Robin Williams was many things in the early ’80s, but prior to his performance in The World According To Garp, the last thing anyone expected from Mork was a dramatic turn. Already an intensely popular novel by 1982, the film was both a highly anticipated project and a star vehicle for Williams. Upon its release, his performance left critics split – some were astonished at Williams’ range, others tore him apart for chewing scenery. That all said Garp was one of those late ’70s/early ’80s films that thrives on character study and, like it’s protagonist, seemed a bit uncertain by the end.
The film opens simply enough – with images of the naked baby Garp floating in the air – and goes wildly off the beaten path from there. His mother is Jenny Fields (played by Glenn Close), an army nurse repelled by the idea of men but desiring to have a child. After sleeping with a dying fighter pilot, Jenny begins her life of single motherhood and Garp seems eternally stuck playing a supporting character in it. Their fiercely close mother-son relationship is tested in Garp’s adulthood, when his novel and her memoir are simultaneously published. Jenny’s story becomes a worldwide sensation for feminism, and Garp’s career quickly burns out in its shadow. Along the way, Garp marries the love of his life, Jenny opens a retreat for abused women, and both of them befriend the tranny, Roberta, played with humor and grace by John Lithgow.
Garp is a story about mothers and sons, and how one man’s prolonged attachment forever affects the course of his life. These days in film, we see many of the same themes, but only in stories of men of power. Garp is far from powerful. He’s lovable, self-loathing, frustrated, and ultimately forced to either make peace with his shortcomings, or forever be left to live in his mother’s shadow. When he does decide, you can’t help but sympathize for him, based on the reception that follows from not only his publishers, but his mother’s own fanbase.
Both Glenn Close and John Lithgow received Oscar nominations for their performances. Williams would remain snubbed for another 15 years until Good Will Hunting, which was a shame since his performance was what I loved most about this film as a kid. The story goes to some eyebrow-raising dark places, and there are some times when when you wonder what George Roy Hill is going for, but this is a film that stays anchored largely due to Williams. In the time since, we all know the careers choices that would follow, but you can’t deny that in The World According Garp Robin Williams not only displayed an appetite for depth, but he wasn’t afraid to take an unconventional vehicle to get there. Pick it up if you’re ever in the mood to catch something different.