As I get to the penultimate category for this fun and informative event (Hanspostcard’s Movie Draft), I tackle a biggie – Drama. There are no shortages of great candidates for this, so I rather randomly picked 1989’s biggest drama – Dead Poet’s Society. It may not be my all-time favorite in the genre, but then again, there are so many good ones it would be difficult to really narrow it down to one. This is a film I’ve consistently liked in the 30-plus years since it came out and which holds its own still.
The irony of Dead Poet’s Society is that it took one of America’s favorite zany comics to elevate it to greatness, in a role decidedly short on over-the-top comic bits (although there are one or two points where Robin Williams adds his own brand of manic fun to an otherwise serious role.) The movie also returns Ethan Hawke to my list; he was the co-star of the “Before” trilogy I picked. In this one, his first significant film role, he has a supporting part.
The overview of the film is that its set in a private boys boarding school in Vermont during the 1950s. It’s the type of school that is designed to prepare young teenage boys and turn them into mature Ivy League business and med students, undoubtedly due to arrive in the pages of “Who’s Who” approximately a decade after their arrival there. Conformity and adherance to the rules is not only expected, it’s a given. Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd) makes sure that is achieved, ruling with an iron fist and wooden paddle.
Enter John Keating, played by Williams. He’s the new English teacher, an alumni of the school, full of pep and excitement and seemingly set on alienating everyone in the school’s organization. He sets out to teach his class (including Todd, played by Ethan Hawke) poetry. Initially not the favorite subject for most of the lads. Keating however teaches it with verve and stresses the passion, the freedom of well-used words. “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world,” he tells them. He also points out that the real purpose of poetry is “Wooing women.” This catches their attention.
His enthusiasm is unusual at that institution, and his methods even more unorthodox. He has the students stand up on their desks.. to see the world differently. He coaxes the boys – terrified of breaking rules – to rip out pages from their text book that teaches a scientific formula for measuring the “greatness” of a poem. He teaches that the greatness of a poem is in how it makes you feel, how alive it makes you, not some mathematical formula. They quickly take to the teacher and start to break out of their shells; writing poetry of their own, persuing seemingly unobtainable young women of the town, and in the case of Neil, a shy boy with few friends, to take up acting. He finds not only does he love to act, he has a talent for it. This however, doesn’t please his 1950’s meatloaf-and-potato father who has him lined up for med school already. It all boils over when the lad takes on the role of Puck in a Shakespearean play, infuriating the father who pulls him out of school and enrols him in a military academy. Neil never makes it there.
In the aftermath, the school blame Keating for corrupting the kids and show him the door…but not before one of the most moving moments in contemporary film (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it), with Todd, then the others in the class all jumping up on their desks to salute the departing teacher, to the utter enragement of the headmaster. One by one they offer him their allegiance and respect.
It’s a touching moment and a great movie which highlights the shortfalls of the educational system , particularly in the past, and showcases the wonders that can happen if kids’ interests and talents are nurtured. It reminds us how much difference even one fine teacher can make in so many lives. It runs over two hours, but seems to end too soon. If you’re prone to teariness, it might be the type of film you want a box of Kleenex nearby for.
I loved it, which perhaps surprised no one more than myself, as I half to admit, I’m not a big fan of the manic, out-of-control, he’s so wacky, comedian Williams. But the man had the acting chops to pull off deep and even at times dark roles, as we see in Good Will Hunting as well. That man, as well as the decent, caring family man and baseball fan – those are the Robin Williams I miss.
The movie took in over $200M at the box office, making it one of that year’s top five films, and it was accorded generally good reviews, although Siskel and Ebert notably disliked it and called it “pious platitudes” with poor acting. To each his own. Dead Poet’s Society won an Academy Award for best original screenplay for writer Tom Shulman, while Williams was nominated for the Best Actor one.
“Poetry, beauty, romance, love – those are what we stay alive for ,” in the words of John Keating. And maybe for well made movies as well. I give Dead Poet’s Society four Neruda sonnets out of five.