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Dead Poets, A Verse, and The Legacy of Robin Williams

In 1990, I walked into a Manhattan deli. In strolled Robin Williams and Billy Crystal behind me. “Yoouu Guys Loook Maaaahrvelous!” I said to the legendary comedians (Billy’s catch-phrase from a famous Saturday Night Live skit in the ’80s). I then saluted Robin and quipped, “Oh Captain, My Captain, a memorable verse from his lead role as a poetry professor in Dead Poets Society (Oscar Winner: Best Original Screenplay • 1989). 

“Carpe diem kid,” Robin replied with a wink.

I first saw Robin on an episode of Happy Days (1978) as the hilarious alien Mork from Ork. Most of us however were introduced to his manic wit on the spinoff comedy series Mork & Mindy (1978-1982). For decades to follow, Robin took us flying as Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook (1991), made us roar with laughter as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and challenged our fears as Psychologist Sean in Good Will Hunting (1997). But if I had to choose the most memorable performance, it was his “masterclass for life” as poetry Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society. In that singular role, he pushed the Latin phrase “carpe diem” (seize the day) into our hearts and pop-culture lexicon.

In movies or riffing jokes on stage, Robin could do it all. As co-founder of Comic Relief with Billy Crystal & Whoopi Goldberg, Williams helped raise millions of dollars and greater awareness for the homeless and veterans. Like countless fans, I was crushed to hear of Robin’s suicide in 2014. How do we “seize the day” in such a tragic moment?

SPOILER ALERT! Rummaging through essays I wrote 30 years ago, I found one of the few movie reviews I wrote at a time that I had recently dropped out of college and considered screenwriting or journalism as a career. The first movie review I ever wrote was on Dead Poets Society. I never submitted it thinking it was too sad and controversial, but the film is as relevant today as it was in 1989. To the students, teachers, families, friends, and entrepreneurs I coach these days, I hope you enjoy my review below. GET THE POPCORN and SEIZE THE DAY! 

 

Dead Poets Society – 5 Stars!
Film Review By Cliff Michaels 

Oscar-Nominated Best Director: Peter Weir  
Oscar-Nominated Best Actor: Robin Williams
Oscar-Winner Best Original Screenplay: Tim Schulman

 

FADE IN: Ticking clocks, church bell chimes, and falling autumn leaves — these are the symbols of time we see as students rush through school hallways. The stage is set for triumph & tragedy at Welton Academy.

Dead Poets Society introduces a group of teenage students at a conservative all-boys prep school with a tradition of honor and discipline. Our students meet their Professor of Poetry, John Keating (Robin Williams), who once attended Welton Academy too. With humor, mystery, and a sense of urgency, Keating walks the boys out of class and into into a hallway. He asks a student to read a verse from a poem titled: To the Virgins — To Make Much of Time.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying,
and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.”

“The Latin term for that sentiment is carpe diem,” says Keating. It means “Seize the day.” So begins a life lesson for the boys to “make their lives extraordinary — to contribute a verse.” Keating returns the students to the classroom and instructs them to rip out the misguided Introduction pages of their textbook titled “What is Poetry?” The author suggests a mathematical scale to rate poems which deeply offends Keating’s artistic soul. Instead, Keating suggests the boys think for themselves, encouraging each student to stand on top of his desk and “See how the universe is wider than our simple view of it.”

Tragedy, Triumph & Choices

The boys are so intrigued by Keating’s unorthodox style, they look up his old yearbook and discover that he was not merely captain of his soccer team, but a member of a secret-literary club called the Dead Poets Society, whose fellow students pledged to live extraordinary lives. The boys decide to revive the club and embrace its carpe-diem spirit.

In a series of trips to a secret cave not far from campus, the boys read from great poets and become inspired to change their lives. A shy student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) struggles to find his sense of self worth, but a romantic Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) will soon “woo” the love of his life. Our main protagonist Neil Perry (Sean Robert Leonard) must decide if he will pursue his passion for acting or live the pre-ordained life of a doctor that his bullying father requires. Each of the boys will take a unique journey, grappling with tragedy, triumph, and choices.

SPOILER ALERT: Final Scenes

Dead Poets is a film so rich with life lessons that it must be seen to appreciate. Knox gets his girl with romantic prose (nothing ventured, nothing gained, while others are destined for mediocrity, fearing parents, teachers, and all forms of authority. Somehow, Director Peter Weir and a brilliant cast of future Hollywood stars deliver a masterpiece. To that end, I’ll cut to the chase, encourage everyone to experience the nuanced messages first hand.

The major plot pivots on the rebellious act of our most daring and charismatic student Charlie (Gale Hansen) who takes on Welton’s antiquated “Boys-Only” policy. Charlie submits an anonymous article to the campus newspaper in the name of Dead Poets Society, suggesting girls be admitted to Welton. For the establishment, Charlie has gone too far. Unable to identify the culprit who published the article, all the boys are threatened with expulsion by the Headmaster, but Charlie refuses to reveal who his fellow Dead-Poet classmates are, even if he’s thrown out of school.

When Professor Keating hears the news, he tempers the carpe-diem mantra with a bit of fatherly advice:

“Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.”

The boys must now come to grips with old-school rules, forms of protest, and some parents who’ve mapped out their lives. In the film’s climax, Neil Perry ignores his father’s explicit directive to give up acting. Neil secretly takes the lead role in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. On opening night, Mr. Perry shows up, disgusted that his son Neil has defied him. Mr. Perry disgraces Neil in front of his peers, withdrawals him from Welton, and declares Neil’s next ten years be dedicated to medicine. His soul crushed, Neil commits suicide using his father’s handgun. 

HOW POETS TRIUMPH over TRAGEDY

In the final scenes, Mr. Perry demands that Welton Academy launch an investigation into Neil’s death, implying that Keating is to blame for poisoning the campus with “independent thinking.” One by one, Neil’s classmates are shuttled into the Headmaster’s office, sitting with their parents, threatened with expulsion if they don’t implicate Keating in Neil’s death. Neil’s roommate Todd (the most reluctant to rock the boat) tries to defend Keating but is silenced by his parents in front of the Headmaster. Keating is subsequently fired.

In the movie’s final scene, the stoic Headmaster is now teaching the poetry class (having replaced Keating where our story began). The Headmaster attempts to use the same boring text book that the boys disdain thanks to Keating. , Forever banned from Welton Academy, Keating approaches the classroom for the last time to pick up his personal items. In a moment of clear conviction for the first time in his life, Neil’s roommate Todd (the most timid of the boys) rises to the occasion. He proudly stands on his desk addressing Keating, “Oh, Captain, My Captain.” It’s the verse from a Walt Whitman poem that Keating encouraged the boys to use if they ever wished to be “a bit more daring.”

One by one, a dozen students stand on their desks in a moment of solidarity with Todd & Keating. The Headmaster screams & screams, “Sit down!” Sit down! The boys stand firm. They’ve chosen to SEIZE THE DAY. 

FADE OUT: RIP Robin Williams