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The Greatest Performance of All Time: Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society

8 min read

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In the second in our series, Cara McWilliam takes a look at the late, great Robin Williams‘ performance as the inspirational teacher John Keating in , making a case for it being .

Dead Poets Society

Everyone remembers their favourite teacher. Whether that is the teacher who inspired them, encouraged them, or just made learning slightly more bearable, those educators stay with us forever. These purveyors of knowledge are not limited to those that we meet in real life, and, similarly, the same transformative power can be attributed to the teachers that we meet on screen. One such teacher is Mr. John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Arriving as the new English teacher at an all-male prep school, Keating is portrayed by in arguably one of the greatest performances of all time.

Directed by , Dead Poets Society is set in 1959 at Welton Academy, a strict and elite boarding school in Vermont often referred to by its pupils as “Hell-ton Academy.” Welton has only one purpose and that is to prepare the boys who attend for college, with most expected to go on to Ivy League establishments. Every morning the students recite the school motto “Tradition, Discipline, Honour and Excellence.” These are the standards that the boys are expected to uphold at all times, and any act or behaviour that is deemed to go against those standards is immediately stomped out. Work hard, conform, keep your mouth shut and you will leave Welton unscarred. With this in mind, the junior year students begin another year readily armed with stacks of textbooks and knuckle down in each class where they are subjected to the familiar strict teaching methods that they are used to – that is until they meet Mr. Keating.

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As the boys settle down for yet another formal lesson, Mr. Keating observes them unseen from the gap in his office door. The audience can only see a sliver of Mr. Keating, yet Williams immediately portrays that Mr. Keating is going to be a different kind of teacher. He does not speak, yet sparks interest using nothing but his eyes which flicker with mischief. He then enters the classroom whistling merrily, walks straight past the seated students and exits to their confusion. A moment later, he pops his head back around the door and beckons the boys to follow him. Mr. Keating's entire introduction is dialogue free, yet Williams' is able to tell the audience a myriad of things with the ease and naturalness of his performance.

Mr. Keating reveals that he himself is a Welton alumnus and encourages the boys to embrace the idea that they should try and make their lives extraordinary, using the Latin expression “Carpe Diem” to summarise this. Williams wonderfully balances the wisdom and authoritative air of a typical prep school teacher with a playfulness and unorthodox quality that shows that he is also something so much more. It would have been all too easy for Williams, who was so well known and associated with comedy, to ham up the role and play Mr. Keating for laughs, but he never does. Mr. Keating has comedic lines, but Williams keeps these lines within the tone of the film, and while these lines provoke amusement, Williams makes Mr. Keating someone who is always first and foremost a respectable educator. He may be unconventional, but he is incredibly serious about his work.

A balance of warmth and respect

In particular, what really stands out about Williams' performance is the incredibly clever way in which he portrays Keating as a man who appears so casually indifferent yet also as someone who cares so supremely. When challenged by both pupils and colleagues, Keating always responds with good humour and with measured retorts. He never raises his voice when his teaching methods are questioned or ridiculed, often replying to his critics with a twinkle in his eye. However, he does raise his voice when encouraging his pupils. He never does this in anger or to scold, but because he is so passionate about showing the boys that they can be more, that they can do more. At all times, Williams balances these two sides of Keating in a way that makes the audience not only warm to him but respect him greatly. Mr. Keating treats the boys like they are grown-ups and capable of understanding more than they are given credit for, but simultaneously he recognises that they are still growing and experiencing all the pains and tribulations that come with that.

Soon Mr. Keating's teachings inspire one group of boys so much that they decide to restart the same group that Mr. Keating himself was a member of when he was at Welton. The unsanctioned Dead Poets Society sees the boys sneaking off school grounds and spending evenings reading poetry and verse as well as writing their own compositions. With the inclusion of both Mr. Keating and the club in their lives, each boy begins to become more confident to live their life on their own terms. This is especially true for roommates Neil Perry and Todd Anderson. Neil has always lived in the shadow of his domineering father who has his son's life planned out and expects him to go to medical school. Buoyed by Mr. Keating, Neil discovers a love of acting and performing and gets cast in a local play. Todd, who is cripplingly shy and has a fear of speaking in front of others, is helped out of his shell by Mr. Keating and learns to express himself and that he also has much to offer.

