Legendary Chicago Cubs infielder Ernie Banks said in his Hall of Fame induction speech, "Let's Play Two." With that spirit in mind, let's transition from the ballpark to the Lazy-boy, and let's watch two. I recently revisited a mid- nineties classic, Good Will Hunting; celebrating it's 20th anniversary of release this year. Feeling the nostalgia, and still early enough in the night, I dug into the archives for a second flick that I thought would pair well with it. Deciding I would get my privileged white boy fix satisfied in one fell swoop, I grabbed Dead Poet's Society from the shelf.
Why These Films Work Well Together
One could look at this from a couple of different perspectives. My initial thought when I decided to do a double feature article was to find a commonality between two films. I wasn't necessarily interested in pimping anything in particular, but if that happens, that's fine too. I suspect most movie fans have seen both of these wonderful films, but perhaps not in quite some time. A revisit, side by side, may be a chance to compare and contrast like themes, and allow you to gain an additional appreciation for each work.
My first thought, it being September and all, was that a back to school theme might be a good choice. Now, I know I'm stretching that concept slightly with Good Will Hunting, being that it takes place in and around some schools, but isn't really about going TO SCHOOL. Whatever. My article.
If that's too much of a stretch for you, you can look at it as a side by side enjoyment of arguably Robin Williams' two best dramatic roles. That's fine as well. I'll dig a little bit deeper there in a bit. Regardless, challenge yourself to think differently as you watch these films. Look for similarities in character arcs. Explore how the environments dictate how each character evolves. How does music enhance each film? Something I like to do is watch the film through the eyes of a character that is far removed from the main protagonist. I think you'll find that Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet's Society work well in tandem.
Good Will Hunting
In the 1998 Academy Awards ceremony, fresh faced Matt Damon and Ben Affleck bounced around the Oscar stage, unable to contain their excitement in having won the award for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting. It's one of those moments in Oscars' history that sticks with you. The script is chock full of memorable scenes, brought to life by the exceptional performances by the actors on screen.
Good Will Hunting is a film about many things; anger and resentment, repressed emotions, emotional abuse, and redemption. It's also about how a rough and tumble kid from South Boston can swagger into a Haahvid bar and meet the woman of his dreams.
Will Hunting (Damon) is the brightest person roaming the halls of M.I.T. Problem is, he's pushing the mop bucket. Beaten down in life by the system and an abusive father, Hunting is a powder-keg of suppressed anger; something he is more than willing to take out on unsuspecting dudes on the street. When he is discovered by revered mathematics professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) as the anonymous genius who is solving all of the impossible equations on the hallway blackboard, it begins a journey of healing for Hunting. That journey is not without its hazards.
Dead Poet's Society
In 1989, director Peter Weir helmed what would become one of the most popular movies in his filmography, and signal to the world that Robin Williams had indeed arrived as a legitimate face in dramatic film. It is through a young Todd Anderson (played by the equally young Ethan Hawke) and English Professor John Keating (Williams) that we learned to seize the day. Hawke brings a shy quality to his character, playing off the excitable Keating as a muse for the underlying theme of the film.
The all male students at Welton Academy ooze with plenty of privilege and bravado, but haven't quite yet mastered the art of looking outside their trust fund bubbles. Keating will be the one who challenges them, forces them to think for themselves, to do for themselves, but his unorthodox ways don't sit well with the establishment. Using the tale of an old secret society, called The Dead Poet's Society, the students begin to revel in forging their owns paths, opening them up to a journey of self-awareness. Much like our first film, this journey is not without its troubles.
The Connecting Theme
There are multiple themes we could consider in both films, but I'm going to focus on abuse for our purpose here. It stands out to me as a driving force for the direction of the characters in each, and culminates in ways that are heart wrenching and shocking.
We never see the abuse in Good Will Hunting, only the fallout. Will Hunting is a tragic character defined by his inability to accept his own self worth. The victim of an abusive father, Hunting simply exists, hanging out with his Southie friends, getting into scuffles, shying away from a potentially prosperous life because he doesn't believe he deserves it. Even when Professor Lambeau takes him under his wing, trying to convince him to embrace his higher intellect, it's for his own advantage. He wants a protege that he can hang his hat on, and he is just another in a long line of gross, manipulative jerks in Hunting's life.
