About three weeks after the world reeled over the loss of Robin Williams, another comedy legend suddenly departed from this world. A supposedly routine throat procedure reportedly went awry and Joan Rivers went into cardiac arrest and had to be hospitalized in Mt. Sinai into a medically induced coma, then had to be in life support. After a week, she passed away. Prior to that tragedy, this woman still was in the prime of her life, with a full schedule and her legendarily sharp, acid wit still very much intact (even after six decades in the business).
I first heard of this comic legend when I read my mom’s Mod magazine (a local women’s magazine) when I was in my adolescence–it was about Elizabeth Taylor “recovering” from her troubles then and they referenced a famous one-liner by this comic–“Elizabeth Taylor has more chins than a Hong Kong phone book.” It was an outrageous remark, I thought then, and was amused at the daring guts for her to say that about a revered Hollywood icon.
I learned a little more about this irreverent comic as I read some entertainment news in various magazines, imported and local, during my college days, especially about the fact that she got to host a talk show in Fox rivaling Johnny Carson’s legendary Tonight Show. The way they framed the story then was that she was a traitor to Johnny, and I was conditioned to dislike her for that.
As we started subscribing to cable when I became part of the workforce, there was a UHF channel then known as CTV (from 1992-2000), then E! Philippines (2001-2002) where we see programming from the US cable entertainment channel E!, and during awards season in the 1990s, we started seeing Joan RIvers back in the limelight interviewing celebrities on the red carpet. Her critiques and acerbic wit could be a bit too much to take at times, but I started appreciating her commentary, and when I started doing pageant reviews online starting in the year 2000, I had Joan Rivers in my mind when I review pageant evening gowns. Of course I couldn’t get away with her brutal frankness in reviewing wardrobe but she became one of my inspirations when I do my “Homestretch” reviews.
When E! is finally back on cable full time two years ago, there was one program that had become one of my must-watch programs–Fashion Police. I enjoyed watching Joan praise and/or rip through celebrities’ wardrobes, even if her saucier comments are muted out in our shores. Her last Fashion Police was the Emmys/MTV Awards dual extravaganza (which I unfortunately missed as the program airs during the time i had to commute to work, and I missed any repeat broadcast as they chose not to show it during her health crisis that led to her death). I also saw in this program also hints of her renowned graciousness and compassion, like the way she relates to (and sometimes teases) her co-hosts Giuliana Rancic, Kelly Osbourne, and George Katsiopoulos, plus the guests they have over the years.
I wonder if she didn’t have that throat procedure, how long she would’ve lasted before even showing a smidgen of losing a bit of her edge. As it is, even if she had such a long career, her departure felt abrupt. Much has been said what a trailblazer she was and she undeniably has left a gap that no one could fill at this point. I’m forever going to miss Fashion Police and red carpet events from now on would seem rather empty now that we can’t hear Joan’s hilarious comments anymore.
This week, the world lost two of the biggest Hollywood legends in two consecutive days–comic genius Robin Williams and golden-age diva Lauren Bacall. I will talk about Lauren in my next post, so this is all about the former.
The circumstances surrounding Robin Williams’ death hit very close to home–he committed suicide by hanging himself with a belt because he was struggling with severe depression. As you readers may know, my brother also took his own life because of a similar condition. People (like myself) speculate about what led him to this, besides the fact that he has been battling this all his life (along with cocaine addiction in the 1980s and alcoholism). We can say it might be a combination of the Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, plus pressure to meet alimony payments, failing to sell off a sprawling estate, and the recent cancellation of his TV series, The Crazy Ones, but whatever the reason, just like my brother the only thing that really matters here is that depression is such a pervasive, all-encompassing condition that if help didn’t get to reach them in time, these types of tragedies would happen. It’s just sad that we miss a man who by all accounts is a warm, giving, and generous person to others, who brought the world so much joy. He exuded a zest for life that it is ironic that it belies an apparently bottomless well of sorrow and despair.
