Note: this post was written before news of Robin Williams' death broke. The same perspective that lends itself to a jokey essay about good-looking actors also functions to remind us why Williams' death feels so strange. For decades, Williams was a ubiquitous feature of the pop culture landscape. We'll miss him.
As Jared and I watched the first episode of The Good Wife, we realized that we recognized, but did not know the name of, this guy.
We had to look him up on IMDB to figure it out, but of course the moment we did it all came flooding back: Josh Charles (who plays Will Gardner) played Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society.
Which came out in 1989.
Cue instant mid-life crisis.
Dead Poets Society was a film I really liked twenty years ago. Here’s why: I was, at fifteen, a poetry-reading weirdo who felt deeply misunderstood and undervalued. And Dead Poets Society features sensitive, poetry-reading souls (in the 16-18 age range) who feel misunderstood and undervalued. It also features some really good looking guys.
What struck me as I stared at Josh Charles’ IMDB profile is that I’ve now got a very privileged, very weird perspective on pop culture. I haven’t just grown up with pop culture – pop culture has grown up with me. I’ve got a perspective on it now – thanks to twenty years of hearty consumption of it – that I never had before. And perspective is a double-edged sword.
This is not exactly a profound realization. But that doesn’t make it any less personal. Twenty years ago, poetry meant a lot to me. As did movies about handsome young men who learned important life lessons by way of poetry. Dewy-eyed young Robert Sean Leonard meant a lot to me. Intellectual and artistic freedom meant a lot to me. Standing up to The Man (literally! On your desk! While reciting Walt Whitman!) meant a lot to me.
Today, a show about a professional, middle-aged woman trying to establish her identity in a personal and a professional context resonates much more profoundly with me than a film about a bunch of sixteen-year-old boys and their low-key rebellions against authority. This might be because time has transformed me into a cynical monster who no longer believes in the transformative power of poetry. And it might be because I’ve grown up, and my interests and preoccupations have shifted as my circumstances have changed. It’s probably a little of both.
The thing is, The Good Wife showcases work by a number of actors I’ve been watching for twenty years: Chris Noth, whom I loved on Law & Order; Juliana Margulies, who made her name on ER; Alan Cumming, who’s been in pretty much everything for the last twenty years (from Circle of Friends to X-Men 2 to that perfume he invented a few years ago). I’ve been fascinated by my responses to all of them while watching. But I’ve singled Josh Charles out because I’m most surprised by my response to him on the show, which can be boiled down to three sentences:
Holy shit, that guy was the guy from Dead Poets Society who I thought wasn’t as handsome as Robert Sean Leonard. Now I feel the opposite way.
I must be getting old.
Why, of all things, did The Good Wife and Dead Poets Society kick off this mid-life – well, not crisis, but minor epiphany? In part because of the young actors Dead Poets Society launched. Robin Williams was already a famous personality and established actor, and too old for me to respond to in the mixed-up way adolescents respond to people doing things they like. (I.e., developing an intense crush.)
The boys playing William’s character’s students, however, were another story. They were about my age and they were playing characters who were about my age, and acting the way I did (or wished I could) act. And they had no existence outside the Dead Poets Society world. I’d never seen them in anything else. They were just interesting, good-looking young guys. So I responded to them the way I responded to any interesting, attractive guy doing things I liked. I developed an intense crush.
As I said, I really liked Robert Sean Leonard. I thought he was an attractive man and an interesting actor. Because of Dead Poets Society, I kept an eye on him. I watched him in post-Dead Poets properties, everything from Swing Kids (swing heil!) and The Last Days of Disco to House.
Fast-forward twenty years: I found my interest waned. My present-day self simply doesn’t feel the same way about Robert Sean Leonard as my fifteen-year-old self did. Maybe I got bored with him. Maybe I haven’t like any of the characters he played, post-DPS. Maybe, like the rest of the crushes I had at 15, I just outgrew him.
Twenty years on, Dead Poets Society doesn't hold the same appeal. In part because I’mmore cynical and self-aware now than I was 20 years ago. But, more importantly, because my interests have shifted; I don’t feel misunderstood or undervalued now and I’m aware that I wasn’t either misunderstood or undervalued then, either. I also don’t have quite the same response to poetry now that I did then. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the character – and the actor who played him – that I associate closely with that time and those feelings no longer holds much appeal for me.
Something like The Good Wife, however, which likely would have bored me stiff twenty years ago, feels like a fairly accurate reflection of my current personal experiences. (If not situation.) I’m a professional woman with a lot on my plate. I have any number of complicated feelings and contradictory opinions about issues which once struck me as black and white. So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the character – and the actor who plays him – who brings out a lot of complicated and contradictory feelings in TGW’s main character should appeal to me.
And it’s still a little weird to realize that he’s the same guy as from that movie. Who knows? Twenty years on the pendulum could swing back and I could write a follow up to this post about how hot Robert Sean Leonard is at 60. Anything is possible.
What I bring to my pop culture habit these days is perspective – a perspective informed in no small part by my pop culture habit. When I was very young, movies and tv shows used to be something that happened; they were events because they were new and because I didn’t really think about them. Now, thanks to twenty years of ingesting and analysing pop culture as a serious hobby, properties are events because I’m excited about them; I’m not often surprised by them but that I do very much enjoy thinking about them.
My identity is inextricably bound up with my consumption of pop culture. Partaking is fun and responding is what keeps Pornokitsch going. Suddenly, however, I find a third layer has settled across the way I consume culture: I have twenty years of experience to draw upon when I think about it. This affects the novelty of whatever it is I’m watching, but more profoundly it affects the way I think about the property. Perspective adds richness and depth to my responses.
And, sometimes, it makes me feel really old.