Dead Poets Society (1989), directed by the late, great Peter Weir from a screenplay by Tom Schulman, and starring Robin Williams, is set in 1959 at a fictional elite conservative Vermont boys’ boarding school. It is about an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. A big hit at the box-office, it made $236,000,000, the fifth highest for 1989, after Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Batman, Back To The Future and Look Who’s Talking. The film received critical acclaim; it won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, and the César Award and David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Film. Schulman’s script received an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
It opened 30 years ago this week and it’s amazing that it got made at all. How many Hollywood films have “poet” in the title or offers a Latin phrase ‘”Carpe diem!” as its catchphrase?
Revisiting Dead Poets Society, I am struck that the theme is not about generational conflict or school or poetry or teaching: it is about death. The opening shot shows a young boy doing his homework while above him hangs a painting of long dead former pupils; death looking down. It is death that provides the propulsive force behind teacher John Keating’s (Williams) lessons to his class. One of the first lines of poetry he shares with his pupils is from the middle of the 17th century by the English poet Robert Herrick: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles today Tomorrow will be dying”. In my favorite scene of the film, Keating ushers his young pupils towards the black-and-white photographs displayed in a glass cabinet of former pupils of the school. He says:
They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you … these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.
It is a powerful scene and having nearly died since, it is more relevant to me than when I first saw it three decades ago. When I re-watched Dead Poets Society, I was reminded that time is precious. Dead Poets Society tells us to resolve to lead lives of passion and conviction, mindful of the fact that in the story of our lives the script is ours to write, but the ending has long ago been decided.
It’s Keating’s unorthodox teaching methods that are at the heart of the story, but it was William’s performance, including his improvisations that ended up in the final film, that elevated the film. John Wayne reciting Shakespeare? It’s his comic deftness that makes the film work, plus the cast of fresh young faces including Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and Ethan Hawke.
Williams took his own life in summer 2014 at 63-years-old. He’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a few months before his death, but an autopsy revealed he had a severe case of Lewy Body Dementia. His widow, Susan Schneider Williams, whom he married in 2011, wrote in the journal Neurology in 2016:
Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it. Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating?
Weir made a bold casting choice: the teenagers in Dead Poets Society were played by real teenagers. Leonard played Neil Perry, a teenager torn between his creative drive and his domineering father’s demands. He disobeys his father, playing Puck in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his father enrolls him in a military school. He commits suicide, and Keating is fired.
In the 1990s, Leonard appeared in The Age Of Innocence (1993) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993) before starring as Dr. James Wilson on the hit television series House (2004 – 2012). He works most often on stage nowadays, winning a Tony Award for The Invention Of Love in 2001. He also founded a theater company, Malaparte, with his Dead Poets Society co-star Hawke. He more recently appeared Off-Broadway in 2018 in Edward Albee‘s At Home At The Zoo. Leonard can currently bee seen in The Hot Zone, a miniseries on the National Geographic channel.
Josh Charles had his first screen role in John Waters‘ Hairspray (1988). He plays Knox Overstreet, the kid who best learns from Keating’s classes. He writes poetry and gets punched for his efforts. Charles played a news anchor on Aaron Sorkin‘s cult favorite Sports Night (1998-2000) and complicated lawyer Will Gardner on The Good Wife (2009-2016) earning two Emmy Award nominations. Later this month he stars on the limited series The Loudest Voice on Showtime about Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and the rise of the current version of the GOP.
Hawke was the big discovery of the film, but back then, he was still a skinny kid from Austin. He went on to give Oscar-nominated performances in Training Day (2001) and Boyhood (2014). He also received two Academy Award nominations for his screenplays for Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2015). Up next: Cutthroat City, a heist film, directed by RZA, with Terrence Howard and Wesley Snipes.
Dead Poets Society can be viewed on YouTube.