“You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure, having a life”.
Robin Williams was known as a funny guy, which is weirder than you might think. Because despite him coming up as a comedian and getting famous as a sitcom star through Mork and Mindy, his filmography from the last 30 odd years seems to be more about the serious roles. I knew that he eventually made his way to those serious roles. What I didn’t know, was how early his turn to the drama side started. It started in the early 80s, with just his second big screen appearance. It started with The World According to Garp.
After pretty much raping an invalid veteran while he’s a patient in her hospital, just because she felt like having a kid, nurse Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) gives birth to a son she names Garp. Growing up in the hospital where his mother works, young Garp is bombarded with his mother’s feminist ideals, as well as her strange aversion to what she regards as lust. Once he reaches high school (from then on played by Robin Williams), Garp splits his time between wrestling, writing, and pursuing the wrestling coach’s daughter, Helen (Mary Beth Hurt).
Out of school, Garp becomes a successful author and marries Helen, while Jenny becomes a famous author in her own right and uses the proceeds from her book sales to set up a refuge for abused women and transsexuals. Including John Lithgow as ex pro footballer, current woman, Roberta, who soon becomes one of Garp’s closest friends.
Garp’s life evolves from birth, through childhood, into adulthood and parenthood, with a whole lot of zany adventures along the way. And that’s where The World According to Garp is at its most impressive. It’s whimsical and crazy, but also dark and tragic. It’s hyper and stylised, but also totally real and believable. It’s a tricky balance that you don’t see attempted often. And it’s a tricky balance you almost never see executed well.
The other thing that impressed me with this movie was the risk that the film makers were taking at the time. This is a pretty big, grand, ambitious movie. So to give its two lead roles to two untested actors must have been a real gamble. Williams was still mostly known for being the wackiest of wacky as Mork. His only other big screen credit was Robert Altman’s bizarre and floptastic Popye adaptation. And Glenn Close was making her film debut. So whoever cast those two, and somehow managed to convince the studio to go with it, really deserves a lot of the credit for everything that’s good about The World According to Garp.
There’s a preoccupation with sex that permeates this movie, and I still don’t really know what it was trying to say about the subject. From Garp’s conception, to Roberta’s gender reassignment, to the trouble young Garp gets into when he experiments with girls, to the infidelities of several characters, to the group of women who cut of their own tongues in solidarity with a young girl who was raped. It’s almost like the movie throws all of these questions and comments about sex into the air, hoping they’ll make sense and provide answers when they fall to the ground.
As an acting showcase, every single person with even a second of screen time delivers. As a story telling exercise, it’s a little harder for me to decide of I loved it or was perplexed by it. But I do know that I was never bored by it.