When Robin Williams played T.S. Garp in The World According to Garp, two totally original American icons met: a leading comic actor of our time and the character whose loopy adventures made John Irving’s novel a literary milestone and runaway bestseller. Fans of Williams’ dramatic work in Dead Poets Society and his Oscar® winner Good Will Hunting will also savor his Garp, a sweet-natured writer whose life is a weird minefield of violence, adultery, fatherhood, rampant feminism and eerie coincidence. Glenn Close (her film debut) as Garp’s formidable mother and John Lithgow as a transsexual ex-NFL receiver give impressive support, earning Oscar® nominations and critics laurels galore. Their collaboration is “one helluva magnificent movie” (Bernard Drew, Gannett Newspapers).
eyelights: Glenn Close. John Lithgow.
eyesores: Robin Williams. Mary Beth Hurt.
Jenny Fields: “You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”
The first time that I saw ‘The World According to Garp’, it was on television. I was in my early teens then, and only got to see a small part of it, starting with Garp playing doctor with Cushie. I was immediately taken with it, largely by its frank approach to sexuality.
I never did see the rest of the picture. I think that I might have seen up to the point when Garp gets his ear bitten off by Bonkers, or maybe when Garp and Cushie have a reunion in the bushes. I’m not sure. But I kept the name of the movie in mind and, the moment that I was able to get it on VHS tape, I did.
That was many years later – at least a good half-decade, I’d say. But it immediately hightailed to the top of my “must-see” list and it soon thereafter became one of my all-time favourite films – a status that it has retained (I have seen many movies since, so it has likely dropped a few notches, but it remains very high up).
‘The World According to Garp’, which is based on the John Irving novel, is the story of a dreamer who must cope with his mother’s much more pragmatic -if somewhat idealistic- approach to life. While he wants to become a popular fiction writer, she ignites the passions of various political movements with her own book, ‘A Sexual Suspect’.
There are a two notable elements that make this motion picture stand out for me:
-For starters, there’s the phenomenal Jenny Fields, as incarnated by Glenn Close. Already, the character is a stand out for the way that she ferociously takes charge of her life, taking the lead in areas that would make others blush, but Close brought to her intelligence, compassion and irrepressible focus.
I find the character imposing, but fascinating: she clutches life in both hands and refuses to let go. It’s her life, and she lives it her way, without faltering. By the time that Jenny has to try to rescue Garp from the roof’s ledge, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is the person to pull it off – she has the tenacity and will to get through something like this.
I was always bowled over by some of the assumptions that Jenny made about the world: for instance, that it would respond to her in the way she expected it to. And when it didn’t, she would always challenge it, steely-nerved as she was. Sometimes it was so bold that it made me laugh out loud, like when decided that she would let a publisher put out her book, and then told him she’d call him. Awesome.
-Then there’s John Lithgow as Roberta, a former NFL footballer who has since retired and become a woman. The character itself is interesting in that she is ever-hopeful in love, even though success is ever-elusive – especially in that day and time. Plus which she’s a trailblazer, in that there weren’t many transgendered people in the public face then.
But what’s great about the part is how Lithgow portrayed Roberta. With his stature, he could pull off the athletic side of Roberta (who still remains a formidable opponent – enough so that she protects Jenny and Jenny’s immediate and adopted family). However, he also plays that fine line between confidence/determination and tenderness/empathy. His is a standout performance.
I found the character equally disarming and imposing, and loved seeing how she would relate to the rest of the characters. For instance, Garp would hold hands with her without reservations, without concern for the fact that she was once a man; there was a genuine affection being nurtured between Roberta and Jenny’s family – even going so far as being part of Garp’s play-acting with his kids. It really put a smile on my face.
Unfortunately, Robin Williams, who plays our lead, T.S. Garp, doesn’t quite live up to Close and Lithgow’s extremely high caliber performances. While he would eventually be recognized as a terrific dramatic actor, he was then known as a comedian first and foremost – and in relatively lacklustre comedies, no less! While one can see in his Garp that there is potential to be tapped, Williams didn’t quite manage to broach the gap between comedy and drama.
He’s especially bad when Garp gets upset: in those moments, he gives off an amateurish performance that makes one think of a play-acting child – he gets the point across, but hardly comes off as realistic. Similarly, when he attempts timidity or wide-eyedness, he dons a self-contented smile that is perhaps too dialled up to look real. Everything in between, however, is quite good – and, given that it was his first foray into drama (or dramedy, as the case may be), it’s not all bad.
Except that his counterpart, Mary Beth Hurt, who plays his girlfriend and then wife, Helen, is frequently as flat as corrugated cardboard. She has emotional moments, and pulls them off relatively well, but there are all too frequent moments when she doesn’t give her character life. It’s a real shame, because it made for a limp duo – one was unconvincing and the other was anaemic.
Of course, much of Hurt’s problem may have resided in the script. The fact is that the screenplay is an adaptation of a 600-page (!) novel, and likely had to have gigantic chunks torn out of it to reduce it to a two-hour film (which would possibly mean approximately 100-150 pages). Since her character was more of a supporting role, it’s likely that she was relegated to the more serious scenes – and in a secondary capacity on top of that.
So it may not be an inability on Hurt’s part (although she was particularly dreadful in ‘A Change of Seasons‘). Frankly, the script has a few glaring flaws, most of which revolve around the passage of time:
-There’s the fact that complete sequences pop in and out without explanation, like the home-shopping scene in which a plane crashes into the house Garp and Helen are visiting. The last thing we knew, Garp and Helen had just hooked up, and already they were shopping for a home. But the plane crash has no consequence to it – the next thing we know they live there. Perhaps it was only meant to put Garp’s optimism on display, but it felt disjointed.
-The whole ending sped by, thereby disrupting the flow of the rest of the picture. Already, it could be a challenge making such grand leaps through time, but, after the tragic accident, we zipped from one short bit to the next as though the filmmakers were in a hurry to wrap up the picture. It’s as though the accident was the closing chapter and everything else was an epilogue or afterthought – despite how important the turns of events were.
Frankly, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find out that there is a longer, more complete cut gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. I would even pray for one – because, truth be told, this last bit was so wonky that I couldn’t help but drop the picture from 8.75 to an 8.5 (which is still high, admittedly). And that’s after dropping it from a 9.0 to an 8.75 on account of Williams and Hurt.
Still, despite its limitations, ‘The World According to Garp’ is a terrific picture and it’s been a favourite of my friends and I for years. It’s such a fantastic blend of charm and wit as well as thought-provoking situational drama that it’s hard to dislike. It’s not fluff, that’s for sure, even though it may appear too flighty at first to warrant the time.
Irrespective of first impressions, ‘The World According to Garp’ is worth the time, and this whole lifetime’s worth of Garp flies by in no time at all.
T. S. Garp: “Remember, Helen.”
Helen Holm: “What, my love?”
T. S. Garp: “Everything.”
Date of viewing: Dec 2, 2012