For those of you playing the home game, some time ago I did an MA dissertation on the works of Terry Gilliam. Like most things I wrote as a student, today I find my middlebrow musings on Gilliam completely unreadable and embarrassing (I did pass, though), but one abiding benefit is that I did at one point thoroughly research Gilliam and his work, including his 1991 film The Fisher King. With the recent passing of Robin Williams, discussed expertly elsewhere here, I thought it would be good to have a look back at one of Gilliam’s greatest films and Williams’ greatest roles.
The Fisher King is a fantasy/romance, set in modern-day (or at least late 1980s) New York. Jeff Bridges plays Jack Lucas, “shock” DJ along the lines of Howard Stern, whose tirades one day inspire a confused man to slaughter a restaurant full of “yuppies” before turning the gun on himself. Jack takes personal, moral and professional, if not legal, responsibility for what happens and quickly deteriorates into a bitter alcoholic, working in a video store (and living with the owner, Anne, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Mercedes Ruehl). On one drunken evening, he stumbles across a homeless man named Parry (Robin Williams), who, as it turns out, was a College Professor and well-adjusted member of society until some nut gunned down his wife in front of him in a restaurant, inspired by a shock DJ. Jack takes all of this very personally, and devotes himself to helping Parry find love (he has a crush on Lydia, played by the wonderful Amanda Plummer) and most importantly, the Holy Grail, which apparently is being held in an apartment near Central Park.
Just from that brief plot description, the story fairly reeks of Gilliam’s classic preoccupations with madness, medievalism, mythology and the power of the imagination. Gilliam also has, underneath the cynicism and dark, perverse visual sensibility, a fundamental sweetness and an abiding belief in the power of individual human kindness, even if the universe makes a farce of it from time to time.
The film has two major love stories, which is odd for a Gilliam movie. Usually, if there’s romance at all in a Gilliam film, it’s treated ironically or played for cynical laughs, like Michael Palin’s absurd crush on the local farm girl in Jabberwocky or the odd, tragic love affair in Brazil or even Bruce Willis’s strange romance during an extended chase sequence with Madeline Stowe in 12 Monkeys. Here in The Fisher King, the romance is played as straight as Gilliam can play it. Which is to say, it involves catatonia, mental institutions, screaming, irony and tragedy before it gets to the truly romantic parts. But there is true catharsis at the end of this film, which is a rarity for Gilliam.
The first couple in question is Jack and Anne, who start as a deeply codependent couple, Anne “star-f**cking” to be brutally honest, and Jack, well fallen from his former fame and wealth, simply latching on to the first woman who will take care of him. Anne’s madonna/whore Italian sensibilities appeal to Jack, who is as much in need of mothering as anything else. But the wonderful thing is that, as the film progresses, Anne stands up for herself and refuses to be taken for granted. Even though Jack barks at her the ugly sentence, “Suicidal paranoiacs will say anything to get laid” early in the film, he gradually comes to realize what a treasure he has in this earthy, strong woman, who takes him back even after he behaves atrociously towards her, even leaving her at one point to be with younger women when his success ostensibly returns. It’s one of the film’s many ways of touching on its main theme of redemption and forgiveness for sins. For a devout protestant like Gilliam (he went to College on a religious scholarship, and trained to be a missionary), this is his most Catholic film.
Jack has a great deal to be forgiven for, and Bridges plays him wonderfully as the narcissistic ass he is near the beginning of the film (he looks in a mirror and says, “I hate my cheeks”), the completely pathetic drunk (“Findeth the Jack of Daniels that Ye may be Shitfaced!”) and finally a mature “man” at the end, smiling and at peace. It’s one of Bridges’ best in a long line of superb performances from one of America’s greatest actors, although at the time his work was overshadowed by Mercedes Ruehl’s dynamite Anne and, of course, Robin Williams.
The other major love story is more normal for Gilliam, because it involves damaged and insane people only tenuously connected to this world. Parry, as he lives life on the street, watches Lydia come out of her office building for lunch every day, when she has dumplings and reads a bad romance novel. He’s charmed by her clumsy awkwardness but kooky grace. (Just from that quick description alone, Amanda Plummer should have been top of the casting call list.) Parry is far too anxious and ill to actually approach Lydia and ask her out, or do any of the conventional things required for normal human interaction. So, in an act of contrition, Jack stages an elaborate scheme to get the two together. Anne doesn’t understand at first, but once Jack tearfully explains that maybe by giving Parry some happiness he can finally have some for himself, the ever-resourceful Anne is on the case. The plan involves a video coupon, a man dancing on a desk in drag, singing show tunes and a promise from Anne to do Lydia’s nails at a discount.
