By John H. Foote
There is something deeply melancholy about watching this film after the passing of Robin Williams seven years ago, and the fact it includes the shocking suicide of one its promising young men. I slipped the Blu Ray in after having not seen the film since the late nineties. I remember loving it when it was first released and turns out, I still love it now. But I had a new thought this time: Williams was a Best Actor nominee at the Oscars, and I now think his performance is a supporting one. Maybe it’s just me but in fact, Williams himself said that the true stars of the film were the young actors portraying “the boys”, especially Ethan Hawke and Sean Robert Leonard.
Peter Weir, the film’s director, emerged in the 70s within the Australian film industry before finding great success in America. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1974), The Last Wave (1977) and particularly Gallipoli (1981) had studio executives clamouring to offer a chance to make films in America. His first, The Year of Living Dangerously (1983), was a beautiful, steamy love story about journalists in a country about to fall. Linda Hunt won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work as a man, a stunning performance and courageous bit of casting.
After that, Weir knocked it out of the park with his superb film Witness (1985), which plunged a rugged Philadelphia cop into Amish country to protect a child witness who is being hunted down by dirty cops hellbent on silencing him. Visually poetic, powerfully acted with a deep inner beauty in the performances of Harrison Ford, Lukas Haas and Kelly McGillis, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor and Director. Weir followed it with an equally powerful film, The Mosquito Coast (1986), which I have always maintained is the finest performance of Harrison Ford’s career as a brilliant inventor who drops off the grid with his family, living on an island in the tropics, forging a new life, a pure life he can be proud of. He has no idea the dangers he has put his family into. Most critics dismissed the film, and it never quite caught on, though it found limited re-discovery on video and DVD.
In the years after Dead Poets Society, one of his biggest critical and box office hits, he has made a group of very fine films, topping the list with the epic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Russell Crowe offers one of his best performances in this superb film set during Napoleonic wars largely aboard a war ship. Fearless (1993) remains one of my personal beloved films from Weir, with Jeff Bridges simply astounding as a plane crash victim who now believes he is immortal. The final crash sequence is among the most beautifully shot but terrifying scenes in modern film, as realistic a crash scene as you are likely to encounter. This time Weir got great reviews, but audiences never found the film. The Truman Show (1998) was magnificent, with Jim Carrey in a dramatic role (his first) as a man oblivious to the fact his entire life has been shot for a 24-hour TV show. Carrey was very good, but the film belonged to Ed Harris as Christof (that name!), the creator of this TV show. His most recent film was The Way Back (2010), which again found critical favour, but no one went to see it. He has not directed a film in over a decade. Four times an Academy Award nominee for Best Director, Weir is beloved by the actors and artists who have worked with him.
Dead Poets Society sits in the middle of his career and is among the very best of his work. Set in 1959, at the prestigious (some would say snobby) Welton Academy in Vermont, which prepares boys for Ivy League schools with strict discipline, knowledge, manners and common decency. A group of boys come to the school at the same time as Mr. Keating (Williams), an alumnus, hired to teach poetry to the students. Unbeknownst to the school’s administration, Mr. Keating is a most unorthodox but brilliant teacher who will of course run afoul of their methods. The first day of class he orders the students to rip out the introduction page of their poetry textbook, which is nothing more than a mathematical essay on how to write and read poems. He insists that they learn their own way, to allow the poem to mean something to them, even if that something is nothing. “Carpe diem!” he tells them, seize the day, challenging the boys to make their lives extraordinary, and goes about teaching them how to do just that. At first the lessons are strange, standing atop their desks to see the world from a different perspective. But the boys learn fast, the lessons sink in. Their admiration for Keating grows, much to the dismay of the headmaster, portrayed by Norman Lloyd as a strict, contentious unbending man, convinced he has the boys’ best interests at heart, but is really just maintaining the reputation of his school.
Shy Todd Anderson (Hawke) slowly comes out of his shell through Keating’s encouragement and composes and reads his own poetry in class, while Neil (Leonard) auditions for a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and lands the plum role of Puck. Neil is at home on stage, not in a chemistry lab, but knows this endeavour is not aligned with his domineering father’s plans. His opening night is attended by all his friends at the school, and he is wonderful. But in the back of the theatre sits his father, obviously displeased with his son’s actions. Neil returns home with his father that night and is told, quietly but forcefully, he will not appear in another play, nor be permitted to finish this one. Bullied, he agrees. That night, he kills himself, firing a shot into his head. His father runs to him, out of his mind with grief, screaming, “My boy! My poor boy!”, never realizing his part in his son’s death.
The suicide rocks the school and Mr. Keating is fired for having encouraged Neil to follow his dream. The students are coerced (again, great schooling) into turning on Mr. Keating. As he comes to say goodbye, he finds his class under the tyrannical rule of the headmaster, who instructs Keating to get in, get his personals and get out. Unable to even look at his teacher, Todd is overcome with shame and calls out to him that they were forced to turn him in. Saying he knows, Keating smiles at Todd and turns to leave. Todd calls out with the words of Walt Whitman, Keating’s favourite poet: “O Captain my Captain!” He then stands atop his desk, looking down at his teacher with a wry smile. Enraged, the headmaster reacts with fury but more and more of the boys do the same as Todd, paying tribute to their fallen teacher. With a smile, Mr. Keating whispers, “Thank you boys,” and closes the door.
With any luck we have all had that teacher, the one or two who made a difference for us personally. For me, in high school it was the great Diane Lackie, John Crocker and David Toye. I remain friends with Mrs. Lackie and Mr. Toye, but Mr. Crocker sadly passed a decade ago. In college it was Jim Peddie and Gerry Pearson–both brilliant and they each seemed to get me where the others did not. Or maybe they just tried harder.
The film celebrates those teachers but takes a hard look at an old-fashioned style of learning that was dying out as we entered the sixties. Williams is superb as Keating, who manages to convince us he is an English literature teacher with extraordinary impersonation and improv skills. A soulful performance, he is authentic in his love for the boys, and they sense this. What I admire about the performance is his willingness to step back and let the kids lead the film; not many great actors or major stars would do that.
Ethan Hawke is excellent as the shy, introverted Todd, very much in the shadow of his older brother, who graduated with glory from the school, and he is expected to do the same. We recognize his parents are not terribly involved when they give him exactly the same birthday gift in consecutive years. Hawke is excellent in the role, demonstrating the range we have come to know with subsequent films.
Robert Sean Leonard never really scored a role like this again in film, but ended up in a secondary role on House, the smash hit medical drama on TV. As the beaten down Neil, who comes to the slow realization his life will never be his own, he is heartbreaking.
And wonderful Norman Lloyd, who just passed at 106, displays his range as the nasty headmaster, devoted to the school, but only if done his way. Unlike Keating he never sees the boys as anything but children.
Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, it took home the Screenplay award and made a bundle at the box office. Most importantly, it furthered Williams’ reputation as a gifted dramatic actor, with this second in a string of great performances the actor would give between 1984-1991. An absolute pleasure to see again.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.