In 5th grade, my grandma took my best friend Trista and I to the theater to see Dead Poets Society. I’m pretty sure we spent the final third of the movie blubbering with tears running down our cheeks. Afterwards, I nursed a long-standing crush on Robert Sean Leonard.
25 years later, Dead Poets Society holds a different position for me, now a teacher, as scenes of Robin Williams’ John Keating are held up as exemplary of quality, outside-the-box teaching, emphasizing free and critical thinking and a love of language. Ironic then that he loses his job–not exactly the product most teachers are aiming at.
I’m sure I haven’t seen the full film since the 90’s, but this semester it was chosen as a “student pick” in my Film class, so I’ve had the chance to watch it twice over the last few days. Here are my thoughts on how it, and I, have aged. Spoilers ahead.
After Robin Williams’s death, his performances became totems of a man and career now set in stone only to be interpreted. Having also just watched Good Morning, Vietnam, I noticed how much more mature and nuanced Williams’s Keating is compared to the boisterous DJ Adrian Cronauer. In Keating, there are more shades of the later performance he would win an Academy Award for, in Good Will Hunting, than there are of Good Morning, Vietnam. His humor, while still present, is subdued, and the dramatics are far deeper. Playing the mentor in both Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, Williams shows a nurturing side that many fellow actors have spoken of since his death–a generosity of spirit, a desire for everyone around him to succeed. In short, his performance lives up to his legacy.
The baby-faced actors, including Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and especially Ethan Hawke, are simply adorable. They are little gems of performers, full of earnestness and vulnerability. I can’t help but love them. Other supporting actors are less successful, as in the case of Charlie “Nuwanda” Dalton, played by Gale Hansen who didn’t do much acting afterwards, but the performances don’t sink the film, just weigh it down slightly.
Filmspotting recently did a Sacred Cow discussion of Dead Poets Society and mentioned the possible homosexual subtext surrounding Ethan Hawke’s character, Todd Anderson. It’s ambiguous, to be sure, or Todd’s sexuality is anyway, but I certainly found support for the reading, subtle though it was. First, there’s clearly an intimacy and affection that develops between Todd and his roommate Neil Perry, played by Robert Sean Leonard. When Neil’s death hits home with Todd, he comments on the beauty of the snow-filled morning and then vomits in the snow. Furthermore, Todd is terrified of speaking in front of others. When Keating pulls Todd up in front of the class to improvise a poem, Keating has him take inspiration from a photo of Walt Whitman. Of course, the choice of Whitman doesn’t have to mean much more than he’s an evocative-looking poet, but it just so happens that he was also gay. When Todd continues on in his poem about the “sweaty-toothed madman,” he begins talking about a truth like a blanket that only covers your face. It’s an arresting metaphor for the experience of living the life of a closeted homosexual–the truth always there, hiding the world from true sight and understanding, trapping perspective.
The narrative of Neil’s rebellion and suicide is still powerful, though the treatment of the actual suicide feels a bit heavy-handed to me now. His Puck-crown, once he has stripped down and begins to open his bedroom windows evokes imagery of Christ in his crown of thorns. Neil’s sacrifice of himself for his freedom is clear. What ends up working less well is the slow-motion “No!” his father yells when he realizes what Neil has done. The moments right after, when he rocks his son in his arms and then attempts to comfort Neil’s mother, who is in utter denial, is far more effective. But I still cried. Not as freely as I did as a 5th grader, but now with the added depth of emotion of having my own son and being able to empathize with both Neil’s and his parents’s pain.
All in all, I felt the film had aged well and reflected favorably on all involved. It continues to be an inspiring tear-jerker.