The “date” sequence, in which Anne and Jack and Lydia and Parry double date at a Chinese restaurant, is sweet and tender and has some very effective little acting bits that Gilliam, as a director, would never have suggested but always welcomes. Gilliam, like Kubrick and Welles before him, enjoys inventive, creative actors who are always coming up with more little bits of “business” and improvising. Williams was a godsend, as were Benicio del Toro and Heath Ledger later in his career, being exactly the kind of actor he needs. But Bridges hits paydirt here with a little bit of business adjusting Ruehl’s bra strap. It’s flirty, funny, and tender and Ruehl goes right along with it.
When watching the film today, as a viewer, you want to linger on this date sequence. It’s funny and heartwarming in a completely non-cliched way, so rare to see in modern films. But Gilliam can’t leave well enough alone, and the film shifts radically in tone just as Parry says good night to Lydia and is assaulted by a vision of a demonic “Red Knight”, appearing in flames out of central park and chasing him into catatonia. Parry spends most of the rest of the film lying in bed, absolutely catatonic, being cared for in a mental institution that can only be described as “Gilliam-esque”. Jack, still determined to find redemption, seeks the Holy Grail himself, setting out on a quest to steal the artifact (really just a handsome goblet) from a millionaire’s castle-like house. A Chaplin-style burglary sequence follows, and once Bridges finally gets the cup, he returns it to Parry, allowing him to wake up, express his love for Lydia and lead a choir of insane people in a singalong. A suitably Gilliam-esque ending.
The Fisher King always puts a smile on my face, not just because of the great performances and quirky energy, blending comedy, tragedy, drama, romance and fantasy all together in an appealing package. It’s truly a hopeful film with a strong beating heart that believes in the power of love and mercy. It actually has a straight-ahead happy ending, with Parry and Jack lying together in central park, naked, looking at the stars and talking about life. It portrays friendship, loyalty, sacrifice and family in a profoundly human way. Gilliam never made another movie quite like it (I would argue that 2005’s Tideland, in which Bridges also appears, is the closest he ever got). But the fact that he displayed so much genuine heart and feeling through this film forgives and, I think, negates all that criticism levelled at Gilliam for not being interested in story or character and sometimes having his cynicism and preoccupations with insanity subsume his work. The emotional energy generated here spreads to his other, colder work and warms it up. The image of Gilliam at the recent Monty Python reunion, leaping into the air as a member of the Spanish Inquisition, making children laugh despite themselves and never at themselves, is the essence of the artist I’ve come to know.
And then there’s Robin Williams.
Williams was just coming off Good Morning Vietnam when he made this film and Gilliam recounts that his manager at the time was difficult, demanding special treatment and an inflated salary for his new “star”. Williams himself was always prepared and professional, according to all reports, and loved improvising with the late, great Michael Jeter (one of Gilliam’s favourite actors appearing here in a small role as a drag queen). Gilliam had previously worked with him on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with Williams improvising most of his role at the last minute as two previous actors (Sean Connery and Michael Palin) had dropped out. They wouldn’t work together again, although I sense that Williams would have fit perfectly into The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Opinion at the time about Williams in the role was mixed. Roger Ebert thought that Gilliam had given Williams too much rope and that he got off track with his improvisations too often. “When he is indulged, as he is here, he overflows,” he wrote in 1991. Time has a way of setting these sorts of things right, which is one reason why contemporary critics sometimes need to be taken with a grain of salt. Williams, in fact, didn’t improvise nearly as much of this role as people thought at the time, and Gilliam encouraged improvisation from all his actors. And Gilliam also understood that Williams was an actor of great warmth and intelligence, and gives him the greatest speech in the film to deliver, which Williams nails:
‘It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.” But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”’
Williams gives the speech, which sums up everything about his impish character’s relationship with this man struggling for redemption, early on in the film. Parry and Jack are naked in central park and Williams is trying to convince him of the power of forgiveness, with only Jack knowing how much forgiveness Jack needs from Parry personally. And Williams’ quiet, almost childishly naive delivery, combined with his innate intelligence (Parry was a College Professor after all, and we see that the Fisher King story was the topic of his dissertation) is perfectly suited. You can’t imagine any other actor in the world playing that moment better.
Yes, The Fisher King does fall into my informal “Robin Williams beard rule”, that if he is bearded, chances are he will give a great performance. It isn’t the humour that makes Williams transcendent in this role, and in virtually all his others. It’s his warmth… his heart, his humanity that shines through. There are lots of funny people in the world, but how many express so much love? I adore and admire Bill Hicks, for example, but warm and cuddly he was not. Even Louis CK, who gave Williams one of his best late-career roles in the Louie episode “Barney/Never” doesn’t exude such accessible, and vulnerable love. The vulnerability of Williams, his capacity for love and pain, was the essence of what made him the magnificent and unique artist he was.
There are many reasons why one would wish to revisit The Fisher King (it’s a good depression-buster, for one thing) but now we have another: to remember and celebrate the work of someone who gave the world so much love and tragically could feel so little for himself. I’ll remember Williams, to paraphrase his speech from this film, as someone who gave me water when I was thirsty.