I would rather remember and celebrate the wonderful things he left behind in this world, so let me go back to when I first learn of this guy–via the TV series Mork & Mindy, as the kooky alien Mork with Pam Dawber as the human Mindy. His nutty humor and rapid fire free associations kept me in stitches when I was a kid. I didn’t quite remember most of the sitcom now, but when I search Mork and Mindy clips on You Tube, I was flooded with memories of my favorite part of the show–when Mork reports to Orson with his observations of human life–they can be funny, but they can be reflective, and now when you look at it, they may even now resonate even more deeply after his death. I’ll share a couple of those “Mork calling Orson” clips:
Robin always had his eyes set for a film career, and in between his Mork & Mindy heyday he debuted in the live action version of Popeye. I know I was looking forward to this as a kid, but when I watched it, though I tried to like it, I knew there was something missing–I remembered finding Robin’s Popeye a bit too mumbly and less of the gritty-sounding voice I could remember from the cartoons of my childhood. It was a box office disappointment, and this film is actually just a blip on what was to come.
After Mork & Mindy was cancelled after four seasons, Robin plunged full-time into film, earning critical acclaim for The World According to Garp in 1983. I never saw that film but reading through my mom’s old imported magazines (MacCall’s, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping) when I was a teenager, I recall the indelible image of John Lithgow (playing a transsexual) hugging Robin Williams’ Garp.
Robin hit his peak in the late 1980s-mid 1990s with a slew of indelible characterizations starting with his largely improvised role as Vietnam War radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam (1987) which revived the popularity of Louis Armstrong’s version of “What A Wonderful World”.
His next legendary role was as the unconventional teacher John Keating inspiring a class of all-male prep school students with poetry in Dead Poets Society (1989). “Carpe Diem” and “Oh Captain My Captain” are immortal catchphrases to this day. Marvel at a young Ethan Hawke defying the headmaster in the finale to salute the departing John Keating…
Awakenings (1990) is not typically regarded as one of Robin Williams’ top performances, but it was one indelible movie that I saw in the last year of college–Robin Williams played Dr. Oliver Sacks in this drama who treated a group of catatonic patients who temporarily became lucid and active for a while before reverting back to their original state. Robert de Niro was of course riveting as a patient who enjoyed a new lease of life until the disease came back as the treatment turned out to not be permanent, but Robin Williams as the doctor was likewise effective in this heartbreaking film.
Robin followed that the following year with an Oscar-nominated role in The Fisher King, as a loopy homeless man who helped down-and-out radio DJ played by Jeff Bridges, who realized the cause of the homeless man’s plight was due to the murder of his wife from the radio DJ’s psychotic caller.
In what most people would regard as the quintessential role in Robin’s career, he then voiced the Genie in Disney’s mega-hit animated movie, Aladdin (1992). I so agree with the acclaim, as his performance as the Genie was a wonder to behold, with his comic and improvisational prowess in full bloom. Such a shame the Academy do not know how to evaluate and salute voice performances (just like the issue with Scarlett Johansson’s performance in the Spike Jonze film Her recently). Check out “Friend Like Me” below, and how the animation embodies what might be on the brilliant, fast-paced mind of Robin Williams:
The following year, we were treated to Robin Williams in drag as the desperate dad who wanted to spend more time with the children from his divorced wife by dressing up as an old British nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). I loved the transformation scene, while the climactic scene where Robin Williams tries to juggle a TV pitch meeting and joining the kids as the nanny on the mother’s birthday dinner was a screwball classic. Of course most people remember the cooking scene…
The Birdcage (1996) is one of my all-time favorite movies. Robin played the more reserved gay partner Armand Goldman while Nathan Lane was the more flamboyant drag queen. My favorite scene was towards the end with Gene Hackman (playing a conservative senator) in drag. But the more memorable Robin Williams-centric scenes were the choreography lesson and his attempts to teach the fey Nathan Lane on how to act more masculine.
Then, there’s his Oscar-winning role as Matt Damon’s psychologist in Good Will Hunting (1997). It’s a dramatic role, and Robin is uncharacteristically restrained but still terrific. Most audiences remember the park bench scene and the line “This is not your fault”.
Robin still received good notices in later years, with box office hits with Patch Adams (1998) and the Ben Stiller-led Night at the Museum franchise (with the third installment about to be showing in the US later this year) as Teddy Roosevelt, plus his “dark trilogy” with Insomnia (2002), Death to Smoochy (2002), and One Hour Photo (2003). I was rooting for him to succeed in his return foray to television with The Crazy Ones last year, but after good initial ratings, the network executives were not convinced of its staying power so it cancelled it after one season.