It's not until Hunting is introduced to Sean (Williams) that a glimmer of hope for the future begins to take shape. Cast off by other therapists as too volatile, Sean meets Will at his own level, making Will a part of his own solution and healing. It's something earlier shrinks, the ones who stuck to conventional methods to getting inside the mind of Will Hunting, probably because some out of date textbook told them to, ignored. Sean's approach is similar to Williams' Keating in Dead Poet's, in that he wants his charge to look within, identify worth, and live his truth. When Keating instructs his class to rip the pretentious drivel of Dr. J. Evans Pritchard from their assigned poetry books, he is signaling to them that their lives cannot be defined by what other people think. Same for Will Hunting. He is living a life defined by the bad people who surrounded him growing up. When Sean finally succeeds in peeling away the layers of Hunting's suppressed issues, the result is one of the most cathartic moments for a character (and the audience rooting for him) in cinematic history. Damon is exceptional here, and the look in Williams' eyes as he embraces Will says it all.
In Dead Poet's Society, the abuse is emotional, rather than physical. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), suffocates under the ridiculous pressure his father, the militaristic Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith) places on him to become a doctor. The senior Perry dictates every move his son makes, who he befriends, what classes he takes. Neil's passions lie far outside going to medical school; he wants desperately to act in a local theater production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, but he knows his father would forbid him entertaining any such thoughts. His father is in his head constantly, and that's why Keating's message of living their lives for themselves really challenges Neil's upbringing.
Eventually, Neil embraces Keating's mottos on life, reveling in the thought of resurrecting the Dead Poet's Society and secretly joining the theater production against his father's will. It's Neil's only chance to live his true self. We root for him because we know Keating's message is the right one. There are plenty of old, stodgy white men to remind us that these boys cannot and should not think for themselves. When Neil is the one to grab the proverbial bull by the horns, his glee is palpable. He is for the first time achieving a moment that is strictly for himself.
Of course, what happens next is a complete 180 degree turn of emotion for the audience. It's heightened, when Neil's father discovers his son's shattered body, showing for the first time that he does indeed care for his son, and that as horrible as his parenting style might be, the love between this father and son is still real. It's a cautionary tale in finding a balance between allowing a child to find their own way, and when it's appropriate to guide them on that way.
The Robin Williams Effect
Robin Williams was one of the most gifted comedians of all time. What I remember him for is the nuanced dramatic turns he embraced as an actor. I'd argue these films were his two best.
In both films, he was a teacher first and foremost. As Sean, he hid away in a local community college, never realizing the promising future he might have had if he wasn't wallowing in grief over the loss of his wife years earlier. He was broken and unwilling to live purposefully. It's ironic that he helped heal Will emotionally from the very attitude that was keeping himself in the throes of depression. You could say that in saving Will, he also saved himself.
Winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor validated what fans of Williams and Good Will Hunting already knew. That he wasn't just the frenetic, arm waving lunatic he brought to so many of his other roles and stand up routines. He was a calming figure in Good Will Hunting; a fatherly presence that Will so desperately needed.
Dead Poet's Society was a perfect role for Williams, as it met in the middle between comedy and drama. Williams again was subdued compared to his normal personality, but was allowed some creative freedom with his sharp wit and quippy one-liners. When the plots required Williams to take things more seriously, he slipped effortlessly into a different version of the character; one that forced you to take notice, cautioning his students that there is a fine line between carpe diem and doing something stupid.
The Memorable Scene
With all of the one on one interaction between Will and Sean, it's not the focus of what exists as one of the best scenes in the film. Will and his friends have entered the aforementioned Haahvid bar, when Chuckie (Ben Affleck) decides to make the moves on a Haahvid honey sitting at the bar (Minnie Driver.) In true South Boston palooka fashion, the undereducated Chuckie finds himself defending his actions to one of the pretentious Harvard elitists who overhears his conversation. When Will comes to Chuckie's defense, the result is the best cinematic dressing down of a douche bag of maybe all time. My boy's wicked smaaht, indeed.
What can I say about Dead Poet's Society...the entire narrative builds to one climactic moment, where the shy Todd Anderson, once unable to YAWP without encouragement, takes a stand that truly validates the positive effect Keating has had on these young men. It validates the tragic loss of young Neil Perry, in that for one brief night, he lived for himself. It's a stick it to the man moment for the ages, and when that man is stumbling around the room in the form of the pompous dean of students, demanding these boys turn their attention back to the textbook teachings of Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, it makes the entire moment send chills down your back.
Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet's Society are films that have aged very well. They are as watchable today as they were when they premiered. The messages are relevant. The performances are perfect.
As you watch, notice the growth taking place in each of the characters. Even if the trajectory in plot is predictable, each film is buoyed by distinct moments; moments that will attach themselves to you as a lover of film. Highs and lows that will fight for your emotional attention. Both will make you laugh, make you cry, perhaps challenge you to examine who you are today and how you got here. That's what great films do after all.
See these films back-to-back. Carpe Diem, O'Captain my Captain!. Remember, it's not your fault.