In the early 80's, Walt Disney's film department was hurting. Their animated cartoons weren't doing very well, their comedies were beginning to seem outdated, they needed a kick start. Touchstone Pictures, a branch of Disney Studios, was formed, a place where Disney could make more mainstream films with adult themes and even R-rated comedies. It saved Disney. Touchstone films like SPLASH (1984), TIN MEN (1987), and DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS (1986) were both critically acclaimed and financially successful.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989) was another Touchstone hit that I don't think I was overly impressed with when I first saw it. I found it too sentimental. I wasn't a huge Robin Williams fan. Maybe I wasn't far enough removed from school to be able to reflect on the pressure and angst students feel from their parents and peers that DEAD POETS is about. But a second viewing has me finding plenty to like about the film.
First of all, it has one of the coolest movie titles. DEAD POETS SOCIETY. Imagine Walt Whitman, Lord Byron, Robert Frost, and Percy Shelley hanging out together, playing chess, sharing a good cigar, swapping stories about past girlfriends. A good title hooks you right away.
The film opens with another school year beginning at Wilton Academy, sometime in the 1950's, somewhere in the East (Delaware to be precise). We're introduced to the boys we'll be following throughout the year, each with their own doubts and dreams. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) dreams of acting while his father (Kurtwood Smith) bullies him to be a doctor. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) can't live up to his older brother's scholastic reputation. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) yearns for the unrequited love of an older high school girl. These young men and their classmates are all plodding toward careers as physicians, lawyers, and engineers.
But their relatively normal school lives are forever changed by new poetry teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), a former student himself of Wilton. Keating's unusual teaching methods and his mantra "Carpe Diem" or "Seize the Day" inspire the young students to release themselves from the constraints of conformity. When Neil discovers Keating's yearbook photo and the name Dead Poets Society, he brings it to his classmates attention and they question Keating about it. He explains what the club was and the boys form their own Dead Poets Society, finding a cave in the nearby woods to smoke, read poetry, play the saxophone, even bring girls. As the boys begin to flourish in their new found freedom, a terrible tragedy occurs that reverberates through Wilton Academy and finds Mr. Keating the scapegoat.
My favorite sequence in DEAD POETS SOCIETY is opening night for Neil in the school's production of A Midsummer's Night Dream. He's clearly having the time of his life as Puck and then his father Mr. Perry shows up to destroy his dream and pull him out of school, a decision that will have dire consequences. Director Weir captures the exhilaration and anguish perfectly. This sequence haunts me even today.
DEAD POETS was Williams first serious role and he stays restrained for most of the film, occasionally reverting into comedic Williams but director Weir keeps him in character for the most part. There is nice camaraderie between the boys and Williams and Williams does a fine job of letting the young actors shine. Williams has definitely grown as an actor since DEAD POETS but this film got his dramatic side off to a decent start.
I use to get actors Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke mixed up as they looked quite similar to me so it's ironic that they are paired together in the film. Both are excellent as is Josh Charles. Leonard has a face almost to beautiful to be a student. He's leader to his classmates yet subservient to his father and plays both wonderfully. Hawke is equally good as the introverted and awkward young man who's parents give him the same birthday present two years in a row. And Charles gets the one romantic part and carries it off with youthful aplomb. All three actors, now in their early 40's, have continued to shine in films and TV - Leonard is a regular on the TV show HOUSE; Hawke in films like TRAINING DAY (2001) and SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (1999), and Charles currently in the TV drama THE GOOD WIFE. It's refreshing to see that not all young actors overdose or end up on reality TV shows.
Watching DEAD POETS SOCIETY 21 years later got me reflecting on my formative years. I didn't go to a college prep school, just a nice public education but there is much to be said about a good teacher like John Keating and the role teachers play in our lives. I was reminded of past teachers I had like my 10th grade history teacher Mr. Swofford who taught me that classical art and music can be cool. Or Mrs. Floberg who let my creative side flourish on essays and journals that I had to write. Or Mr. Copley who introduced me to Supply-Side economics. Or Mr. Schuman who gave me a Super 8 film camera. Teachers can make a difference.