A little over 25 years ago, I saw a movie called The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer. Perhaps you’ve seen this film. In it, Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a radio talk host whose bravado and hubris come to a head when he makes an off-hand remark, as these personalities are wont to do, but his tirade inspires someone to go on a mass shooting rampage, killing many. One of those killed is the wife of Parry, played by Robin Williams.
To me, by way of the many times I have watched it – studying it, actually – the themes in Fisher King revolve around the simplicity of baser aspects of human nature, but intertwined with the unsightly, the lovely, the agonizing, and the superb qualities of the human condition. “The Fisher King” explores our callousness and compassion, our lack of mercy, and our need for redemption. It reminds us that we make alliances among most unlikely of people. Parry (Williams) is rendered destitute after the death of his wife, and leads a small army of the disenfranchised through the uncelebrated streets of Manhattan. Lucas (Bridges) also hits bottom, and finds a savior in Parry, who in turn needs saving from Lucas. Their symbiotic relationship makes each one stronger, allowing them to forgive themselves and each other.
Robin Williams at one time mentioned this was one of his best roles to perform. It’s difficult to nail that down, because he had so many great performances (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society). But he seemed to express some real admiration for this project during a brief and somewhat disappointing interview with one Jimmy Carter (the other one). Carter asks Williams about his role and about the themes in the film, or at least a single dimension of the film, not getting too deep (it was only seven minutes in length). It is cringe-worthy, especially when Carter insists on doing a “video greeting card”.
“The Fisher King” was directed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus alum Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s other features include Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few. The style of Fisher King is typical of Gilliam’s other films, where we see a grittier, less sanitized world, making it look almost alien and unsuitable for human existence. Color is an important
part of the scenes. Red symbolizes the heart, complete with passion, agony, and love – romantic and otherwise; the Red Night, the cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter, the Chinese restaurant. The light in the Grand Central Waltz scene is both eery and magical. Figures glide in small circles, while Lydia (Plummer) sails amid the dancers, followed unbeknownst by Parry.
The film is full of strange moments and a bit of insanity, mostly on the part of Parry, who is being pursued by his own demons, manifest in the form of the menacing Red Knight. At times, Parry seems to be in control, especially when Jack is with him. Other times, the knight chases Parry mercilessly. Eventually, Parry must face the demons from his past and attempt to make his way back from his own personal hell. Is he allowed to move on after the tragic death of his wife. Can he forgive Jack for his incendiary comments that may have led to the tragedy? Can Jack forgive himself? Redemption plays a big part in the relationship between the two men, and their relationships with Anne and Lydia, respectively. How do we count ourselves worthy for any love or kindness that comes our way? The answer to that question might be that we deserve nothing. We should never consider ourselves entitled to anything. Meanwhile, any gifts offered to us should be received with gratitude. We should not be above asking for help. And we should not debase ourselves with self-loathing, instead allowing others to come into our lives.
What I take from Fisher King mostly is that we are our own worst enemies. We beat ourselves up for offenses others would forgive. We deny ourselves joy and fulfillment. And we reject people who want to be with us, both out of longing and out of compassion and charity. At one point in the film, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) finally tells Jack how much she loves him. You can see the pain in her expression, probably because she knows he does not love her the same way. Parry is motivated by is erstwhile unrequited love of Lydia, and as soon as he confesses his long-time obsession, here comes the Red Knight. Tragedy and heartache seem to follow immediately after finally letting down their guard, exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, but baring your soul is often the most painful thing you will do. Broken ankle: sure, that hurt. Oral dry socket: hellish. Revealing your inner self, this is the riskiest move you can make.
I find myself quoting Fisher King all the time with my wife. We’ve seen it so many times, we can and do recite dialog from memory. But more significantly, we find ourselves comparing the movie’s themes to our own situations or something we have seen or heard. It is for us one of the best films we’ve ever seen. Not everyone agrees, but even though Roger Ebert in 1991 gave Fisher King a negative review, he later reconsidered the merits of the film, shortly after Williams’ death in 2014. Robin Williams was in rare form for this movie, and he is sorely missed. His on-screen lunacy brought energy to what otherwise might have been a dull movie, Jeter’s Gypsy rendition notwithstanding.
If you have never seen “The Fisher King”, give yourself permission for the indulgence. The soundtrack is a nostalgic romp, and there’s this sense of the 80’s coming to a close, complete with land line phones and video rental stores. You will probably find yourself at least humming “How About You?” and shouting “yo, Lydia!” as a result.
As the four main characters are walking to dinner, Parry picks up something from a trash heap, and Jack attempts to correct Parry’s apparent habit. A moment later, Parry presents a delicately rendered tiny chair out of a champaign bottle cage, explaining to Lydia that you would be surprised what you find in the garbage. In other words, maybe something people thought was worthless is perhaps a treasure.