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Feminism, Gender Awareness, Pedestrian Rage, Robin Williams: 37 Years Ago, ‘Garp’ Had It All

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Having brain-screamed at yet another driver blowing through a stop sign at 30 miles per hour in my quiet, child-filled residential neighborhood, I got to wondering: Whatever happened to Garp?

Released 37 years ago, on in the summer of 1982, George Roy Hill’s film version of John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp seemed to define the absurd universe for many of us now of a certain age. And then suddenly, it was gone.

We still quote The Godfather. We apologize for Pretty Woman. We endlessly remake Star Wars.

But somehow Garp, with all of its crazy lessons about “lunacy and sorrow,” didn’t quite stick. When Robin Williams, who starred as T. S. Garp, died five years ago (on August 11, 2014), the movie earned one-third a sentence in his New York Times obituary. It shared that smidgen of literary space with Popeye and Mork & Mindy, though Garp, which gave Williams his second major film role, was clearly the picture that marked him as more than a comic madman, and probably a future Oscar winner (which he was, for Good Will Hunting, in 1998).

If Garp has faded, that isn’t because it landed without impact. In 1982, it took in $29.7 million at the box-office—about $91 million at current ticket prices—and ranked around No. 25. That put it ahead of some better-remembered movies of the same year, including Blade Runner, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and The Road Warrior. Granted, it didn’t approach the success of the top performers, E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Tootsie, and An Officer And A Gentleman. But 1982 was an awfully good year for the movies.

In retrospect, what’s remarkable is that Garp, which told the life and death of a novelist-wrestler, touched so many topics and themes that are now bouncing around in the culture at large.

Pedestrian road rage—that scene in which the outraged Williams demolishes an offending pick-up truck with a pipe—was the least of it. (You can only wonder how T. S. Garp would have handled e-scooters and bad Ubers.) There was a transgender subplot, with John Lithgow as the transitioning football player Roberta Muldoon. Nominated for an Oscar, Lithgow aligned Garp with Tootsie and Victor/Victoria as one of three films with cross-dressing characters at the Academy Awards in 1983. Garp’s over-riding theme involved a kind of feminism gone wild. The lead character’s mother, played by Glenn Close, also nominated for an Oscar, was caught up with the Ellen Jamesians—a cult that went miles beyond #MeToo, by cutting their tongues out in sympathy with a namesake sexual victim. And, underlying all of it was the confusion of T. S. Garp, an intelligent, well-meaning white male who was left behind, and ultimately killed, by the forces around him.

Maybe the absurdist mentality within Garp, whose screenplay was written by the late Steve Tesich, proved too much for a contemporary viewers, who find it easier to revisit films—A Star Is Born, Shaft, even Blade Runner—that turn on something other than honest bewilderment.

Or maybe those of us who loved Garp simply wore it out. We watched it again and again via then-novel home-viewing media — cable channels and videocassettes. Williams continued, and grew, in film after film that managed to be funny, but serious, and smart, and sad, and absurd, all at the same time. Good Morning, Vietnam. Dead Poets Society. Mrs. Doubtfire. Patch Adams. The Birdcage. All of them owed a little something to The World According To Garp.

The movie is worth remembering as we think about Williams five years after losing him. If I’d written that New York Times obit, I’d have given Garp a full sentence. Maybe even two.

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