.  It is a speech about how incredible she is, delivered to her after she admits all her insecurities about dating and men, insecurities I think just about any girl can relate to. It is a speech I have spent the better part of 20 years returning to, cueing it up after a rough first date or a guy got my number and never called.

As a teenager, I had the words of this monologue Scotch-taped  to the wall of my bedroom.   Once I got into high school, the childhood posters, including the menacing hook from Hook, slowly came down, replaced by a massive collage of movie magazine pictures and typed-up versions of some of my favorite lines from my favorite movies.  There was The Fisher King, Ben Affleck’s monologue from Chasing Amy, the park bench opus from Good Will Hunting, the hellfires and holocausts speech from Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, and more than one Keating speech from Dead Poets Society just posted up around the room. I thought it was arty. My mom thought I was using too much Scotch tape.

Eventually I gave up on the stuffed animal hammock in the corner of the room, which housed my Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids, and my darling Apu from Aladdin, just one of many pieces of merchandise from the film I watched relentlessly as my elementary school days came to a close. My obsession with movie materials shifted from toys to videos themselves, and I began to amass a collection of VHS tapes.  Early on, with minimal allowance money and the trips to Suncoast Video at the mall few and far between, I co-opted some of the family library, starting with Mrs. Doubtfire and Cool Runnings.

The toys went in the closet for a little while, but eventually ended up in storage to make room for a growing collection of vintage clothing. I raided my mom’s old belongings, taking her denim blazer, her vinyl jacket with butterflies stitched on the back, and an inexplicable amount of tapestry-like vests made of yarn.  Mom and Dad lived in Boulder for much of the 1970s, and, believe it or not, Dolores got kind of granola-y for a little while.  I fashioned myself Pam Dawber from Mork and Mindy, a 1970s gem also set in Colorado, that was part of the great Nick at Night era of my preteen days.  My best friend Lindsay and I would tape the marathon nights of our favorite shows when the channel ran Block Party Summer, then we’d watch the tapes over and over again, laughing at the humor, silently patting ourselves on the back for discovering entertainment our peers, who were more preoccupied with Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, naively thumbed their noses at, not realizing what they were missing.

As high school wound down, the colors of my wardrobe muted and I started shopping at Express more often than Gadzooks. I still brought my lunch to school in vintage tin TV lunchboxes, but it was time to grow up and look ahead to things like college. The application process was pretty daunting, as I picked too many schools to apply to, and many, including my dream school, USC, had a second application for the film program.  The application required two essays. The first, was a discussion of a movie that made you love movies. I chose Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie at least five other kids accepted to the program chose as well. The second submission was supposed to be a film review. I chose Dead Poets Society, as I thought it reflected my serious side. I wrote as eloquently as a 17 year old could about the beautiful yet stark snowy landscapes, the subdued performance of Robin Williams, and how much of the important stuff in that movie happened offscreen, believing at the time that this was some sort of keen observation, the kind that could get a girl into film school.

I did get into film school. I even met a boy there, just days after beginning freshman year. We went on long walks and talked about movies, and moonily stared into each other’s eyes. I was too timid at the time to show him too many of my favorites, because I always liked the Classical Hollywood stuff my USC peers didn’t appreciate as much. I pretended to enjoy the Kubrick movies he made me watch. I suffered alongside him when he had to watch and critique the original The Wicker Man.

Then he showed me The World According to Garp, a small and peculiar little film from the 80s that captured my heart. It was John Lithgow as the pro footballer turned transvestite that steals the show, while it was a young Robin Williams who anchored the film as the titular Garp, stepping back to let Lithgow have the limelight. I showed him The Fisher King in return. He said he liked it. I think he was telling the truth.

Now, at 30, my room is devoid of the movie posters and the monologues. Just one stuffed animal remains, tucked away in the closet for no one to see. But when news of Robin Williams passing got to me, I immediately felt the pang of loss nonetheless. He had been there for all of it, my childhood and adolescence.  Not just there, a central figure. When I was a kid having a rough time grieving over her dad, he was there to make me laugh.  He solidified the relationship between me and the best friend I will ever have, as two girls who spent an hour freaking out at the realization that Mork from Ork first showed up on Happy Days before getting his own show. He was even around for my first big love, helping us find some common ground between two hugely different tastes.

No matter what age though, his sentimentality was always present, keeping me hopeful and my chin up. He played characters who suffered, but still found joy in the little things. He could deliver a big, arguably naively optimistc, monologue about seizing the day or the joys of a first kiss and I would buy every second of it, even though I knew this was just a fairy tale from the movies.

To watch a scene that has had as profound an impact on me as the first date of The Fisher King only to have it followed by the gutpunch of a man pleading on his knees to just have a little happiness before the sadness overwhelms him again was just too much to take. It was too poetic, too spot on, and just too sad.  This man never met me, but he was a massive part of the life of a girl obsessed with pop culture, who sought hope in long monologues and found it there.  To think a man who likely inspired that kind of hope and enthusiasm in most kids of my generation couldn’t inspire it in himself is devastating. As the tear rolled down my cheek, as Parry sprinted down the streets trying and failing to outrun his demons, I fell into a deep sadness, the kind I needed a Robin Williams monologue to snap out of.


One thought on “Your Move, Chief

  1. So, real late on this (I was looking up your advice to Squirtle as my daughter heads off to middle school), but it was comforting to see someone else thought of The Fisher King (top ten all time film for me) when Robin left us. Unlike most celebrity deaths, this really had an effect on me for quite a while. A guy that let me know “weird is OK” and “different has a purpose” when I was a kid apparently lost that argument with himself and ended it. And I thought of the knight. And I thought of the struggle. And I cursed fate for letting it win again.


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