A Fool and His Cup: “The Fisher King”

by Ashley Naftule

It’s been three years since the passing of Robin Williams. Looking back on the man’s long body of work, one film in particular stands out as his crowning achievement as a performer: Terry Gilliam’s 1991 classic The Fisher King.

Like most comedians of his stature, Williams could do drama just as deftly as he could do comedy. But Williams in Drama Mode tended towards the sedate and avuncular (Goodwill Hunting) or an almost reptilian coldness (One Hour Photo and Insomnia). He did what most big comedians do when they start going after Oscar gold: he put his wildman comic energy on a leash.

You can see the same impulse at work when Jim Carrey started going “serious”. It’s always a self-defeating move: while playing calmer, more “adult” roles gives these comic actors “artistic credibility” and “legitimacy”, they’re also handicapping themselves by removing the most powerful tool in their acting arsenal. Being able to have such formidable physical energy and body control at their disposal is what makes them truly great actors. It’s why comedy is so hard: playing a dramatic character with low energy and “natural” body movements is easy compared to trying to become someone else while having the physical looseness of a Slinky and the manic energy of a Looney Tunes character. It’s like trying to tell a lie with a straight face while running on a treadmill.

The fact that comedians like Williams and Carrey could create and sustain such outrageous personas while putting their bodies through the wringers is what made them actors on the level of a Laurence Olivier – it’s only the biases of the Academy and American film critics that keeps comic actors from getting their due as masterful actors (as much as we make fun of the French for loving Jerry Lewis, this is something they’ve always understood: being a man made out of rubber bands and yucks is HARD).

One of the reasons why Gilliam’s film stands out in Williams’ body of work is because it’s one of the only “serious” films he did where he used his live-wire energy to full effect. Instead of hiding that “I just did an entire mountain of cocaine” energy, he harnessed it to bring to life his greatest film role as broken homeless man Parry/Henry Sagan.

More than just a career best for Williams, The Fisher King also stands as one of Gilliams’ finest films. Perhaps his finest – it’s a close match between it and his dystopian masterpiece Brazil. Which one you rank higher may depend on whether you want to watch a film that uplifts you or one that emotionally destroys you. While many of his films end on dark notes, The Fisher King ends on a hopeful note – it’s two broken lead characters mentally healed and lying naked in Central Park.

The film also shows Gilliams working through his obsession with insane characters and Don Quixiote. Parry and Jack (played by Jeff Bridges) start as a Quixiote/Panza pairing, until they reverse roles later in the film: Jack becomes The Fool/Questing Knight/Quixiote, risking his neck to break into an Upper East Side castle to heal the sick Fisher King Parry.
Parry, with his visions of a rampaging Red Knight and his pretensions of chivalrous behavior, is a perfect Quixiote figure. Perhaps that’s one of the real reasons why it took so long for Gilliam to finally make a proper Cervantes adaptation: maybe he realized on a subconscious level that he had already made that film in 1991.

Williams as Parry is a heartbreaking figure. Williams as a dramatic actor wasn’t afraid to go maudlin, but here he pulls off a performance that’s pitiable without being sentimental. Parry is a manic, ruined man, struggling to maintain some kind of dignity while living a wretched existence on the streets. He quivers with repressed energy, always on the verge of breaking out into theatrics – this is Robin going Full Mork. But this time he’s a Mork that’s broken down and insane, a Mork whose man-child strangeness isn’t cute anymore.

Aside from Williams stellar turn as Parry, The Fisher King has a lot going for it. Whether it’s the strong turns by the other leads (Bridges as an asshole/commitment-averse shock jock; Mercedes Ruehl as his long-suffering love interest and safety net; Michael Jeter’s brilliant turn as a homeless cabaret singer; and Amanda Plummer as the object of Williams’ affection, who may be just as cracked as he is), Gilliams’ sharp cinematography, the mise en scene of an early ’90s New York that was still dirty and dangerous looking, or Gilliams’ fantastical flourishes (the terrifying Red Knight, the surreal sight of a full-on CASTLE in the middle of the Upper East Side), it’s a film full of layers to peel back and simple pleasures to enjoy (esp. in the joke department: few things can invoke a belly laugh faster than Parry saying “I have a hard-on for you the size of Florida!”).

And like many of his other films, The Fisher King plays with its reality. Was that the actual Grail Jack pilfered from the architect’s castle? Is there a God at work in this world, positioning Jack to break into that castle to keep the architect from killing himself? Did the grail really heal Parry, or was it just Jack’s love and care for him that brought him back? The film adds just enough strange events and details to its narrative to leave it open to interpretation.

Had Robin Williams decided to retire from acting after playing in The Fisher King, we’d still be celebrating his legacy as one of The Greats. It’s that kind of role – tender, tragic, hilarious, and wounded. Watching him go through the ringer of madness and come out the other side healed feels like taking a sip from the Grail itself – it’s hard not to feel restored and rejuvenated by the end of the film. If only the man who had played The Fisher King had felt the same way…

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