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The Fisher King

Shortly after Robin Williams' suicide in August 2014, Terry Gilliam took another look at this movie, in which he directed Williams, and found an eerie significance. In the film, Williams' character is a tortured soul who creates in his mind the threatening figure of the Red Knight, a specter who relentlessly pursues him through the city, paralleling what we now know of the actor's struggle with his own inner torments.

"I didn't have to push him because he believed that was true," Gilliam told the Hollywood Reporter. "He knew the darker side and what it means to have demons." It was that aspect of Williams, unknown to the general public until the actor took his own life, that Gilliam says transformed the scenes from cartoonish and "cutesy" on the page to something much darker. The director agrees with many critics that this was one of Williams' finest and most full-bodied performances, ranging from the "hysterically funny to the manic to the utterly sweet to the sensitive and tormented, it's all there."

Williams plays Parry, a former college professor now homeless after becoming deranged following the death of his wife in a mass killing at a popular New York restaurant. He's befriended by Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges, also turning in an outstanding performance), a depressed radio talk show host (said to be based on Howard Stern) whose flippant on-air comments may have spurred the killer to his brutal act. Jack hopes to redeem himself by helping Parry in a mythic quest to recover the Holy Grail and win the heart of a shy, awkward young woman.

Gilliam, working with an imaginative script by Richard LaGravenese (the first time the director had not been involved in the writing of one of his films), made the most of the mythic and fairy-tale aspects of the story. In Arthurian mythology, the Fisher King is the guardian of the Holy Grail, the cup believed to have been used by Jesus at the Last Supper and to collect drops of his blood at the Crucifixion. There are variations on the legend, but the Fisher King is almost always depicted as wounded and, by implication, impotent, which brings barrenness to his kingdom. He and his land can only be healed by the completion of a heroic task performed by one who is pure and innocent. In this story, Parry (as in the Arthurian Parsifal) is the mythic figure bringing life and hope back into the world. Gilliam has said that Jack, the former radio host, is really the Fisher King who has lost his purpose and direction in life.

Gilliam shot the exteriors in New York City (interiors in Los Angeles), using locations that were, with the exception of the Central Park scenes, "heavy, stone, in a fairy tale. In my mind I was making a fairy tale of people like Lydia imprisoned in this great stone tower working in this publishing house and bums living under the arches of Manhattan Bridge in a setting that's Dante-esque. ... I put Jack Lucas, who's actually the Fisher King, up in the most minimalistic, severe, cold building I could find." Gilliam was helped tremendously in getting the look he wanted by two key members of his creative team. Cinematographer Roger Pratt knew a thing or two about fantasy settings and epic, magical tales having shot Batman (1989), Gilliam's retro-futuristic Brazil (1985), the "Crimson Permanent Assurance" (pirate) segment of the Gilliam co-directed Monty Python film The Meaning of Life (1983), and several segments of the 1991 television miniseries The Storyteller: Greek Myths. Pratt went on to shoot Troy (2004) and two of the Harry Potter film series.

Production designer Mel Bourne was a master of New York location work, a skill he brought to seven Woody Allen films. He also designed The Natural (1984), a baseball film that is said to have references to the legend of the Fisher King.

One of the picture's most fairytale-like locations is the fictional Fifth Avenue townhouse of the character Langdon Carmichael, played by Bourne himself, a "castle" that Parry imagines houses the Holy Grail. The structure is actually the Armory at 94th Street and Madison Avenue. The production team heightened its mythic look by adding stained glass windows and gargoyles to the fa├žade, as well as an elaborate entryway and double staircase Bourne had constructed in California and shipped to New York.

One of the film's most iconic and lyrical scenes was not in the script at all but an invention of Gilliam's. In LaGravenese's version, Parry and Lydia (Amanda Plummer) meet in a crowded subway train transfixed by the beautiful singing of a homeless woman. Gilliam changed that to a waltz between the two characters in Grand Central Station at rush hour, with hundreds of commuters pairing up and dancing along with the couple. The production was given the use of the station from nighttime until early in the morning. The scene incorporated 400 extras.

The mythic aspect was also boosted by the inclusion of another figure from the King Arthur legends, the Red Knight, here a representation of Parry's grief, loss, and horror over witnessing the bloody death of his wife. Astride a huge steed, the figure appears to be burning from within as he follows Parry around the city and terrorizes him. The Red Knight's frightening armor was made from foam and latex, dressed in yards of fabric. Inside, stunt performer Chris Howell carried a flame thrower that shot fire from his helmet. Two large white circus horses weighing around a ton each were made up daily with vegetable-based, non-toxic paints under strict supervision by the ASPCA.

The Fisher King did well at the box office and received favorable reviews. Mercedes Ruehl won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as the sympathetic video store owner who cares for Bridges. Williams was nominated for Best Actor for the third time and won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. Bridges was nominated in the same category, and Gilliam got a Golden Globe nod for Best Director. The film also received Oscar nominations for art direction-set decoration, original score, and original screenplay. Ruehl won four other supporting actress awards, and the film got several other awards and nominations by various festivals and film boards, including a Silver Lion for Gilliam at the Venice Film Festival.

Director: Terry Gilliam
Producers: Debra Hill, Lynda Obst
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Editing: Lesley Walker
Production Design: Mel Bourne
Art Direction/Set Decoration: P. Michael Johnston/Cindy Carr Original Music: George Fenton
Cast: Jeff Bridges (Jack Lucas), Robin Williams (Parry), Mercedes Ruehl (Anne), Amanda Plummer (Lydia Sinclair), Michael Jeter (Cabaret Singer)

By Rob Nixon


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