Facebook has not been good for my good nature. When the above meme, making its slow but inexorable way across the vast fetid surface of Facebook, landed on my wall, I was instantly suspicious. It wasn't that it didn't sound like Robin Williams -- I didn't know one way or the other -- but for some reason it smelled wrong to me.
I did a search and found the quotation immediately, attributed to "Lance Clayton" on the Internet Movie Database. Aha, thought I: I could see it coming. The quotation turned out to be the words of Lance Clayton, the title character of World's Greatest Dad, played by Williams. If anyone should get credit for the line, it's the movie's writer and director, Bobcat Goldthwait.
But even that might be a mistake. Goldthwait might well agree with the sentiment in the line; I know I do. But he wrote them for a character, to be played by an actor in a fiction film. Writers don't necessarily agree with everything their fictional characters say. Obvious? I thought so, but then I remembered how the scholar Leo Bersani ascribed to the playwright Tony Kushner a statement Kushner wrote for a character in Angels in America.
For Kushner, to be gay in the 1980s was to be a metaphor not only for Reagan’s America but for the entire history of America, a country in which there are "no gods…no ghosts and spirits…no angels…no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political."(Source, and Kushner's response, here.) It's hard for me to believe that anyone, let alone a literary theorist of renown, could have mistaken the character Bersani was quoting for Kushner's mouthpiece. But there it is.
I've come to suspect that many people, even people with some education and intelligence, believe that movie actors invent their own lines, right there on the spot in front of the camera, and that they make up -- or better yet, live -- the story as they go, while the camera simply follows them. The director is there is get them started, by yelling "action!"; as for the writer, who knows? There must be some cognitive dissonance when a movie is based on an existing source, but then it must be the actors' fault when there are changes in the story. Some actors do ad-lib, and Williams is famous for it. But unless the actor is also the director or editor, most of the fine inventions end up on the cutting room floor.
I don't mean to pretend to be superior here. I didn't think about a lot of these matters until my thirties, when I began to watch movies more seriously. I'd read a lot of film criticism by people who did know how movies are made, but it didn't sink in for a long time. Most people don't bother. We're born believing in magic, and it takes a fair amount of work to stop believing in it.
But maybe one tipping point was something that happened during the making of a movie called Six Degrees of Separation, in 1993. For one of his first serious movie roles, Will Smith played a young hustler who talks his way into the affections and trust of an affluent New York family. The young man is not exclusively heterosexual, and the script calls for him to kiss another male character on camera. Smith knew this going into the job, but balked when the time came to film the scene. In the end a stunt double was used. Smith had to explain himself to the press, and explained that Denzel Washington had told him that black folks can't tell the difference between an actor and the character he plays, so "don't go kissing no man."
My immediate reaction when I first read that was that it wasn't only black folks who can't distinguish the actor from the role. Since then (twenty years!) I've come across many examples of simple, childlike white people who make this basic mistake. Just this weekend a highly sophisticated friend jokingly congratulated "Gomer" -- Jim Nabors, that is -- for marrying his male partner of 38 years. I teased her about the naivete of white people confusing actors and their characters (notably, a character the actor hadn't played in over 20 years). She replied icily that it was a joke. Well, the Onion made a better joke of it. (Here's an even bigger joke: Nabors told a reporter that he'd "never made a huge secret" of being gay. Literally, this may be true: it was only a rather tiny secret.)
I admit that this confusion is on one level what actors aim for: the suspension of disbelief by the audience, getting them to forget for the moment that they are watching a performance. But as a friend admitted when we were discussing this, it's also expected that that the illusion will be dropped when the performance ends. The people who are passing this meme around may not know that the line comes from a movie Williams starred in, but I imagine many have seen World's Best Dad and remember the line from it. But I'm not playing the "things were better in the old days" game; I know this is nothing new. The friend with whom I was discussing this pointed out that it's like children being shocked when they discover that Teacher has a life outside the classroom, with a spouse and a family. I agreed, and mentioned that it's also true of parents. I still remember the day I overheard my mother talking to my grandmother on the phone, and she called her "Mother." I didn't believe that Mommy had a Mommy. (I'm tempted to make a joke out of this by saying I was thirty when this happened, but I was really about five.) Mothers are eternal and existent in themselves, like Aquinas' God.