A nice little bonus is a little factoid I discovered about him being best buddies with eventual Superman Christopher Reeve when they were both in college in Juilliard, and their friendship endured until Christopher’s death in 2004. They make such an interestingly odd pairing, but it’s a pairing I root for. I loved the fact that Christopher related in his memoir Still Me about after he was operated upon on his life-changing injury back in 1995, Robin cheered him up by showing up as the doctor from the Hugh Grant film he earlier appeared in, Nine Months (1995). I hope he is reunited with his buddy up in heaven.
The previous five posts about my brother seem to dwell more about his latter days and the aftermath of his death. This is not really a complete picture of who he was, and there was more to him than that. I’ll try to paint a more complete picture within the confines of this single blog post…
My mother would love to relate that Jonathan’s birth was a relatively easy delivery (about 1 1/2 hours, compared to 8 hours when I was born and 22 hours when my sister Jackie was born), but he had a lot of health issues that required repeated visits and confinements in the hospital. He only started becoming fully healthy when he was about three or four years old.
I was born in January and Jonathan was born in December of that same year, which means we are ony 11 months apart in age. Because of this fact, it was decided that we would go to school together at the same grade level. I suppose it would be easier for us to look after each other, and for most part we were indeed in the same class, with some exceptionsL in kindergarten I had to be moved from Dominican School to Angelicum School because of my hyperactivity, and after I was moved to Angelicum in the second half of my kindergertan, my brother then joined me in Angelicum in first grade; then there was this experiment in 6th grade where we have differing homeroom classes. There were also a few rare occasions where Jonathan and I would bicker, but in general we get along well in grade school. After they found a way to rein in my hyperactivity, I excelled in academics. Jonathan was smart enough to keep up but it was clear I was the so-called “brains” in the family.
In high school, the way students are grouped were by academic levels. In first year, I was grouped in the top tier class, while Jonathan was in the second-highest tier. But by the time second year came, my brother performed well enough that he then became part of the same tier as I was. I may not quite be classified as a loner, but I didn’t quite belong to any clique in high school, but Jonathan had a clique, a set of friends that turned out would be his closest friends even beyond high school and college. Though it wasn’t that valued at the time, it was even clear then that Jonathan had better social skills than I did.
In college, Jonathan and I went totally our separate ways. We actually both passed the entrance exams in both Ateneo and La Salle, but I decided to choose Ateneo de Manila University because my entrance exam scores entitled me to a merit scholarship, while my brother is more drawn to the dual degree program being offered by La Salle called Lia-Com (Liberal Arts and Commerce). Despite the legendary animosity and rivalry between the two institutions, Jonathan and I got along very well and we did share our experiences in our respective universities. Jonathan managed to make the dean’s list in La Salle around three or four times while I only made it once, in my last semester. But I have to note two things. First, in La Salle the grade point average to earn a Dean’s List is 3.00 while the equivalent in Ateneo was 3.35–and if we use La Salle’s criteria, I could’ve made the Dean’s List in Ateneo six times. Second, my course was Management Engineering, and anyone who goes to Ateneo would know the degree of difficulty earning a decent grade in that course, that simply passing would probably be good enough.
After Jonathan graduated with a Humanities – Business Management dual degree from La Salle, he had a slightly rocky start as he hopped from job to job and from industry to industry. Meanwhile, I took a slower but steadier career path. But in 1994, there was an opening for a market analyst position in the newly opened Makati Shangri-La. He took that opportunity and it was his big career breakthrough. As he relayed to me about how his work was like, I became very envious, as his tasks as he described them were what I would consider a dream job. When he moved on to catering sales around three years later, I asked him if I could pursue that opening but he advised that Shangri-La discourages relatives from being part of the same hotel.
I have a feeling that if it were up to him, he would’ve stayed in Shangri-La to this present day. Sure, there was a brief moment that he decided to pursue a glorified au pair job in San Francisco for a month, and the good thing was Shangri-La took him back, but there was an incident that forced him to leave the hotel. At the time, I wondered what drove him to do that, and it made me think what would make him turn uncharacteristically greedy, but it was only revealed after his death that it was from an act he did for love.
