Rapid Response: The World According to Garp

Robin Williams passed away this week, and in every tribute written about him (including one of  my own) he was described as “a great comedian but also…” In another tribute this week I wrote that being a great comedian was enough because he was a wild man while doing it. But more often his praise as an exceptional actor was that he could take surprising, dramatic turns in movies like “Good Will Hunting,” “One Hour Photo,” “World’s Greatest Dad” or “Insomnia” while also playing the fool in “Aladdin,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” or “The Birdcage” or the exuberant hero in “Good Morning, Vietnam” or “Dead Poets Society”.

One movie that rarely crossed the threshold into conversation was “The World According to Garp”, George Roy Hill’s 1982 black comedy based on the controversial and bestselling novel by John Irving. Williams made it near the end of his run on “Mork and Mindy”, and what’s immediately surprising is how ordinary Williams comes across, considering he was famous for playing an alien. This isn’t strictly a dramatic performance, but come to think of it he probably never says a funny thing despite the movie being a comedy. Much of the comedy comes from the inanity and anarchy going on around him, and Williams has both the toothless likability as well as the energy to keep pace with it all. 

What Williams does with Roy Hill’s eloquent, yet loaded dialogue is turn Garp into someone inherently likable, compassionate and charming. For all of Williams’ antics and hamming it up on screen, he’s never been more the everyman than here. He first shows up (fairly unconvincingly) as a teenage Garp in high school, turning on the timid, childlike innocence that would pepper many of his other performances. He’s a wrestler, but the girl he loves, Helen (Mary Beth Hart) wants to marry a writer, so he decides to do that and proves to be a real artist. As an adult now married to Helen, he’s the fun-loving stay at home dad but also a short-tempered parent who lashes out at poor drivers and even has a fling with the babysitter.

Williams ultimately grounds the movie as Roy Hill fills in the color, tragedy and comedy around his life. It’s primarily the story of Garp’s mother  Jenny Fields (Glenn Close), a woman with a sweet demeanor, sharp tongue and a scolding hatred for all things sex and “lust”, as she so frequently refers to anything resembling romance or attraction. Just as Garp is developing his writing, his mother also decides to take up the pen, interviewing a prostitute and using it to write an extreme feminist manifesto. It makes her an instant star and something of a cult leader, using her influence to endorse female politicians and form a secluded nursing home for women who have been abused and mistreated.

We soon learn of the repulsive way in which Jenny got pregnant and had Garp, completely with the intention of never wanting anything to do with a man or to have sex ever again, and the playfully tongue in cheek way Roy Hill portrays her story sets the stage for just about all of “Garp”.

This is a movie with intelligent people speaking politely, pleasantly and eloquently, and yet the whole movie is peppered with childish ideas about sex and dashes of conniving, violence, insensitivity and mistrust. It’s actually the perfect vehicle for Roy Hill, always the trickster and populist entertainer with a dark twist. Roy Hill even opens the movie in an amusingly lewd way. The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four” plays in the background as a baby’s head bounces slowly up and down into the frame. Soon the baby floats higher and we see it’s completely nude. Later, a little girl describes to Garp just how babies are made. “First I say that I have a headache, and then you say, ‘You always have a headache’, and then we argue and you rip off all my clothes.”

But the story earns its dramatic heights as all these loaded nuggets of danger, seduction and gender politics end up resulting in sudden catastrophes, everything from Garp dangling from the roof of a building to an assassination attempt on Jenny’s life at a feminist rally. Perhaps this is too much ground to cover, and territory that a book with more space could approach more fully, but Roy Hill does an excellent job of calling back to pivotal gestures, and the ironic tragedy that befalls Garp near the end of the film shows the deep layers and evolving themes that run throughout this story of a life.

“The World According to Garp” was a hugely popular and polarizing novel in 1978 and one that didn’t take long to be adapted. Now it’s hardly mentioned, and one wonders if the attention and controversy surrounding books like “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Fifty Shades of Gray” might just fade away in a matter of years.

But the feminist politics make it surprisingly relevant in a day when #YesAllWomen and #WhyINeedFeminism are everywhere, along with a small but vocal minority who opposes some of the things modern feminism either intentionally or inadvertently stands for. “Garp” portrays feminism as a fairly radical movement, in which women have become Ellen Jamesians, cutting out their tongues in protest of another young girl who forcibly had hers removed. When the real Ellen James steps forward and begs them to stop, Garp writes a novel against their actions and their man-hating.

Roy Hill views the idea of this extreme form of feminism with more nuance, even if feminism has largely moved beyond what’s presented here. The story recognizes the real crazies are the ones trying to assassinate Jenny or that the women who have been driven into her care have a compelling reason to be there. It even normalizes women and transgender persons through a groundbreaking, Oscar nominated performance by John Lithgow. Roy Hill has some arguably outdated fun with his character too (“I was the tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles. Robert Muldoon? I had a great set of hands.”), but Roberta is actually the most well-adjusted, normal and compassionate person in the movie.

Those watching “The World According To Garp” may come for a chance to revisit a Robin Williams performance in the wake of his passing, but hopefully they’ll stay for its timely look at the world.

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