When rebellious student Charlie takes a joke too far, it is the first time that the audience sees Mr. Keating properly reprimand a student. This admonishment is a key moment for the character – if he is too harsh on Charlie then it goes against everything the audience has witnessed so far of his good humour and respect for the boys. On the other hand, if Mr. Keating is too lenient then he becomes a less authoritative and esteemed figure. He is even in danger of being irresponsible. Rather than displaying any outright and large emotions, he is instead considerate and quietly spoken. Williams conveys yet another dimension of Mr. Keating, playing him as a man who may be cheery and encouraging but who is also wise and world-weary, telling Charlie, “there's a time for daring and a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

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More than meets the eye

Another key scene which is handled perfectly by Williams comes later as Neil tells Mr. Keating that his father has allowed him to do the play, something that he had earlier forbidden. Mr. Keating had encouraged Neil to speak openly to his father and express his love of acting, and in this scene he catches up with Neil to see how the conversation with his father went. It is not immediately obvious to the audience that Neil is blatantly lying and it would be easy to look at Neil's light-hearted response and relief and be taken in by it. It is in Williams' performance that the seed of doubt is sowed. Though he responds positively and is happy for Neil, throughout the scene his eyes are searching Neil's face and pushing him. His concern and care for Neil is palpable through micro-expressions and only elevates the emotional nuances of what follows.

When Neil's father turns up at the opening night of the play and it is revealed that Neil had indeed lied, Mr. Keating watches Neil's father drive him away as the other boys carry on their night happily unaware. Again, it is Williams' performance that reveals that there is more to the scene than meets the eye, and the simple act of narrowing his eyes in concern in a torn expression shows that his concern should be the audiences' as well. Unfortunately, Mr. Keating's instincts are proven to be right when we learn that Neil tragically committed suicide later that night.

With Welton Academy desperate to hush up any scandal and Neil's family intent on putting blame elsewhere, Mr. Keating is made the scapegoat. We are never privy to any scenes which show Mr. Keating's reaction to Neil's death, the accusations against him or his eventual dismissal. In that way, when the audience does finally get to see Mr. Keating properly for one last time, it is vitally important. Williams' stoic, considered and gentle performance is truly heart-breaking. Politely interrupting the boys' English class to ask to be able to gather his belongings, he makes sure to make himself as unassuming as possible. At this point when he could justifiably be incredibly angry, it is clear that he is behaving this way in order to make sure that the boys are not seen to be associated or in cahoots with him. It is in this moment that Todd, who found his voice thanks to Mr. Keating's belief and motivation uses it to defy the classroom rules and speak up. He jumps up to tell Mr. Keating that what happened to Neil was not his fault and that the boys were intimidated into blaming him. The quick and kind assurance in Williams' performance proves to the audience that there could be no greater teacher. As more boys leap to his defence, Williams' perfectly stoic quality shows that whilst he is obviously touched and incredibly moved by this show of loyalty, his priority is what it has always been – the thoughts and feelings of the boys before him, and he will not break down, place blame or behave inappropriately in front of them. This only makes his expulsion feel even more unjust and undeserved as Williams maintains Keating's reputation and character throughout.

A mantra to live by

When talking about the greatest performances of all time, it would be all too easy to look at the role of Mr. Keating and dismiss it out of hand. It is not a showy or particularly physical role and it does not come from a film that is necessarily thought of as universally loved. However, what makes a truly great performance is one that stands the test of time, stays with the audience and maybe even influences their own lives. Mr. Keating inviting us all to “Carpe Diem” is not only gives us a great performance to watch but also a mantra to live by. When we feel like shrinking away from the stresses of life, we instead remember to make our lives extraordinary because Mr. Keating encouraged us to. We believed in him because Robin Williams made him so real and inspirational. Williams gifted audiences with many great roles, but Mr. John Keating was a truly special one – O Captain! My Captain!