He then took on a similar position at Crowne Plaza, but after more than a year, he became a bit listless and a major opportunity came when Agoda, a web-based hotel booking agency, was looking to ramp up its Philippine operations. Jonathan seized this opportunity and his career then went on a higher level. I reasonably believe that it was through Jonathan’s efforts that have helped Agoda become the leading online hotel booking company in this country. However, four years after he joined the firm, he was a victim of wrong impression as the officers presumed he has close ties to a forner boss who ordered his team to implement a questionable practice, but the fact was Jonathan basically only acted like a chauffeur when that boss was in our country.
When he exited Agoda, there was a one-year non-compete clause, so he could not join a direct competitor like Expedia. So he had to lick his wounds a while and take a lower-paying position at St. Giles Hotel. He has a supportive staff and a father figure of a boss there. The work was satisfying and his inputs were greatly appreciated by all, but he was still keenly looking out for opportunities overseas, and there was an opportunity at AsiaTravel in Dubai that he couldn’t resist but take. With a heavy heart but with his boss’s and subordinates’ blessings, he pursued the job offer in Dubai–but little did he realize the office intrigues involved as the person he was supposed to succeed actually had a secret agenda to have a friend from within his ranks take over his position and relayed a less than flattering report on his otherwise good performance. So after less than two months, he was told that the position was not his and he was forced to return home.
Officers from the same firm learned of the debacle and offered Jonathan an consolation position within the Philippines–it was a fraction of what he was being offered for Dubai, but Jonathan accepted it. A few months later, he learned from a former colleague of his from Crowne Plaza and Agoda of a managerial position in Expedia, and by that time the non-compete clause already lapsed so he pursued it. He had to burn a bridge in AsiaTravel to pursue the Expedia position, but Jonathan figured that it would be worth it. For the first nine months of his stay in Expedia, it was actually rewarding and Jonathan was having the best time of his life.
Around the ninth or 10th month of his stay, his beloved boss decided to pursue another position, and he was replaced by a Dutchman. Even then Jonathan sensed cloudy days ahead, but because he loved being in Expedia, he chose to stick it out and do the best he could. Unfortunately, this Dutchman proved to be too demanding and did not hesitate to humiliate my brother in front of other officers. On October 2013, in a meeting in Malaysia, Jonathan received dreaded news that he was to be let go. The rest of this story has already been relayed in my previous blog posts.
Prior to the tragic turn of events, Jonathan lived life to the fullest. He got to travel to the US, and several places in Asia (like Korea, Macau, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam), and got to tour other islands in the Philippines like Bohol, Cebu, and Boracay. He was generally frugal except for a poker habit (which as far as I know he kept under control though it led to him not being able to amass savings). He enjoyed dining in Manila’s cafes and restaurants and with his positions in Agoda and Expedia he also got to enjoy staying at some hotel rooms for free. He also gave love and received love in return–I know of at least two boyfriends in his lifetime and a few flings here and there.
In the various jobs Jonathan pursued, key traits that were noticeable were his work ethic, his compassion towards his subordinates, and his knack for smoothing out rough situations. Partly because he doesn’t want to be caught up in the notorious rush hour traffic in Manila’s streets, he makes it a point to leave the house very early and be the earliest at work, but besides his constant promptness he is also known to be very present at work. I know where he got the way his subordinates from–he learned it from my mom, who over the years treats our helpers and sales staff in our shops with the same compassionate approach. His colleagues attested on how he never berates his subordinates, how he gently teaches them when they make mistakes or then assumes their tasks when teaching didn’t quite work. Unfortunately, some superiors may have viewed his compassionate approach as “passive leadership”–in fact that was what he was told by the Dutchman when he was let go. He was well respected by client hotels as whenever they had an issue, they could count on him to smooth things over.
There were two negative traits that I noticed about Jonathan. First he is known never wanting to wait or be in a situation that bores him–if something bores him he would rather change the topic or go to another place. It seems he finds the errands my family runs or family gathering boring that most of the time he chose to not join us when we do those things. Secondly, during his lifetime I presumed he was selfish. During the financial crises my mom endures (and still does) he never came forward to offer help–he eventually would after some coaxing but generally he would be reluctant. But during the last days of his life and from what we learned from his work colleagues, he was actually generous. And discovering his journals, I found that he is actually generous and does want to help out, but he also wanted room for him to pursue his own dreams, and that by pursuing his dreams he could’ve given a more permanent solution to the problems our family has been running into.
This is as comprehensive as I could get talking about my brother within a single post. I am grateful at the outpouring of love and support that came our way at the news of his passing. He is loved, and surely will be missed.