Dead Poets Society: Souvenir de Robin Williams

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Robin Williams may have been famous for his comedic work, but his non-comedic role in Circle of Missing Poets is one of his best performances.

Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary. – John Keating (Robin Williams)

I try to watch a Robin William memorial film every year. Last year was To hang up. Next year could be Goodwill hunting even if I hold my review for the 25 years of the film. Either way, Robin Williams absolutely earned the Oscar nomination for his work here. I was only four or five years old in 1989, but make no mistake, Circle of Missing Poets is one of the best images this year among the movies I have seen.

This film is as much about the students as it is about Keating. It’s the late 1950s at the elite male Welton in Vermont where Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd) is the manager. It’s because of Keating’s past involvement with the Dead Poets Society in Welton that star pupil Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is bringing the club back. Of course, they’re not officially sanctioned, but hey. As the new semester approaches, Neil gets a new roommate, Sky Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke). Neil introduces him to his group of friends, which includes a young Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet, and they discover that the unorthodox Keating is their new English teacher.

John Keating is not the traditional type of teacher. Gale Nolan is not a fan of his methods and when he learns that students are asking for girls to be admitted to Welton, he wants to know who else is in the Dead Poets Society. Nolan and Keating are two different generations and it certainly shows. This is especially seen in the final scene of the film, which I will talk about shortly.

Keating can have a strong influence on the students, but Neil just doesn’t have the courage to stand up to his strict father, Thomas (Kurtwood Smith), and ends up taking his own life. Thomas had taken Neil from Welton and decided to send him to military school because he didn’t want Neil to act. He preferred Neil to go to the Ivy Leagues and to medical school. Nolan investigates the death and ultimately blames Keating.

Watch Williams exit the classroom as all the students jump to their desks to recite “O Captain!” My Captain! ”Is a scene that gives me chills. How can it not? It’s one of the clips we’ve seen on the news several times after Williams passed away. But anyway, this scene shows how respect Keating commanded his students, the Dead Poets Society, etc. These students may have been pressured to sign the papers that got Keating fired, but he still trusted his students.

It’s interesting to imagine an alternate universe where Peter Weir never intervenes. Weir would ultimately win the second of four Oscar nominations for Best Director. Before Weir, Liam Neeson was to play John Keating rather than the late Robin Williams. I have no doubt it would still be an Oscar-worthy performance, but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s always fascinating to think about what would happen if the cast went in a different direction. Of course, the movie is better off to make some changes to the script. The original version had John Keating dying of illness and, of course, that would have taken all the attention of the film. And so, by changing the script, we only get better. That and ignoring Disney’s notes to go from poetry to dance. There would be no capture of the day without the emphasis on poetry.

DIRECTOR: Peter Weir
SCREENPLAY: Tom Schulman
DISTRIBUTORS: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, James Waterston, Alexandra Powers, Norman Lloyd, Kurtwood Smith, George Martin, Leon Pownall

Touchstone Pictures released Dead Poets Society in theaters on June 2, 1989.


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